The Irish Paradox by Sean Moncrieff review: Who do we Irish think we are?
Sean Moncrieff. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Irish Paradox - How And Why We Are Such A Contradictory People
Gill & Macmillan
Who the hell do we think we are? It’s a parlour game that every Irish columnist, broadcaster, comedian, street-corner philosopher or social commentator must play at some point. Call it chronic narcissism or healthy self-examination, but Irish people talking about their own Irishness is a kind of national sport.
The average Irishman, the gag goes, is a nice bunch of guys. Any statement you make about the collective psychology provokes an equally credible rebuttal. And yet, you’ll have heard the words “typical Irish” uttered, in an exasperated fashion, a hundred times, as shorthand for any number of native tics.
It can mean charming and articulate, madcap and maudlin, backward and fatalistic. It indicates a people who converse in post-colonial doublespeak; who’d rather complain behind your back than commit the sin of confrontation; who claim to abhor political cronyism and bent entrepreneurialism but tacitly endorse it; who boast and begrudge in equal measure. A race of people who’ve taken to social media like crack because it allows them to vent their grievances without doing anything about them. A social caste who are obsessed with property but live in squat, ugly, breeze-block shaped houses.
Seán Moncrieff, as host of his own Newstalk show, probably has a better handle on the national condition than most, given that he listens to us yammering and twittering on a daily basis. Moncrieff began his career as a satirical broadcaster; over the past 15 years he has established himself as a writer of novels and non-fiction. In terms of background, he’s both an insider and an outsider, born in London to an Edinburgh Protestant father and an Irish emigrant Catholic mother. No surprise then that he has an innately ambiguous relationship with his own family history and national identity.
The Irish Paradox takes the form of memoir as much as sociological study, and it’s this autobiographical element that renders it eminently readable. In many ways, it’s Moncrieff’s rapprochement with the maternal figure, figurative and physical. He spent his childhood years in London and Swindon, raised by a mother who regarded Catholic Ireland as the spiritual homeland; for the young Moncrieff it was a summer holiday Shangri-La, the land of sweets and minerals and days off. The family resettled in Ballinasloe when he was 12 years old – the author still defines himself as rural Irish.
Throughout these early chapters, Moncrieff writes with a light touch, but does not shirk the banner issues: alcoholism, emigration, racism, corruption, mental health. If received wisdom holds that Ireland was, until the late ’90s, a monoculture, Moncrieff defines our original bloodline as a Basque/Nordic/Norman/Celtic stew. In recent years, he notes, we’ve come full circle: “According to the 2011 census, nearly 20 per cent of the population are classed as immigrants. In a decade, Ireland transformed from a homogenous, pale-skinned society to a multi-ethnic one.”
But it’s possible to be multi-ethnic and still remain a monoculture, especially in a nation where city and country are starkly partitioned. Despite the boom, despite all the Polish migrant workers and Nigerian-run internet cafes, despite the decline of the church as an apparatus of social control, the land beyond the Pale has in many ways remained static throughout a decade of social convulsions. It may even have regressed. Post-bust, rural Ireland seemed to slide back to the 1970s with terrifying speed. Country ’n’ Irish showbands still called the tune on local radio stations and in pubs, regional media were still regarded as parochial and amateurish, the GAA and farming communities remained stalwart in their cultural dominance. More grievously, our system of governance remained predicated on clientelism and parish pump pull.
The past is never dead
The past is never dead, William Faulkner wrote in Requiem For A Nun: it’s not even past. This is especially true in a country where the state’s attitude to drama, literature and art continues to prioritise tourist board retromania over modernism, with millions of euros of grant money earmarked for never-ending commemorations of centuries-old wars and uprisings. Irish history still exerts a choke-hold on the future. The young respond by voting with their feet, while those who stay must contend with domestic levels of dysfunction and disassociation that are almost mystical. Here’s a chilling notion Moncrieff tosses into the broth:
“In 2013 the historian Oonagh Walsh came up with an interesting theory: that the severe nutritional deprivation of the Famine period would have caused epigenetic change. Epigenetic change doesn’t change the gene itself but it does change how it operates . . . Walsh’s theory – and her research is still ongoing – is that this epigenetic change triggered higher rates of a number of diseases, including mental illness . . . Something happened to our mental health in the years after the Famine.”
Which brings us to the contentious subject of our relationship with drink. According to the World Health Organisation, Irish alcohol consumption habitually reaches binge levels (our drug usage, by contrast, is in line with European standards). Why? Because, Moncrieff says, we’re at once gregarious and repressed. We drink because we like to talk, and we find it easier to talk while drunk. We use alcohol as a social lubricant and truth serum. But even this is changing: cut-price supermarket booze and the decline of rural pub culture as a result of drink-driving clampdowns has heralded an even more antisocial form of drinking: the cheap bottle of plonk alone in front of the TV.
At 240 pages odd, Moncrieff’s book is selective rather than exhaustive, and the reader might be moved to raise issues the author had neither time, space, nor appetite to interrogate. Such as, why does a once rural-based society treat animals with such casual cruelty? How is it we’re renowned for being one of the friendliest races on earth, but our public services and transport industries are fronted by individuals who are curt and unhelpful to the point of hostility? How come a nation rich with writers, talkers and thinkers is governed by public representatives who are staunchly anti-intellectual and anti-art? And why are the paths of our towns caked with dog shit?
There’s no end to it. The Irish Paradox is like one of those great pub bull sessions that could go on all year. Expect a sequel in the post. Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber)