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Fintan O’Toole: The Covid-19 pandemic should be the last hurrah for Irish stoicism

We are at the top of Mount Misery and must endure, but forbearance is not always a virtue

No, we’re not being heroical. We’re just being stoical. It’s important that those who are trying to communicate messages about the pandemic understand the difference. It also matters that we appreciate that Irish stoicism is a two-sided coin.

Generalisations are stupid but also necessary. The big picture of Irish culture is that we are a nation of stoics. The good news is that this habit of mind is helping us to get through a very dark time. The bad news is that it won’t help us to get over it.

What I mean by stoicism is the very old philosophical tradition of accepting, and adjusting to, the way the world appears to us humans: as a cruel and arbitrary place.

So when awful things happen to us, we have to learn to accept that they are beyond our comprehension or control. All we really can control is our attitude towards them – we can face them gracefully, without anger or grief or loss of dignity.


There’s nothing especially Irish about this attitude to life, but I think it does run deeply here. Dealing with a cruel and arbitrary world is something we’ve learned to do over many generations.

It’s very striking that one of the big things the authorities here have consistently been wrong about is this deep Irish reservoir of stoical acceptance. They’ve tended, sometimes simultaneously, to work off two false assumptions.

One is that we need to be told constantly how great we are. We crave a clap on the back or even a pat on the head. But we don’t – because we’re not being great. We’re just doing what we have to do to survive.

The other is that we’re always at the end of our tether, that we’re about to snap. This perception shaped the slowness to lock down last March – how could we possibly stand it? It shaped, fatally, the idea that we absolutely had to have “a meaningful Christmas” or we would all explode.

The evidence – either in the tracking surveys of public attitudes by Amárach Research for the Department of Health, or in the way most of us are actually behaving – has never supported either of these assumptions.

Even this week, even three months into the third wave and its grim social imperatives, it still doesn’t.

The latest tracking survey does indeed show that we’re more unhappy than ever before about prolonged restrictions and reduced social contacts. Levels of anger, pain and despair are at, or close to, the highest they’ve been over the past year. So are boredom, frustration, sadness and loneliness. We’re near the summit of Mount Misery.

Yet, even under all this emotional stress, we’re stoical. The vast majority of us either still support the current lockdown (46 per cent) or want it tightened (39 per cent). Just 15 per cent of us think the current lockdown is too extreme. We’re going slowly crazy behind the cell door but we’re not screaming to be let out.

Coping mechanism

To sum it up crudely: we know it’s awful, we accept it and we deal with it with as much grace as we can. That’s stoicism.

So whatever happened to the wild Irish? Did they ever really exist, or is resignation actually much more deeply embedded than rebellion in our collective psyche?

Stoicism has always been the Irish coping mechanism. The majority culture has been shaped by the experience of being dominated: by empire and by the Catholic Church. It learned the lesson that what can’t be cured must be endured.

This is not, of course, to deny the traditions of resistance and revolt. It is simply to say that, most of the time, most people got on with things, not by trying to blow up the walls of implacable reality, but by navigating ways around them – often the literal navigating of mass emigration.

One side of this is hugely admirable. But the other is internalised oppression. It’s God’s will that I should have 10 children with my drunken husband. I can’t do anything about the corrupt regime that is ruining the country, so I’m off to America.

In his great (and much abused) prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr asked God to "give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other".

'We are where we are' has been for far too long the mantra of power in Ireland

The problem is that too often in Irish culture, we are only really good at the first bit. The stoicism of accepting what cannot be changed has crowded out the determination to discern what can be changed and the collective courage to take it on.

This is broadly what we did with the last crisis, the great banking and property crash of 2008. We battened down the hatches. Some of us railed at the follies and corruption that created the disaster. But most of us simply endured – resentfully, painfully but stoically.

Helpful habit

This habit is undoubtedly helping us now. It happens, in this moment, to fit exactly with what cognitive behaviour therapy would tell us all to do as individuals: to accept that we cannot control the circumstances, so we must instead control our own feelings. It’s the right thing to do, both for ourselves and for society as a whole. It will get us through.

To everything there is a season and this is the season for stoicism. Acceptance, resignation and patience are the virtues of the hour. We have to adjust our emotions, both personally and collectively, to the much reduced state of things.

I just hope that, when we’re coming out the other side of all this, we have exhausted our reserves of forbearance. For the virtues of an existential emergency will not be much use in the task of remaking society.

“We are where we are” has been for far too long the mantra of power in Ireland. It has left us without things – like free primary education or a national health service – that a European society at our level of development ought to take for granted. We adjust to absurdities and injustices instead of adjusting, to our own needs, the systems that are supposed to serve us.

Let’s make this the last hurrah for Irish stoicism. It is an old performer, on its farewell tour, belting out a last chorus. It happens to be the one we need to hear just one final time.

Let it milk the moment for all its worth and let’s squeeze every last encore out of it. And when this increasingly bleak show is over, let’s be done with it.