Irish nation cannot be evoked without causing titters


This election campaign shows the craft of political rhetoric has ceased to have any capacity to support sincerity at any level

SOME WEEKS ago, I spent an entertaining afternoon going around some of the exhibits of Dublin Contemporary 2011, at the main exhibition centre in the old UCD building on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin 2. The title of this event, which runs until October 31st, is Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change the Office of Non-Compliance. Dozens of artists from around the world were given a room apiece and asked to make some kind of “statement” in it. One piece that stayed with me was a room with a looped video of an economist talking about the paradoxes governing the work of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

The most engaging element was the hundreds of euro and two euro coins superglued to the floor, which, if you happened to find yourself with the room to yourself, seemed to invite you to go around kicking slyly on the off chance. Alas, I can attest to the strength of the superglue.

On the way home, I got to thinking what I might do if given a room in Earlsfort Terrace and asked to reflect the nature of “crisis, change and non-clompliance” in modern Ireland. I decided I would stand at the door of my room with a butterbox (do we still have butterboxes?) and invite passersby to enter, stand on the box in front of a small audience of random fellow citizens, and utter one sentence of idealism or patriotic agitation that would not cause the audience to laugh.

Within days, the presidential election campaign kicked off and – more or less – put my idea into action, with candidates ransacking their heads for phrases and thoughts that would not get them either hissed or laughed at.

The most striking thing about the current campaign is that it is not – other than literally – a contest between candidates, but is conducted between each candidate and some truculent voice in the ether of the Irish zeitgeist – a Muppet Show election, in which the candidates engage with various Statlers and Waldorfs, who object, taunt and sneer their way though each “performance”, ostensibly seeking to “test” each candidate in turn, but mostly just heckling for its own sake.

The election feels, then, like an end rather than a beginning, a frantic rummaging through possibilities, a stab in the dark at the fag end of hoping. If you think of it as one scene in a screenplay written by a society seeking after some sense of new direction, it involves an identity parade conducted with random “suspects” on the off-chance of finding some element of coherent common meaning, theme, driving idea, identity. But the only conclusions have been either negative or parodic.

One of the consequences of the various collapses in the moral infrastructure of Ireland in recent decades has been the shriveling up of the languages of patriotism and collective action. The extent of our self-awareness concerning the outcomes and legacies of past endeavour has insinuated a corrosive irony that destroys every attempt at a rallying cry. It is no longer possible to evoke the Irish nation without occasioning titters. Who could stand now, like Tone or Davis or Pearse, and speak words that inspire an entity to be called “the Irish People”?

Conventional politicians may speak safely only about Ireland as an economy, about the interests of “Ireland Inc”. Presidential candidates are expected to use words such as “republic”, “vision”, “ideals”, which have been sucked dry of meaning. Scepticism, knowingness, irony and reductive forms of hyper-communication have rendered nigh impossible the framing of a sentence in English (or indeed as Gaeilge) that does not instantly read as a platitude and provoke either cynicism or rage. Thus, the craft of political rhetoric has ceased to have any capacity to support sincerity at any level.

Every attempt to invoke inspiration comes out, or is instantly received, as a burlesque of words that once had a certain meaning that now hangs in the air like a ghost mocking the present moment for its emptiness and hopelessness.

In the Ireland midwifed by materialism and pseudo-modernity, it is impossible to image a patriotism that is not jingoistic, an idealism that is not economistic or a sincerity that is not sanctimonious. We know too much, are too clever, have become over-ironified to the point of cultural self-ingestion. Political rhetoric, then, has become a kind of game, in which only the most pious or populist sentiments are a safe bet: “I’m a positive person”; “I look to the future, not the past”; “I’ll do it for the average industrial wage”. Of course, these “positivisms” are almost invariably the opposite: sly denunciations of the “negativity” of the others, which chimes perfectly with public sentiment.

More than anything yet “announced” by anybody – leader, writer, artist, whoever – this election has declared an end to the present spectrum of possibilities. One thing we now know: we cannot return to this well until we take steps to replenish it. In a culture increasingly driven by scepticism and suspicion, we can find no ideas or images concerning our collective future from within the existing package, but nor does anyone seem capable of generating any new thoughts or symbols that might sustain us into another phase.