Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland review: Sin, sexuality and alcohol

Diarmaid Ferriter on Tom Inglis’s book unravelling why we Irish are the way we are

Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland: Webs of Significance
Author: Tom Inglis
ISBN-13: 978-1349491711
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Guideline Price: £29.99

I recently passed a shop in Dublin that was advertising in its front window an apron aimed at tourists, emblazoned with the words “Feck it, sure it’s grand”. Merchandise with this phrase and versions of it, such as “Keep going, sure it’s grand”, have joined those awful T-shirts that graphically declare our national pastime to be getting drunk and falling over.

Of course, such crude stereotypes hurt because of the element of truth underpinning them. On reading this latest book by the leading sociologist Tom Inglis the extent of the “sure it’s grand” mindset is apparent in many ways. It also reminded me of international quality-of-life and happiness surveys that appear intermittently and usually place the Irish towards the top of the league tables.

What Inglis does is to elaborate on why this might be, examining why we are the way we are and the meanings that can be attached to life in contemporary Ireland, based on interviews with 100 individuals from a variety of social and geographical backgrounds, conducted in 2008 and 2009. As befits his status as an eminent and senior sociologist, Inglis grounds his work in the national and international literature of sociology, some of which might alienate the general reader, but the transcripts of the interviews are interesting because of the range of experiences they lay bare in relation to religion, politics, sport, love, money and, most significantly, family and community bonds and the “webs of meaning” that are spun by people in their everyday lives across all these areas.

Webs of meaning

One of the dominant themes is the decline of religion; daily lives for most are no longer “lived in religious time”, nor bordered by preoccupation with sin in the way they used to be, as “people have become their own moral arbiters”. Yet this does not amount to an aggressive individualism; most still use “inherited cultural ingredients” to guide their behaviour. Of the 100 respondents, 58 live in the area where they grew up, and when it comes to spinning webs of meaning, most Irish people do it within families, the core from which other webs of meaning are spun; many are “still suspended in the webs of meaning into which they were born and within which they were reared”.

Issues that were formerly taboo in public discourse, such as sexuality, abuse and alcoholism, are spoken about. One woman in her 50s remarks, “Well, I tell everybody my father’s an alcoholic”, and alcohol permeates a number of the life stories. A man in his late 50s “when he was diagnosed with cancer . . . employed a common Irish cultural strategy, he took to the drink”. A measure of how Ireland has changed is summed up in this succinct gem in relation to one of the interviewees: “She used to be the only lesbian in the village but recently a woman, married with three children, left her husband and came out as gay”.

Such is the extent of the increased secularisation of Irish society that a typical response to questions about belief in God is: “I don’t pray . . . but we do Holy Communion and all that”. Inglis identifies varieties of Irish Catholic, labelling them “orthodox, cultural, creative or disenchanted”. Much more doubt is now expressed about God’s existence than was the case in times past; one woman has a variety of religious medals that “do not give her any comfort or consolation, but she would not throw them out”.

Inglis sees these shifts as part of the "Protestantisation" of Irish Catholicism, an idea he could have developed more; it is a pity he does not draw more extensively on the work of historians, including Roy Foster, who in his 2007 book, Luck and the Irish, included a chapter titled "How the Catholics became Protestants". Interestingly, the healing technique reiki crops up regularly, and Inglis is struck by the degree to which for many there is "no bold line" between the realm of institutional religion and "the world of cures and faith healers". Revealingly, the most passionate and committed religious believer is a respondent born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Despite the overall decline of religion, Inglis still identifies "a Catholic cultural strategy of denying the importance of money and success in their lives".

“I’d go mental without sport ” In relation to politics

there is a common idea that everyone is “playing the same game”, and much cynicism, offering clues as to why Irish politics is problematic and dysfunctional. Many say they have no interest in politics but will vote, and then there is the very revealing and very Irish response of one woman who is asked if she votes: “Yeah, kind of.”

More robust responses are apparent in relation to the importance of sport, which has become central to “identity, meaning and lifestyle”; many see it as “a model for life” or, as one man in his early 20s responds, “I think I’d go mental without it”. What unites many, including the Egyptian and Nigerian respondents, is a passion for English Premier League soccer.

It turns out that love is all most need; many who have experienced tragedies “have not fallen out of the webs of meaning in which they are suspended” because they have loving relationships, and the interviewees generally have developed their “own cultural repertoire and style of loving”.

Inglis goes as far as to suggest that love “has become the secular religion of contemporary Ireland”; his might be an exaggeration, but he does emphasise that it is mostly “a strong, prosaic, practical love”, and such declarations underline that some of the findings of this book are inherently positive. Very few interviewees sought to develop “a logically systematic, scientific explanation of their lives” and while “there did not seem to be any major concern to discover the meaning of life . . . there was little evidence of religious or political fundamentalism”.

Not a bad web to be stuck in.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His most recent book is A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23 (Profile Books)