Caoilinn Hughes: ‘The patriarch is still at large’ in Irish society

New novel The Wild Laughter explores how history and culture shapes the father figure

My second novel has just come out, and it usually takes some time post-publication before I can clearly see what I’ve really written about. But, as The Wild Laughter was eight years in the making, I can already see that at least one of its themes isn’t only local or familial, but belongs to a larger cultural circumstance: the fall of the father figure.

Statues toppling might come to mind, but I’m speaking of another emblematic father: the breadwinner. This father figure hasn’t been torn down by the masses, but by the few.

Set on a bankrupt farm in Roscommon, the novel is told from the perspective of the son who works it, in desperate fear of losing his ailing, beloved father. A potato farm is an inevitably auspicious setting and, when I revisited the editorial on the Famine published in The Economist in 1847, the doctrine seems to have stuck around longer than we might hope:

“That the innocent suffer with the guilty is a melancholy truth . . . Every breach in the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.”


After the imperial stranglehold loosened in 1922, it still took (and is taking) a very long time for the culture to be free of disciplinarian father figures. Thanks in part to the second taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, State affairs became as embroiled with the church as education had long been.

The Archishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, allegedly summoned ministers from the cabinet to give them a carpeting regularly during his office from 1940-72, especially in his early tenure. In an authoritarian manner, the church entrenched patriarchal structures throughout Irish society. The people’s deference to such powers might be described as a byproduct of colonialism, but poverty and precarity would surely have debilitated people too. The context of radical insecurity and vulnerability mattered.


That the country’s productivity had been exported for hundreds of years meant the young State had no money or resources, and scant infrastructure and industry: it was a very rural society with large families, so there was enormous emigration through the 1930s-50s. Large-scale farmers known as “strong farmers” became a kind of bourgeois, as land was a means to a livelihood.

Entering the priesthood, too, was a means of attaining social mobility, authority and security; an alternative to the demands of breadwinning. Those who weren’t famers or priests (eg teachers, shopkeepers or even civil servants) might rent a patch of ground to grow vegetables. The marriage bar meant that married women couldn’t be hired on permanent contracts (with some exceptions) and single women had to resign upon getting married, until the ban was lifted (in 1973 for the public sector and 1977 for the private sector). So the role of breadwinner was enforced on married men.

In the 1970s, the prospect of joining the EEC accelerated a change in focus. But Oliver J Flanagan, an anti-semite ultraconservative politician who claimed that “there was no sex in Ireland before television”, served as minister for defence. Described by musician Christy Moore as someone who holidays in the holy sea, Flanagan was literally “Father of the Dáil” until his retirement in 1987.

So it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the hegemony of the church foundered as unconscionable abuses came to light. Garrett Fitzgerald became taoiseach, campaigning for more socially liberal policies and pushing for alignment with the EU, opening up new markets for indigenous industries. Though Ireland didn’t have manufacturing or coal mining like England, foreign direct investment and the Industrial Development Authority fostered economic activity and productivity with grants, incentives and supports, an expanded market, and infrastructural investment from the EU enabled new ways of life.

Financial services

With Ireland’s new positioning as provider of financial services, nominal corporate tax and featherlight regulation, the perception of wealth in Ireland fundamentally changed. The role of patriarch was being recast and recostumed. Agriculture comprised approximately 20 per cent of GDP in 1970, rapidly declining (relatively) during the Celtic Tiger to approximately 1 per cent in 2018. Cattle and cassock had less sway, though land still mattered, because of the property developers’ magical mathematics of subdivision.

The dizzying change in Irish life and livelihoods in the late 1980s through the 90s and 00s needs no laying out, nor does the crash that followed, but I wanted to abridge this trajectory of the father figure in Ireland during the 20th century because it engendered a very particular national contradiction: fear of the father figure, and the desperate fear of losing him.

My own father had begun as a farmer, but later emigrated to London with the aim of gaining commercial experience. When he returned to Ireland, he worked for a software firm alongside running the farm, and eventually formed his own company. My parents were both self-employed with five children when he first fell ill. A decade or so later, the prospect of his returning to work was moot.

As a teenager then, even in the midst of unprecedented upward mobility – a little more widely distributed than in other western nations – I became conscious of how unstable the bridge we were on felt as a newly middle-class nation. I wondered which men had built the bridge, and who really owned it. Was it a bridge to England, or America, where – I had read about time and again across 20th-century Irish literature –all the downtrodden brooding sons of rural Ireland had threatened to go?

As both of my novels portray the global financial crisis through its impact on Irish families, it has been put to me many times in interviews that Ireland’s boom-bust was unique in scale and cause. But perhaps what set it apart is the beanstalk haste with which certain neoliberal policies became enrooted.

Ireland checks many of the boxes for that policy reform. From the 1980s, Ireland underwent deregulation of banking, property and capital markets; lowering of trade barriers; privatisation (or part-privatisation) of State assets and public services; reduction of State influence in the economy; and an increase in corporate influence on government coupled with “globalisation” thanks to the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate, bringing so many jobs to Ireland as to make the country a Silicon Valley/Big Pharma outpost that could, without warning, withdraw from the country.

Neoliberal policies

All of this drove the massive reduction of agriculture as a proportion of GNP, and the workforce in agriculture dropped from 31 per cent in 1966 to 4.5 per cent today. Everything would continue to thrive as long as everything continued to grow, watered lavishly with credit, derivatives, tax cuts and political concessions.

Neoliberal policies penalise those most at risk from labour insecurity, which tends to disproportionately impact women. In one sense, neoliberalism is the patriarchy that followed the coloniser and the church. The strong farmer barely had a look-in. The breadwinner, by and large, was broken by circumstance.

When Ireland awoke from the fever dream boom years in 2008 and 2009, the rhetoric and conversation taking place in Irish media and in the culture generally was that, yes, the banking and development sectors had been highly irresponsible but that Irish people were complicit in the rampant borrowing and acquisitive greed of the Celtic Tiger and its downfall.

There seemed to be an immediate consensus that the crisis was not just economic, but political and social, and that some sort of collective admonishment had to ensue. There were uncomfortable echoes of Catholic teachings, that guilt must be atoned for via abstinence, discipline, self-deprecation and self-denial. There would be penance, and a collection, too.

The post-colonial shame emerged that, when left to govern ourselves, we were too juvenile and wild. The Economist’s Famine editorial might well have been reprinted.

In 2010, then minister for finance Brian Lenihan said on RTÉ’s Prime Time: “We all partied.” Liveline, sounded to me like a secular confessional. So many people were ready to acknowledge their culpability and foolishness: that they had bought into the promise that capital begot capital, and that debt wasn’t real, just as collateralised debt 0bligations weren’t real. Yet, the latter sort of debt made a profit . . . just not for tax-paying, bread-winning citizens.

While there was palpable anger, instead of directing grievances towards the unregulated banking and finance and corrupt politics, some Irish people took that final, quintessential tool of neoliberalism – austerity – and internalised it.

Austerity is neoliberalism’s remedy for self-disgust, suggesting that disciplinary self-regulation will be redemptive. But a country is not a household. Instead of hardening up and taking the knocks, a new approach would prioritise listening, valuing caregiving and education, investing in people and an ethical, sustainable future.

The Wild Laughter shows the patriarch to still be at large. However, the beloved, beneficent father figure in the novel isn’t this patriarch. He is its subject, who has internalised the oppressor’s lesson. He believes himself to have failed his history and his family. He has been morbidly misguided.

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes is published by Oneworld