Declan Kiberd: Irish writers were an early warning system about abuse

Artists played a vital role in the State's formation and since independence have held it to account

Our national poet WB Yeats said that every Irish writer had a decision to take: whether to express Ireland or exploit it. In his day, the choice lay between expressing the nation to itself or exploiting it for the amused condescension of a mainly overseas audience.

Holding a mirror up to the people was a risky business: many, seeing an unflattering image, were inclined to smash the glass in anger. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World provoked riots in the Abbey Theatre in 1907 with its satire on violent masculinity. Members of the audience whacked people to show that the Irish are not inherently violent! This only proved, said Yeats, that the national theatre was doing its job: "Whenever a country produces a man of genius, that man is never like the country's official idea of itself."

True enough. And amidst all the troubles of Ireland in the century that followed, literature continued to act as critique, as an "early warning system" about various forms of abuse. Some of the rioters against Synge's play would enact a fierce censorship of the arts when they came to power in the Free State. If anything, their repression simply spurred artists on – or taught them heroic patience. Samuel Beckett worried in Waiting for Godot about the strange capacity of people to behave as if unphased in a wholly unbearable situation:

I can’t go on like this.
That’s what you think….


Heaney developed a hopeful theory: that literature contained a sort of auto-immune system, which could help to cure many of the ailments which it diagnosed

In the 1960s, John McGahern drew graphic attention in a censored novel to the facts of child abuse. Edna O’Brien, in another banned novel, showed how the sexual urges of young women could not easily be contained in the rural community.

A decade later, Seamus Heaney in North (1975) warned that the decay of ritual was leading to rituals of death. But Heaney also developed a hopeful theory: that literature contained a sort of auto-immune system, which could help to cure many of the ailments which it diagnosed.

Yet the indictments continued. In the 1980s, playwright Tom Murphy drew analogies between corrupt builders and Chicago gangsters. Brian Friel had already written a play suggesting that the country would become a mere theme park for tourists.

Writers fretted that the people themselves were beginning to feel like foreigners in their own land. The poet Eavan Boland wondered whether the nation, not just its women, was "outside history". By 2010, pronouncing herself unsure "where the life of the nation ended", she speculated that "we were never Irish in the way we thought we were".

Arraigning bankers

She said this in the wake of the financial “crash” of 2008, at a time when the commentariat was arraigning bankers for moral failure, politicians for taking bungs, clergy for abusing children and foreign mandarins for turning the country into a debt-collection agency. The people – in their innocence – insisted that nobody had alerted them to the dire underlying abuses and that nobody had warned them that their very country was in danger of disappearance.

The people insisted that nobody had alerted them to the dire underlying abuses. This was not so. In the decades since independence artists had issued repeated alerts

This was not so. In the decades since independence artists had issued repeated alerts about such things. Writers, in particular, had suggested, even during the birth-pangs of the state, that the new entity might be stillborn. The radical ideas of the nation, espoused so movingly in the artistic and political works of the Revival, did not fit at all well into the flawed forms of the inherited state.

The old colonial capital continued to burst at the seams and there was little of the proposed decentralization. Many people continued to feel that they were living under diktat in an occupied country. One in every two persons born after 1922 emigrated.

After the 2008 crash, 60,000 left in each year, many of them bright graduates leaving the land that had given them a costly education. The loss of this talent has had marked, if unquantifiable, effects on morale in every institution from RTÉ to the hospitals.


During the recent debates, many professional groups were blamed: clergy, bankers, politicians, civil servants, city planners, and so on. But nobody accused artists of bad faith. In fact, following the crash, their credit seemed higher than ever. Writers, in particular, but also musicians, dancers and painters, reached a worldwide audience, not usually by exploiting Paddywhackery but by expressing the sense that their culture, through patterns of migration and adjustment, had at its best always been a global project.

Even if many younger authors were now located in New York, Sydney or Tokyo, they continued to feel themselves (and were treated) as part of a developing national conversation. This was in itself a significant shift: for in the years of censorship, from the 1920s to the 1970s, expatriate artists had often been viewed with suspicion and intellectuals were routinely frozen out of the public sphere.

The crash revealed just how little economic or political sovereignty remained, as the country was micro-managed by overseas elites who scanned the spread-sheets of a people from their suites in top Dublin hotels. But there was an unexpected after-effect. True, arts organisations took big hits.

But the palpable failure of the Tiger economy was to restore to cultural debate a vitality which it had last enjoyed in the period of Revival from 1891 to 1922.


Towards the close of the 20th century, lawyers in Ireland had begun heavily to outnumber priests. Religious practice declined and the more predatory kinds of capitalism triumphed. There were few voices, other than those of artists and independent journalists, to offer probing criticism of the ethical problems posed by the new materialism, as money became the new religion.

Yet, anyone who saw plays by Conor McPherson or Roddy Doyle, or read the novels of John Banville or Kate Thompson, or considered poems by Derek Mahon or Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, could find antidotes enough.

Incomers to the country – though sometimes called with unintended condescension "the new Irish" – began to make Ireland feel new to itself. A new something-else. Artists from Eastern Europe and Africa reimagined the psychic meaning of Celtic legends and of Synge's Playboy. The immigrants (often living in cramped conditions) gave a renewed example to those mere Irish cowering in locked homes and gated communities of the redemptive use of shared public space.

A grandchild of one of the Vietnamese boat-people, took first place in Irish in the Leaving Certificate, as the incomers (already often familiar with two or three languages) thought nothing of learning another.

Younger Irish artists overseas maintained a strong sense of involvement in the country’s cultural institutions. In 2015, there was another mutiny directed at the Abbey Theatre – this time about the paucity of female playwrights in its programme to commemorate the Easter Rising. As in 1907, culture was once again the site and stake of significant struggle.

Sovereignity ceded

The massive vote in the Belfast Agreement referendum of 1998 – to accept that a county such as Antrim could be British or Irish or both – had seemed sensible. With so much sovereignty ceded to the European Union and to the global economy, how much more remained to be surrendered? Yet it was also a quixotic gesture out of the 21st century – how many nations through history have voted to reduce a territorial claim?

It was as if the Irish, having confronted their national question over a century ago, could now more easily say farewell to the nation-state than an English people who continue to fear that their identity has been drained away first by the British scheme and then by the European Union.

The same may be said of Americans, exhausted by their self-assigned duty as world policemen and anxious now to “bring it all back home”. However, the British and Americans are arriving at the fashion parade of nations at just that moment when the show could be closing down.

Nation states will continue to emerge, often out of the vacuum left by a lost language; and their people will engage in outbursts of indignation against a global system which denies even former empires the means of complete economic or political sovereignty. The United States will remain a source of immense cultural creativity, but will never be "great again" in any of the ways intended by Donald Trump.

His aspirations will increasingly be regarded as anachronisms by a people for whom the phrase “After Ireland” may represent an opportunity to move forward rather than an adverse judgment.

There may be a second flowering under way, as the political nation called Ireland ebbs and identity is projected through the work of a "creative class".

In its day, the national idea created many good things across the world: welfare states; a belief that virtue is social as well as individual; a conviction that something in us can survive our own deaths. But it also did serious harm, creating over-centralisation; bureaucracy; distrust of local culture; and, sometimes, a real hatred of other people.

The great experiment of cultural modernism known as the Irish Revival occurred just before the nation was embodied in the flawed new state. The evidence now around us is that there may be a second flowering under way, as the political nation called Ireland ebbs and identity is projected through films, stories, plays, music, dances, buildings: the general work of a “creative class”.

Die while being reborn

In Ireland traditions often appear to die while being reborn in some new mode. Seán Ó Faoláin claimed, as far back as 1926, that “Gaeldom is dead”, but the energies of the Irish language had already passed into Hiberno-English, through which a dozen writers were becoming world-famous.

In the Belfast Agreement of 1998, nationalism of the old-fashioned kind consented to abolish itself, but has been reborn in more recent years as civic republicanism. In much the same way, what is dying in the spiritual life of the people is not so much religion as a rule-bound ecclesiocracy. Ever since the mid-19th century, most decent but unimaginative priests functioned in effect as parish bureaucrats, lacking a true vision of the otherworld; and, like all bureaucrats, they had scant trust in God. They tried to compensate for their unbelief with a vast system of rules to curb and regulate behaviour. The pulpit replaced the altar as the favoured zone of the enforcers.

A somewhat similar loss of the founding vision of Jean Monnet – and a consequent reliance on endless regulations – has led many unelected bureaucrats to bring the European Union to its current state of fragility. And the grave injustice of holding Irish (and other) people accountable for vast banking debts, which they did not knowingly incur, has diminished respect for European and global institutions.

Families soak up the strain. Parents top up the finances of kids who often have “crap jobs or no jobs”. People try not to think of the monies that will still be owed by their children, if they remain in the land of their birth. It’s considered bad form to mention this (so consider this essay an extended apology).

We can’t go on like this. That’s what we think. We live with the debt, like we put up with the abusers.

Ancient and modern ideas

Yet for all the changes, Ireland remains a place in which ancient and modern ideas can excitingly overlap. Familism remains so strong that it led 62 per cent of the population of the Republic to endorse gay and lesbian marriage. There is a clear disconnect between the people and the official institutions, which lag decades behind popular understanding. But nature abhors the vacuum which ensues.

It's likely that entirely new, unimaginable institutions will emerge in coming decades, just as the Abbey Theatre, the Gaelic League, and a limited but free state filled the gap left in most parts of the 19th century island by the waning of the Irish language.

Last year's Easter Rising commemoration was a moment when a sense of community was restored. People reclaimed their streets after two decades of remorseless privatisation

The commemoration of the Easter Rising last year was a moment when, under the leadership of an inspiring president, Michael D Higgins (and, curiously, in a period of inter-regnum between governments), a sense of community was restored.

People reclaimed their streets after two decades of remorseless privatisation – privatisation of hospitals, of colleges, of consciousness itself. Later in that commemoration year, activists reclaimed derelict buildings in the name of the homeless.

Since then commentators have detected signs of economic recovery but that recovery is confined mainly to Dublin. Emigration of graduates continues, even as hopeful, hard-working immigrants arrive to work in low-paid jobs on zero-hour contracts. All across the world, capital cities prosper, but often as a result of abandoning the old sense of obligation to rural communities.

The real meaning of Irish independence in 1922 may not have been triumph of the green flag over the Union flag but, as John McGahern once said, the marking of the moment when responsibility for managing the decline of rural Ireland was handed over by one elite to another.

These days, it isn't just the American mid-west or the northern counties of England which constitute "fly-over territory". In our own once-thriving rural areas, libraries are cut back, police stations close, teachers let go. At the same time, incidences of mental illness rise. There is a connection between these events. Extreme market forces make lots of people ill.

Uplifted mood

As the country emerged in a somewhat uplifted mood after the commemoration of 1916, you couldn't but be struck by the analogies between the two Irelands, of Then and Now. The fear of a diminished political sovereignty had troubled Patrick Pearse and Constance Markiewicz, as it worries Dáil deputies today.

Unease about the colonisation of minds by modern media (then the yellow press) assailed Maud Gonne and WB Yeats, just as the masters of Amazon and Google, in which our innermost tastes and thoughts are catalogued, are held to dictate much of our buying patterns today.

But the writers of the Revival generation turned these challenges into opportunities. They showed themselves capable of offering a diagnosis, as the basis for appropriate action. They knew that their autonomy, even when won, would be strictly curtailed: but also that cultural life was at the centre of humankind’s struggle for self-recognition, making Ireland a test-case of the modern world.

Through its history, Ireland has been a laboratory for almost everything: ethnic separation; religious apartheid; colonial misrule; cultural revival; nationalist insurrectionism; unleashed market forces; and, most recently, austerity and penance. Let's hope that only the "cultural revival" bit is reprised. Self-belief and self-actualisation can lead to a degree of economic success, a truth first demonstrated when Douglas Hyde ensured that the products of industry and agriculture be carried in the first major St Patrick's Day parade.

An island possessed of so many fine writers, animators, musicians, storytellers, playwrights, and film-makers can surely become a major hub of the creative class in the contemporary world.
After Ireland: Writing from Beckett to the Present by Declan Kiberd is published this week by Head of Zeus, the final volume in a trilogy which includes Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics