Desmond Fennell: life of a tireless thinker and self-believer

There’s little objectivity in Fennell’s autobiography and no sign of intellectual stagnation

About Being Normal
About Being Normal
Author: Desmond Fennell
ISBN-13: 978-0995523920
Publisher: Somerville Press
Guideline Price: €20

Desmond Fennell is a well-read traveller, a fluent speaker of several languages and an informed commentator on Irish and world events for all of his adult life. He rarely relies on others’ reports; rather, he sees for himself. In this book, his personal beliefs are aired without apology and with insistence on their validity and relevance. The value of this book is that it is neither formal history nor journalism. It is the work of a social philosopher who abjures spurious objectivity.

He presents this chronology of his life’s work as an autobiography, his many writings contextualised with revealing personal notes whereby we acquire some insight into the development of his own thinking – which is unusually consistent.

His touchstone is an undeviating adherence to Christian European civilisation as the correct perspective from which to view the world, including this island.

He writes perceptively on the impact of successive imperial presences on this island: first and last, the Holy Roman Empire; then the British Empire and finally the present Anglo-American version.

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To defend traditional Christianity as a perspective in this secularising stage of our development is unusual. Nevertheless, Fennell refers to "the intellectual stagnation of Irish Catholicism". Long ago he wrote that the "leading personalities" of the Irish church showed little interest in aggiornamento, the 1960s attempts to reform that church. But he personally regrets the loss of all the small, discarded pieties and customs that constituted the outward expression of that Church: Lent, fasting, processions etc.

Defying fashions

Thus he writes not as a contrarian, but as a heretic. Heresy does not mean challenging fundamentals of belief; it means defying current fashions and clinging to whatever values inhere in those fundamentals.

His position invites some sympathy. While many of us, since 1972, have abandoned belief in this island’s sovereignty and shed our national aspirations, language and religion, Fennell argues that native and independent aspirations are still valid and necessary. This book reveals a questioning Irishman who does not accept the death of God.

His writing has regularly poked at what he calls the “correctorate”, the collective spirit of our insular beehive. In his long life there has been hardly a fashion or personage or ideology, ranging from Charles J Haughey to political correctness, from divorce to abortion, that he has not critiqued. This penchant should not be confused with private begrudgery. The difference – to some, infuriating – is that Fennell gives reasoned arguments for his points of view.

He recalls his period as an art critic when he criticised the Irish art scene as being that of a colonised people, a sub-office of international trends. He also takes literature seriously and insists we analyse it rather than be merely delighted. When it comes to Irish letters, he discusses Banville, McCabe, Friel, Doyle, McCourt, Jordan, McDonagh, Healy and McGahern in terms of “turning away from Irishness and humanness”.

Fennell carefully avoids judgment on the quality of the writing but suggests that they are all “cleansing Irish literature of Irishness”. It is intriguing to follow this nationalistic approach to art.

Pulled no punches

He pulled no punches when it came to a pamphlet on his friend Seamus Heaney's success. Whatever You Say, Say Nothing caused outrage in the public arena – as well as gleeful schadenfreude in private circles.

His account here of the controversy is fascinating. He frankly reproduces his friend Declan Kiberd’s brief comment placed on the back cover of this book: “[Fennell] was wrong about Heaney”.

Regarding his beloved Irish language and the movement to restore it, Fennell says: “My own contribution to the movement was chiefly as a definer of concepts and realities, as a supplier of ideas for action . . . I rejected the notion, which is common in Ireland, that because one proposes something, one should actively lead its implementation.”

Lest this give the impression of a hurler on the ditch, I can report that he was a major participant in the Gaeltacht civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s – including the entire 50-mile march from Carna to Bearna to highlight the problems of the area. Not least, he could clearly articulate the philosophy behind the movement. Máirtín Ó Cadhain even conceded that there was something in Fennell’s challenge to urban Gaeilgeoirí, ie that they should en masse migrate to the Gaeltacht.

Lost hope

It is clear that Fennell lost hope for that local movement when he left Connemara many years ago, subsequently writing: “The several thousand men and women throughout Ireland who speak and read Irish well . . . embody the Irish language alive today . . . more fully than any Gaeltacht did.”

This indicates that his thinking is not inflexible, that he can jettison lost causes. He quotes his friend Terence Brown’s dictum: “In the light of the homogeneity of a consumer society . . . social and cultural pluralism will be, before long, an entirely otiose concept . . .”

Desmond Fennell’s challenging writings are available in this single tome. It can be dipped into endlessly, a sort of intelligent Google on any Irish theme. The book is a credit to Somerville Press in Co Cork because it challenges the conformity of much Dublin-based publishing.

Bob Quinn is a film-maker, writer and photographer