Drink! Fecklessness! Partitionism! Shame! The Irish ideologies
From the Celtic Twilight to the Celtic Tiger, from Dev to Vincent Browne, and from the Border to Brand Ireland, PATRICK FREYNElooks at some of the concepts that have shaped Irish identity over the past century
Every nation state needs an exotic origin myth, and ours was packaged courtesy of WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Celtic Twilight. The languages of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany were tied to an archaeological legacy that stretched across Europe, and a historical one referenced by classical writers. In their yen to define a soulful Celtic identity they probably over-reached. A study led by Prof Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin found that the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Breton peoples have more genetic links to the Iberian Peninsula than they do to the supposed Celtic homeland of central Europe.
“People say we’re Celtic, but what do they mean by that?” says Bradley. “Do they mean we’re genetically tied to a particular archaeological context that stretches across Europe or that we’re sort of similar to Scottish, Welsh and Breton people? I’m happy with the second thing, but I don’t see any genetic basis for the first. I think people are very uneasy if you say we’re not Celts. Celtic means different things to different people.”
“We’re a mongrel mix of different cultural strands,” says Richard Kearney, the Charles Seelig professor of philosophy at Boston College. “Celt is just one word for a medley of narratives.”
After the Famine, Irish people began to lay more fixed claims on land, to (eventually) own their land, and to obsess over it. “From then on there was one inheriting son and one dowried daughter,” says Tom Inglis, author of Moral Monopoly and a sociology professor at University College Dublin. “The subdivision of farms stopped. Farms had dropped to incredibly small sizes – five or 10 acres on some very bad land – and this change took place where, okay, we’re not going to suffer the consequences of famine. We were going to get our act together. The obsession with property is really a legacy of not being allowed to own it for generations.”
Land has always been a fraught issue. From the Land League, through the Land Commission, the bungalow bliss/blitz of the 1970s and the property erotica of the Celtic Tiger era, the post-Famine Irish want to own property. So when the State levies a property tax, we’re more inclined to imagine rackrenting landlords than Nordic-style public services.
An Béal Bocht
We’ve always had a complicated relationship with poverty. While eager to recount stories of hardship nestled in the past, from Peig Sayers to Myles na gCopaleen’s parody An Béal Bocht to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, we’ve also liked to present ourselves as a classless society, in which we’ve all suffered equally (less a meritocracy and more an egalitarian failed state).
“We’re riddled with fascinating contradictions on this one,” says the UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter. “It used to be asserted publicly that there were no class differences in Ireland, but then you’d witness incredible poverty and snobbery . . . There’d be a public demarcation of class and wealth and a deference shown to people with money, but it would also be claimed that we were this plucky little nation all in it together.”
In Ireland many lay claim to rags-to-riches success stories, so the idea that some experienced significantly more suffering rankles.
“People got very angry about Angela’s Ashes,” says Ferriter. “There was a reluctance on the part of some people to confront the reality of what some people lived through . . . He was accused of being a liar.”
This remains an issue. “By 2007 I think people genuinely believed that there were no more poor people in the country,” says Mark O’Halloran, writer of Adam and Paul and Prosperity. “I got quite angry about that, because all you had to do was stand on O’Connell Street and look around.”
De Valera’s Catholic crossroads
“The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.” So spoke Éamon de Valera on St Patrick’s Day 1943.
“Everyone goes back to that speech because it’s about isolation, about becoming a Catholic island in which we needed less of the material and more of the spiritual,” says Tom Inglis. “Even before independence the idea of modernising through the British state was anathema to the colonised Irish Catholics, so the State of Ireland when it emerged became a very Catholic state. Not only did it have control of education, health, social welfare, industrial schools and orphanages, but it dominated the image of what a good life was. The State was independent of the church, but politicians had the same view of what a good life was.”
Not being British
A key strand in Irish identity is “not being British”. The British ruled us for centuries, after all. There has always been a sliding scale of not-Britishness: the more rural, Catholic, westbound and separated from centralised politics you are, the more “not British” you are, which theoretically makes you better at being Irish. “That’s the dialectic,” says Richard Kearney. “I am A because I am not B. I am Irish because I am not British. Douglas Hyde said, ‘The British are the people we love to hate and never cease to imitate.’ ”
Irish people in the gently triumphalist south were never going to be comfortable with anything as ambiguous as a foreign state in the attic. For northerners after independence the border was a grim reality to be grappled with. For many in the south it was a grim reality to be ignored.
This discomfort was clear during last year’s presidential campaign, in which borders were revealed to be, for some, something that shouldn’t be crossed. “In one of the debates a young Irish woman asked Martin McGuinness, ‘Why did you come down here? Why don’t you stay up there?’ ” recalls Elaine Byrne, Trinity academic and author of Political Corruption in Ireland 1922 to 2010. “The Border has been a psychological barrier as well as a physical one, but I think our relationship to it is changing . . . Knowing people from different sides of the divide in the North, I think people are more comfortable with identity being ambiguous now.”
The journalist and activist Eamonn McCann observes that though Protestant and Catholic communities are more divided than ever, the number of people who define themselves as Northern Irish as opposed to Irish or British is at an all-time high. “I sign myself in a hotel registry as ‘Northern Irish’, and I can’t remember when I started doing that. Maybe people in the North are more porous or softer at the edges than we sometimes assume them to be.”
He thinks that partition has affected southerners in strange and subtle ways. “I’ve begun to suspect that one of the reasons that people aren’t storming the streets over cuts is that subconsciously the idea of militant street campaigning has been made uncongenial because of the terrible experience in the North. That’s an example of the hidden ways these things affect one another.”
Ireland is a local country for local people. Look no further than the recent rallies supporting the “local hero” Seán Quinn. This phenomenon has its origins before independence.
“Ireland was governed by Dublin Castle by an administration that was seen as hostile,” says Elaine Byrne. “People didn’t trust it. As a result the loyalty wasn’t to the State but to the local area. I guess the support for people like Michael Lowry and Seán Quinn represents that. They’re the local chieftains. They deliver for their area, and the sense of loyalty to them is extraordinary.”
Diarmaid Ferriter says, “When English people come over here they’re always surprised at the mingling of politicians and people. People expect access . . . There’s a great story about someone calling around to their TD on Christmas morning to get a form signed. But when the TD reads it he finds it actually has to be signed by a doctor. The constituent says, ‘I couldn’t possibly call to my doctor on Christmas day!’ ”
The Civil Service mentality
It’s worth remembering in these civil-servant-bashing times that the nod-and-wink corruption of the parish pump has always been offset by an incorruptible, inherited British civil service.
“Some historians have called the Civil Service the success story of independence,” says Diarmaid Ferriter. “At the time of independence and through the Civil War we needed continuity in terms of governance . . . The generation that presided over that change from British rule to the Free State were genuine public servants who may have been very conservative but who took the business of state-building very seriously.”
The Irish mammy
The church’s enforcers, charged with inculcating the good life outlined by Dev, were the mothers. “Women were seen as the front line of the defence when it came to the preservation of a Catholic Ireland, and that they had to impart the knowledge to a new generation,” says Diarmaid Ferriter. “So rhetorically you give them that power, but you don’t give them any power within the institution itself.”
The Labour senator and TCD lecturer Ivana Bacik believes that a lot of traditional Irish mammies “were quietly simmering underneath, and I think that filtered down to their more feminist daughters”.
Surrealism, whimsy, melancholy and alcoholism
The Irish character has often responded to repression by retreating into games with language and heightened reality. We have a strong legacy of this from our oral storytelling traditions through the work of Flann O’Brien and on into the era of Father Ted. We prefer waxing lyrical about alternative realities to intellectual confrontation. Surrealism and whimsy can quickly turn into alcoholism and melancholy. (One of our national symbols is a pint of Guinness.)
“It’s the cliche of the thoughtless, feckless literary Celt who’d prefer to come up with a good joke rather than some rigorous analysis,” says Richard Kearney. “It’s a colonial stereotype that we internalised. Mathew Arnold said, ‘The Celts can stay quaint and stay put.’ It’s done us a great disservice.”
TK Whitaker and the programme for economic expansion
After de Valera’s failed experiment with Catholic isolation, during which we were passed out economically by our war-ravaged neighbours, TK Whitaker, secretary at the Department of Finance, drafted a paper advocating foreign direct investment, free trade and an end to protectionism. His policies were taken on board by incoming taoiseach Seán Lemass and shaped the decades that followed.
“Some people believe that the Lemass-Whitaker partnership had been exaggerated somewhat and that maybe their departure wasn’t as radical as presented,” says Ferriter. “But you have to compare it with what went before. Emigration was the only option for so many thousands of people. Culturally and psychologically their policies amounted to an acceptance that the government had got it wrong to date . . . Dev thought of it as an extension of Fianna Fáil policy, but the reality was that he knew feck-all about economics.”
Education, education, education
Among a raft of modernising, mohair-suit-wearing “pissheads” (Diarmaid Ferriter’s word) promoted by Lemass was minister for education Donogh O’Malley, who sprang a surprise announcement on his cabinet colleagues in 1966: free secondary education. “The long-term effects of that were huge,” says Ferriter. “By the time you get to the late 80s/early 90s the amount of people with third-level qualifications doubles. Donogh referred to the number of kids leaving school with only primary education as a ‘dark stain’ on the national conscience . . . You couldn’t claim to be a modern, prosperous nation if you had so many kids with no access to education after 13 years of age.”
From the Irish Countrywomen’s Association campaign for indoor plumbing to the contraceptive train, the women’s movement has been an outlier in pursuing things that would eventually be taken for granted by Irish people.
“I think there’s always been a strange dichotomy or contradiction in Irish society where you have very conservative society, apparently dominated by the church, and yet there are flashes or eruptions of liberalism from time to time,” says Ivana Bacik. “Things like the Limerick Soviet or the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s. It was seen as very much a minority interest. But then Mary Robinson was able to win the presidential election in 1990 despite taking very principled stances on issues like contraception that would have been at odds with Irish conservative values.
“I think in the 1990s people involved with the women’s movement felt very vindicated.”
À la carte Catholicism
The liberalising force of the feminist movement and free secondary education led Catholics to listen to their own conscience and making their own choices on issues such as divorce and contraception. This was called à-la-carte Catholicism in the 1980s. It’s called cultural Catholicism nowadays and, in his book The Luck of the Irish, Roy Foster suggests that it’s de facto Protestantism.
“By the time of the pope’s visit the church was really in an attempt to dam a flowing tide,” says Tom Inglis. “I worked for the Catholic Church at that time. Vocations had been declining . . . And they had lost control of women, who were tired of having large families over which they had no control.
“What you have now are smorgasbord Catholics, who mix bits of other religions with whatever – yoga or reiki. They’re still searching for meaning, but they’re often finding it outside the church.”
In the 1990s the international image of the dispossessed, melancholy expat was replaced with a more affable, easy-going variety. This was represented by Jackie’s Army – likeably tipsy Irish football fans, happy just to be involved. Soon, however, it became very important to us that we Irish, famously welcome anywhere, were better craic than everyone else. We became craic supremacists.
Tom Inglis does the psychoanalysis. “A culture of self-denial and self-mortification where ambition and success and self-aggrandisement of any kind were frowned upon gradually gave way to a new culture of self-indulgence. Hedonism was the greatest sin in the 50s and 60s, and in the 80s recession didn’t allow for it – we didn’t have the money — but by Jesus when the Celtic Tiger came did the Irish become hedonistic.”
Irish culture internationally was also rebranded. It became synonymous with U2 and Riverdance and Guinness and the international stature of Mary Robinson. This soft cultural power preceded hard economic power, and people seeking arts funding usually say that they’re linked. We eventually became a bit culturally pleased with ourselves. Riverdance gave way to Michael Flatley’s triumphalist Celtic Tiger, and we sent Dustin the Turkey to perform an in-joke at Eurovision.
By the late 1990s Ireland was seeing immigration, we were firmly embedded in Europe and many of our own had returned. “I think Irishness has become a more diverse idea,” says Ivana Bacik. “It’s no longer just tied up with Kathleen Ní Houlihan and the Easter Rising. It’s much more inclusive.
“The recognition of Irish men who fought under the British flag in the world wars was huge . . . I think the inward migration in the 1990s was hugely important. And it wasn’t just the visible new communities but also the returning Irish, people who’d been abroad for many years. They tended to be more outward-looking and impatient with conservative Ireland. Many left because there was no room in Ireland if you were gay or a single parent.That’s all changed enormously.”
The folk singer and songwriter Barry McCormack likes this more fluid sense of identity. “When I first got into folk music I got really into the idea of identity being linked to culture,” he says. “I’m not so sure now. A guy from Dublin that plays the blues, is it that he has this Celtic soul that understands the pain of African-Americans or is it just that he really likes the blues? I remember reading David McWilliams talking about the Hiberno-cosmopolitan being as at home on the Champs-Élysées as on Hill Sixteen. I identified with that because I ended up living in Paris and I’d come home to GAA matches and would almost feel smug about it.” He laughs. “Although a true Hiberno-cosmopolitan wouldn’t be caught dead on the Champs-Élysées. It’s for tourists.”
In the late 1980s, as successive governments borrowed our way to oblivion, a group of economists (called, by Dick Walsh, the Doheny Nesbitt school of economics, after the pub they supposedly drank in) advocated fiscal responsibility and new economic thinking. Those ideas particularly appealed to Des O’Malley’s new political party, the economically liberal Progressive Democrats, but ultimately they became dogma for all mainstream parties.
By the late 1990s the honorary PD minister for finance Charlie McCreevy was dictating economic policy. The textbook version of neoliberalism favours low taxes, light regulation and cutting government spending. The Irish version involved low taxes, light regulation and increased government spending, all done in an unsustainable procyclical manner.
“When I have it I spend it and when I don’t I don’t,” said McCreevy. Businessmen rechristened the country Ireland, Inc. Sure, what could possibly go wrong?
Recently our boomtime hubris has been replaced by postboom miserablism. Peig Sayers is back, but she wears the pinstriped suits of Vincent Browne and leads us in ritual self-flagellation from a blood-red set. Look at us, in the ruins of the decking on our overpriced ghost estates. What pathetic people we are.
“It’s the hangover syndrome,” says Richard Kearney. “We’ve had our high and now we’ve had our low. We’re caught up in the alcoholic cycle, waiting for another high to bring us back up again. The temptation is always essentialism. We were the greatest Celtic Tigers in the world. Now we’re miserable creatures who deserve to be punished. We have to break that cycle.”