Ireland’s portrayal of itself as the purest, holiest or richest country has brought us lies and exclusion

Opinion: Why Irish delusions of being the ‘best’ gives the worst result

‘Eamon de Valera openly claimed this unmatched holiness would do nothing less than save the world: “Ireland today has no dearer hope than this: that, true to her own holiest traditions, she may humbly serve the truth and help by truth to save the world”.’ Photograph:  Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

‘Eamon de Valera openly claimed this unmatched holiness would do nothing less than save the world: “Ireland today has no dearer hope than this: that, true to her own holiest traditions, she may humbly serve the truth and help by truth to save the world”.’ Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Tue, Jun 17, 2014, 14:00

Meet an egomaniac and you know you are also meeting a deeply insecure person. People who are uncertain about themselves sometimes deal with their anxiety by creating an exaggerated image of superiority.

And it is the same with countries – our own for example. There is a certain irony to Ireland’s badness – it arises in part from delusions of grandeur. This place became so vicious partly because of a hysterical insistence on its unique virtue – a habit of mind that has never gone away.

It’s easy to understand why Catholic Ireland became so hyper-virtuous. A long history of denigration, humiliation and subjection creates a profound distortion. It is not enough to be as good as anybody else – you have to be better, indeed the best: uniquely wonderful. But this fantasy is not harmless. At best, it feeds a deluded detachment from reality. At worst, you have to hide, exclude, deny, those who threaten to spoil the picture of perfection.

Unlike the extreme versions of such dark utopias in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, independent Ireland did not actually exterminate the spoilers of its unique purity. But it did get rid of them – mostly through emigration but also, notoriously, in its vast system of “coercive confinement”: industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes and mental hospitals.

‘Impure’ women

Thus, the appalling treatment of “impure” women in these institutions was a direct consequence of the insistence that Irish femininity was uniquely pure. This was a key point of national difference: England seethed with sex and sin, Ireland was a paradise of continence and virginity.

This unique virtue in turn compensated for the real economic failures of the new State – what did it matter that we were poor, backward and exporting half our population? Our values were not material but spiritual. And, as Eamon de Valera openly claimed, this unmatched holiness would do nothing less than save the world: “Ireland today has no dearer hope than this: that, true to her own holiest traditions, she may humbly serve the truth and help by truth to save the world.”

This fantasy may have been risible, but for those who had to be locked away to keep it alive it was no laughing matter.

Naive past

But let’s not continue the delusion by patronisingly sneering at the naive past. The insecure nation’s need to construct an exaggerated notion of its own specialness is just as evident in the last two decades as it was in the 1930s or 1940s. It’s there, of course, in the continuing insistence that we’re the holiest country in the world because we don’t allow abortion for women who have been raped. But it was also a large part of the psychosis of the Celtic Tiger years.

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