Celtic Tiger shut out the relevance of Pearse


‘THERE HAS been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation. Other generations have failed in Ireland, but they have failed nobly; or, failing ignobly, some man among them has redeemed them from infamy by the splendour of his protest. But the failure of the last generation has been mean and shameful, and no man has arisen from it to say or do a splendid thing in virtue of which it shall be forgiven. The whole episode is squalid. It will remain the one sickening chapter in a story which, gallant or sorrowful, has everywhere else some exaltation of pride.”

A suggested line of thought for the Taoiseach’s forthcoming state-of-the-nation address? Sadly, the words are not mine, but the opening salvo from Padraig Pearse’s essay Ghosts,published 96 years ago. For some years after I became a columnist for this newspaper in 1991, I would quote frequently and liberally from this and other essays of Pearse, desisting only after the roars of the Celtic Tiger drowned out all such reasoning. How, after all, could one talk of “failure” at such a crowning moment of Irish independence?

Until the mid-1990s, although writing approvingly of Pearse was regarded as eccentric, it was still plausible to speak of Ireland as a failed entity, and to speculate as to the nature of this failure. But, then, almost overnight, it became axiomatic that such readings were wrong-headed and ludicrous. Far from being a failure, Ireland was, as the front cover of the Economistdeclared in 1997: “Europe’s Shining Light”.

I am being facetious in suggesting Enda Kenny might open his national pep-talk in such a way. Pearse’s theme, in this and other essays, was the idea of nation as spiritual entity, transcending all physical needs and interests, but such concepts are now alien to our collective thinking processes. For a political leader to speak now of the ghosts of the dead asking big things, while addressing what we still anachronistically call “the nation”, would be like a teacher talking about the birds and bees to a tittering roomful of 12-year-olds. The words would provoke only confusion, dismissiveness and ridicule, because the cultural context on which their meanings depended has been obliterated.

This is no minor adjustment in thinking, but the encroachment of an entirely different way of seeing. Intrinsic to this change, and hermetically sealing it against interrogation, is the idea that present-day thinking is self-evidently superior to all previous forms. The new thinking has failed, and its failure may yet prove total, but the accompanying hubris renders it impervious to the proposition that important understandings have been lost on the way to thinking as we do now.

In evoking the nation, Pearse was addressing a peasant culture with a simplistic view of Christianity, but he did not preach simplistically of faith and spirituality, nor seek to valorise a particular dogma. Rather, he spoke of spirit as a shared, inherited space in which a people might live and love and hope and reason, precisely on account of a shared inheritance, which he called “the nation”.

Nowadays, if we speak of nationality at all, it is as an awkward and largely undesired heirloom, filleted of practical meanings. “Spirituality” signals, usually, the avoidance of the specifically Christian. Our leaders tend not to be poets or thinkers who speak of lofty things, but functionaries who string together technical phrases in the manner of middle-managers or accountants. And this too is regarded as emblematic of progress: an advance from romanticism to technocracy that ignores the underfoot debris in its determination to approve of itself.

On the face of things, it appears coincidental that Pearse’s reputation went into decline some time before the advent of the Celtic Tiger. One factor, undoubtedly, was the happenstance of the eruption of violent conflict in the North from the early 1970s, which provoked an evasive revisionism to undermine the validity of modern Ireland’s originating revolutionary episode. Accompanying this was a growing hubris on account of the apparent successes of attempts to achieve self-realisation by bartering resources and independence in a new and purportedly voluntary dependency. The complacency thus generated in the hearts of new generations – untouched by the consciousness of past national struggles – unleashed a condescension that, while taking the achievement of independence for granted, heaped ridicule on the supposed naivety of the liberators. The dogged, holistic dreams of these visionaries stood as obstacles to the building of a prosperous Ireland on the basis of traded sovereignty and waived assets. There arose, then, a cultural imperative for the dousing of concepts of nationhood and spirituality in vats of irony and scorn.

Ghosts, therefore, emerges not as commentary, but prophecy:

“The men who have led Ireland for 25 years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words. They have nothing to propose to Ireland, no way of wisdom, no counsel of courage. When they speak they speak only untruth and blasphemy. Their utterances are no longer the utterances of men. They are the mumblings and the gibberings of lost souls.”