Fintan O’Toole: State has taken a bizarre trip back to the 1950s
Blasphemy, Dáil prayer and maternity hospital rows prove the Republic has lost its way
These four letters should be embroidered on the Irish flag. Since its foundation, the State has always behaved as if. As if the revival of Irish was going splendidly and the first official language was always on our lips.
As if the 1 per cent of the population locked up at any given time in an industrial school, a mental hospital, a Magdalene laundry or a mother-and-baby home did not exist.
As if the citizens of our free and Gaelic Ireland were not voting with their feet by emigrating en masse.
As if our bankers and professional classes were as pure as the finest cognac.
As if suburban Dublin houses were really worth a million euro. As if we were really the richest nation on Earth. As if we were all taking the pain of austerity equally. As if Irish women didn’t have abortions.
We’re used to these pretences, skilled at performing the right gestures while knowing they are lies. But the phase we’re going through at the moment must be the weirdest and most deranged of all.
The State is currently behaving as if it’s the 1950s and holy Catholic Ireland is still in its pomp, a beacon of the faith and a rebuke to the godless everywhere. Even by our standards, this is a bizarre moment.
So: the Garda is investigating Stephen Fry because someone in Ennis complained that he may have committed blasphemy when he asked Gay Byrne in a television interview in February 2015: “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
And our parliament has just voted by a majority of 97 votes to 18 that “All members present shall stand while the prayer is being read, and when it is concluded, members shall remain standing for 30 seconds of silent reflection.”
The prayer in question is specifically Christian: “Direct we beseech Thee O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee and by Thee be happily ended. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.”
And of course the State is planning to give ownership and effective control of the new national maternity hospital to the Sisters of Charity.
It’s what happens when the State is utterly adrift, when it has no sense of its collective identity or moral purpose
And this is all as if. As if the Garda who apparently have time to look into whether God’s feelings were hurt by Stephen Fry didn’t have better things to do, like for example investigating the apparently massive deception in which thousands of people were tricked into giving up tracker mortgages. (So far as we have been told, the Central Bank has not even referred any of this for criminal investigation yet.)
As if it were not actually rather more blasphemous to suggest that when our TDs screw up yet another piece of legislation or nod through yet another cruelty, they are acting under divine guidance. (If I were Christ, I’d be pretty cross at the claim that I inspired the Dáil to take away respite care for the parents of children with disabilities.)
As if we’re so abject that we can’t take ownership of our own public services and need nuns to control them for us.
It’s all rather retro. It’s a political fancy-dress party, though instead of pirates or Harry Potter characters we’re going as penitents on Lough Derg in 1957, all headscarves and fedoras, rosary beads in tobacco-stained fingers, scapulars under thick woolly vests. What next? Shall we reopen the dancehalls and issue parish priests with blackthorn sticks to hunt the courting couples out from the ditches?
It’s tempting to see this queer little moment of retro-religiosity the State is going through as a reaction to the recent census figures that show a continuing decline in Catholicism and a rapid rise both in adherence to other faiths and in the numbers declaring no religion.
Or to the shock of the citizens’ convention’s recommendations on abortion that dramatise the almost complete loss of the church’s authority. But I’m not sure this moment of fake piety even has that much of a rationale.
It’s not a reactionary plot. It’s just what you get when the State is utterly adrift, when it has no sense of its collective identity or moral purpose.
When there is no real political direction, no articulation of what kind of country Ireland might be after the great recession, things revert to a default setting. And it turns out, rather surprisingly, that the default setting is still 1950s Irish Catholicism.
The State’s unconscious mind is still populated by nuns and blasphemers and divinely inspired TDs. Father Ted is still playing on its neural networks, but as if it were documentary, not satire.
And it will go on like this until the State finds a democratic, republican, civic purpose. To be free of increasingly meaningless gestures, we need a State animated by meaningful progress.