History that wouldn't go away


Making a TV series on the story and influence of Ireland was a chance to reflect not only on past and present suffering but also on a capacity for reinvention that is part of our character and offers hope for the future

THE GREEK geographer Strabo, writing around 24 BC, described the Irish as people “who deemed it commendable to devour their deceased fathers”. It was a trait that would remain constant, as the public cannibalising of Fianna Fáil in recent months must surely testify. The great Jonathan Swift, writing 17 centuries after Strabo, returned to the theme of cannibalism in his Modest Proposal, a satire on colonial misrule in Ireland. Contemplating the wretched fate of the Irish poor, Swift advocated that hunger might be alleviated by consuming their children. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London,” he wrote, “that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”

In Swift’s magisterial polemic we see the emergence of an Irish tradition of political satire that would reach its most glorious flowering centuries later in these pages under the byline Myles na gCopaleen. What would Swift and Myles have made of our current crisis?

Throughout the making of The Story of IrelandI have been fascinated by the stubborn recurrence of certain themes in our national narrative, not least a tendency for once iconic figures to find themselves devoured, as per Strabo, by those who once worshipped them. Consider Charles Stuart Parnell, hero of the land war and home rule, who finished his days arguing with hostile crowds after his affair with the married Kitty O’Shea split the Irish party. As James Joyce wrote:

This lovely land that always sent

Her writers and artists to banishment

And in a spirit of Irish fun

Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.

’Twas Irish humour, wet and dry,

Flung quicklime into Parnell’s eye.

Parnell also highlighted our gift for historical myth-making. He was not, as is popularly believed, brought down solely by an alliance of Gladstone, the Catholic bishops and Irish traitors, but primarily by his monumental hubris.

After a long period of comparative calm – one might even call it dullness – we returned in the 1990s to an age when political leaders could spectacularly fall from grace. The image of Charles Haughey emerging from the Moriarty tribunal to see a jeering crowd comes immediately to mind or, more recently, Bertie Ahern being harangued outside the Dáil by a woman asking if he had no shame. The reasons for their downfall were, it hardly needs to be said, very different from those that did for Parnell, but their fate was certainly resonant of an earlier age.

If nothing else, making The Story of Irelandhas helped give me a sense of perspective on the travails of present-day Ireland. Driving around the country I have listened on the radio to the non-stop declamation of misery prompted by the economic crisis. I have lost count of the number of times that the death of Ireland as we know it has been announced, or that commentators and politicians have summoned the ghosts of history to pour scorn on our present generation of political leaders. What would Pearse and Connolly think of the current bunch? They would, we are assured by the phone-in callers, revolve in their graves.

Certainly the Republic of today is very far from the utopia imagined by the signatories of the 1916 proclamation, but no modern nation can ever live up to the lofty idealism of its founding fathers. Just ask the Americans, or Mandela’s heirs in South Africa. To quote Kant’s immortal line, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made”. What Irish history does teach us is that our national character is resilient and our capacity for reinventing ourselves limitless.

Throughout the new television series I argue that our story is one profoundly shaped by events beyond our shores, but also that the story of Irelandamounts to more than a catalogue of woe. So forgive me if I stray off-message to summon up briefly some past miseries as examples of resilience.

Even allowing for our tendency to exceptionalise the Irish experience the list of woes endured is impressive, starting with the Black Plague that devastated the Norman Pale in the Middle Ages. Later, during the Desmond Rebellions against Elizabeth I in the 16th century, the poet Edmund Spenser observed the people “brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked like Anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves.”

Then we had the long wars of the 17th century when the armies of Cromwell, James and William ravaged the countryside; the famine of 1741, which killed an estimated 400,000 people and is largely forgotten; and the rebellion of 1798, which saw 30,000 die in a few months and cured the Irish forever of any tendency towards mass uprising. All of this before we even reach the mass starvation and emigration of Black ’47 or the conflicts of the 20th century.

Of course there is a larger point in all of this. The modern story of Europe, ravaged by two world wars, also shows us that humanity is endlessly resilient and is even, occasionally, capable of learning from experience.

Part of our recent problem has been a tendency to see Irish history as something that had come to a shining full stop, a trail of tears that ended with a national triumph somewhere in the late 1990s. The grim past was gone. The bad business in the North was sorted and the Republic was prosperous, liberal and secure. We basked in the laudatory perorations of foreign opinion-makers and statesmen.

But there was to be no “end of history” in Ireland. In fact we are now paying the price for a tradition of clientelist politics that stretches back far beyond the foundation of the modern Irish state. When we think of corruption there is a tendency to assume that it began with Charles Haughey in the 1960s, and certainly the Haughey era raised the politics of cute- hoorism and cronyism to an unprecedented level. But go back as far as the Act of Union, in 1801, and we find that this crucial legislation binding Britain and Ireland together was only passed into law by the expedient of massive bribery. Kickbacks and clientelism were an essential part of the fabric of 19th-century politics.

When Irish politics began to be organised on a level of mass participation, under Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s, it revolved around the mobilisation of people in parishes. O’Connell’s Catholic Association was run with phenomenal efficiency by local priests, who essentially become ward bosses. This was a brand of politics that the Irish later exported to the US, where it blended with the freebooting instincts of a new frontier and helped create the notorious Tammany Hall machine.

Our politics of mass popular mobilisation under iconic leaders, from O’Connell to Parnell to de Valera, gave the rural poor their first experience of political power. A people who had been marginalised and exploited had a sense, for the first time, that their voices mattered. But machine politics left little room for any tradition of dissent. It led to a political world in which the tallyman, not the thinker, became the central figure. The hopes of the 1916 proclamation that we might create a nation of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities” were not so much abandoned as overwhelmed by the moral exhaustion and financial crisis that followed the Civil War, and the failure of political vision that characterised so much of our post-independence narrative. The old habits of deference endured after the end of British rule.

Our new elite were the solicitors, doctors, bank managers and strong farmers who slipped neatly into the warm seats so recently wrested from the old ascendancy. As my late uncle John B Keane memorably wrote: “We called every man Sir who wore collar and tie / we died when our betters died / old woman you and I.”

Frequently during the making of this series I have wondered what difference it might have made to have had the flinty presence of the Ulster Presbyterians in an all-Ireland parliament. Surely those dissenting voices would have added a vital dissonance in a society where the tendency to defer to authority, political and clerical, was so pronounced? Instead we had two states where religion became a primary badge of identity. Yet it is to the North that I now look for inspiration.

When I left Belfast in 1990 to become a foreign correspondent in South Africa the notion of a power-sharing government made up of Sinn Féin and the DUP was beyond unthinkable. Yet political forces were shifting. War-weariness, the alliance between London and Dublin, the engagement of the US and, above all, the initial courage shown by local politicians and people moved Northern Ireland from an age of murder to one of co-operation. Sectarianism remains an appalling problem, but the culture that tolerated political murder on this island is steadily eroding. This is an achievement of revolutionary significance.

For the Republic the challenge is to harness the same courage that changed Northern Ireland. We might be on the verge of a new revolution in which the idea of the universal good might triumph over the politics of the parish.

The first programme in The Story of Ireland, a five-part series on the history and global impact of Ireland, presented by BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane, is on RTÉ1 at 10.15pm on Tuesday