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The mandarin, the musician and the mage at the heart of Ireland’s second national revival

TK Whitaker, Seán Ó Riada and Thomas Kinsella wedded national pride and an international outlook

In The Mandarin, the Musician and the Mage I make the case that a second national revival took place in Ireland from the late 1950s into the 1960s similar to the earlier Celtic Revival at the turn of the century. The period is now best known for the Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, but by examining the careers of three Irish men who were prominent at the time, and whose lives were curiously interconnected, I argue that a major cultural and economic revival took place, which ultimately resulted in the relatively prosperous and self-confident nation of today.

Ireland was in a deep economic and cultural depression in the 1950s, and a popular book at the time, The Vanishing Irish (John A O’Brien, London: WH Allen 1954), prompted speculation about when there would be no one left on the island. But from the early 1950s groups of concerned citizens had been engaged in debate and discussion about alternative directions for the relatively newly independent State, directions that would secure its economic future and provide a more flourishing environment for its people.

Among them were three men: TK Whitaker, Seán Ó Riada and Thomas Kinsella. Whitaker, the mandarin of the book’s title, was a civil servant who had been appointed secretary of the Department of Finance, effectively the most senior position in the Civil Service, in 1955. He was only 39 at the time, a remarkably young age in a country governed by old men.

All three were all notably self-confident at a time when self-confidence in Ireland was at a low ebb

Ó Riada, the musician, was a flamboyant Cork man who arrived in Dublin in the early 1950s to take up the position of assistant director of music in Radio Éireann. He quickly made an impression in Dublin’s intellectual circles and became friendly with an emerging poet, Thomas Kinsella, in whose Baggot Street flat he stayed when he first arrived. Kinsella, the mage, began publishing in pamphlet form in the early 1950s and his first slim volume appeared in 1956. He was a civil servant, working in the Department of Finance as private secretary to Whitaker. He left shortly afterwards, encouraged by Whitaker to take up a full-time career as a poet and academic.

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Although they worked in different disciplines and their careers took very different turns, the three men shared a number of important characteristics, which had a profound influence on their subsequent achievements. They were all notably self-confident at a time when self-confidence in Ireland was at a low ebb. They were also intellectually gifted. Ireland was emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, and they were determined to learn from the best of what the rest of the world had to offer in their chosen fields.

Moreover, their deep knowledge of and intense attraction to Irish language, history and cultural heritage meant that the experience they gained from the outside world was always mediated through a very strong Irish lens. It is that integration of an international with a national focus that this book argues to be the basis of their achievement and influence and that, more generally, was a critical factor in the transformation of the country from the mid-1950s to the early years of the 21st century and is of continuing relevance as we confront the current economic vicissitudes.

The book is built around a number of themes. The first is that the period 1956-66 represented a second “revival” comparable in scale and scope to the more widely commented-on cultural revival at the end of the 19th century. The literary output of this earlier period has been analysed in depth, but PJ Mathews’s influential publication Revival (2003) presents a much more rounded perspective, showing how it was also a time of economic development. The reorganisation of Irish agriculture undertaken by Horace Plunkett with the founding of the Irish Co-Operative Wholesale Society had a significant impact on the whole country, and its legacy survives today in its modern metamorphosis into the two giant food-based businesses Kerry Group and Glanbia, and in the international success of the Kerrygold brand.

In the second revival the economic initiatives of the years 1956-66 have attracted much attention, but little connection has been made with the cultural output and intense questioning of existing orthodoxies that occurred at the same time and that, viewed together, justify the “revival” appellation. Ó Riada’s regeneration of Irish traditional music in the 1960s, which in the words of Thomas Kinsella “startled the heart of the whole people”, gave rise to a renewed sense of pride in Irish culture in general. It was during this time that the first productions of Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark (1961) and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) were produced.

In 1962 The Dolmen Miscellany of New Irish Writing was published, featuring an exciting line-up of new Irish writers, including John McGahern, John Montague, Pearse Hutchinson and Brian Moore. Thomas Kinsella was also featured in this publication, and Seamus Heaney has attested to its impact: “It marked a moment, it changed the game, it secured the ground.”

Mathews has demonstrated the importance of self-help initiatives in the first revival. I will argue that the semi-state bodies, the IMI and the emerging third-level business-education courses played a similar role in the second revival. In particular I focus on the dedication to nation-building and extraordinary entrepreneurial flair of the civil servants who ran the main State bodies: the Industrial Development Agency (now IDA Ireland), Bord Fáilte (now Fáilte Ireland), Córas Tráchtála Teoranta, Shannon Development, Bord na Móna and Erin Foods.

Dinnseanachas has always been in integral part of the Gaelic world and symbolises the creative energy that can be released from strong local roots

The opening up of Ireland to the world that was central to the second revival is considered in the wider context of the globalisation that became a critical feature of the second half of the 20th century. I will argue that Ireland was a major beneficiary of this development but that we also had a long history of interaction with the rest of the world from Columbanus and Gallus, in the seventh century, through successive waves of emigration to every corner of the world up to the present day. I will also make the point that the three men featured as exemplifying the second revival were all indebted to important global ideas and influences for their own careers: French economic planning for Whitaker, jazz for Ó Riada, and US poets, especially Pound and Carlos Williams, for Kinsella.

The book also speculates on what lessons we can learn from the example of Whitaker, Ó Riada and Kinsella as we consider a precarious new world still recovering from the 2008 great recession, the 2020 pandemic and now confronted with the brutal 2022 invasion of Ukraine and still faced with the ever-increasing threat to the planet from climate change. Sixty years ago the United States was the most dominant power, which had significant spin-off benefits for Ireland. Now the US must share power with an equally dominant China, a newly emerging India, an unpredictable Russia and a weakened Europe. Small countries need carefully considered strategies to engage with the new global landscape.

For a variety of historical reasons Ireland has amassed a significant level of soft power, but our recent stubborn rearguard attempt to retain the 12.5 per cent corporate-tax rate may have weakened this priceless asset. A re-evaluation of our place in the new world order should be considered. This exercise should take into account two traditions that have long been a feature of Irish life, meitheal and dinnseanchas. The sense of close-knit community values expressed in the concept of meitheal has been one of the most attractive features of our society and will become more important than ever in the more fractured atomised world being created by the digital revolution.

This characteristic is closely aligned to the wider philosophical tradition of civic republicanism that dates back to the ancient Greeks encouraging the idea of active citizenship. The mandarin, the musician and the mage led exemplary civic republican lives, deeply involved in their communities and in the life of the country in general. There are qualities that should be encouraged today as we witness the dangerous levels of disillusionment with and withdrawal from democratic life in so many countries.

Dinnseanachas has always been in integral part of the Gaelic world and symbolises the creative energy that can be released from strong local roots. Regardless of how successful we are in maintaining our extraordinary success in attracting foreign direct investment, we are likely to have to develop more indigenous business enterprises. The mandarin, the musician and the mage would undoubtedly be encouraging us to explore how a greater appreciation of the potential power of dinnseanchas could help us achieve this objective.

The Mandarin, the Musician and the Mage: TK Whitaker, Seán Ó Riada, Thomas Kinsella and the Lessons of Ireland’s Mid-Twentieth-Century Revival is published by Peter Lang