Rarity of the 'Irish thinker' reveals society bereft of depth


OPINION:In terms of intellectual creativity, the arts alone are funded – ostensibly, through three agencies. Philosophising would not be for the like of us, writes DESMOND FENNELL

In 1867 in The Study of Celtic Literature Matthew Arnold famously described the Irish and Welsh as distinguished by imagination but not notable for thought. Leave aside the Welsh.

In 1972 Prof Seán Ó Tuama of University College Cork, in a Thomas Davis lecture on The Gaelic League Idea, said: “In business, science, engineering, architecture, medicine, industry, law, home-making, agriculture, education, politics and administration – from economic planning to PAYE, from town planning to traffic laws – the bulk of our thinking is derivative.

“One doubts if we have added anything of real importance to sociological or theological, philosophic or aesthetic thought.”

Forty years later that remains substantially true, if we omit a few Irish thinkers who, not having died of despair and drink, emigrated to find publication and attention elsewhere. Ireland’s derivative mental set about life and the world, superficially divided by imported variants, is domestically unchallenged.

It underpins the institutional and ideological stagnation of which we have become increasingly aware. Accustomed to depending economically on foreign investment, subsidies and loans, we are also dependent on portrayals of reality fashioned elsewhere.

That most people live with borrowed world views is normal: they have other things to busy their minds than thinking out things from scratch. It is when an entire nation of several millions lives without some of its members challenging its assumptions radically that a cultural anomaly occurs.

That was what concerned Seán Ó Tuama. What he found missing in Ireland was creative thought by Irish individuals about one aspect or other of reality: thought that disregarded public orthodoxy and the prevailing academic paradigms to present new vision that excited, delighted and scandalised. Marx, Freud and Dewey, to cite names at random, did that in their day. Socrates was executed for it. Francis Fukuyama, Alistair MacIntyre and John Gray have done it in our own day. But consider: when, a few years ago, argued personal interpretations of feminism were rampant throughout the western world, not a single such book by an Irish author contributed.

It is not only that Ireland has been lacking public creative thinkers. It is also the case, and an instructive fact to know, that as a State and as a society we do everything we can to prevent deviant thought erupting. Its absence among us is, in other words, a collective, self-impoverishing achievement.

Since the death of the seven-year-old Crane Bag in 1984, Irish magazine shops have, uniquely in Europe, not been offering a single home-produced magazine of ideas. The Irish State and Irish society decided years ago that, the Irish being the Irish and therefore special, it is unnecessary for their culture to contain the fundamental element of a normal culture. The arts alone, without creative thought, would suffice for us; leave the philosophising to others. So the State, for its part, funded Irish culture by funding the arts alone, most notably through three agencies.

Aosdána, with annual bursaries available to its members, admits among other artists, fictive writers making prose fiction, poetry and plays. Its rules exclude philosophical writers. The Arts Council, as its name implies, subsidises publishers of fictive works only. Culture Ireland – note the name – funds sorties abroad of writers uniquely of the fictive sort, on the assumption, one surmises, that no one abroad could conceive of, let alone want to hear, an Irish thinker.

The cultural sections of the mass media celebrate Irish fictive writers hugely. As for Richard Kearney, Philip Pettit, William Desmond or James Mackey, the relevant editors judge that their readers, listeners and viewers, being Irish, would find them, however plain their language, too deep. Their books are for a different sort of people in those foreign places where they are published, reviewed and translated.

The Irish university presses discourage creative thought differently. While publishing, as one would expect, academically accoutred books by and for academics, they shun books which offer, without the accoutrements, mere ground-breaking thought.

Our university presses would have shunned Nietzsche or Sartre, starting out.

Although these concurrent discouragements of Irish creative thought are not concerted with that end in view, there must clearly be some powerful motivating instinct at work in the nation.

My guess is that it is a collective self-protective fear that what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about a “thinker” is true. He said: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no-one knows what is safe or where it will end.”

Fear of that sort of thing occurring in mentally monotone Ireland is very understandable. But if it did occur, now and then, it would also provide us with that missing thing – an Irish intellectual life.

Dr Desmond Fennell’s forthcoming book is Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of Western Civilisation. desmondfennell.com

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