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The State of Us, Part 1: Ireland’s story doesn’t make sense any more

Globalisation, migration and Catholicism’s decline have undermined stories of ourselves

‘All the evidence is that if one set of stories no longer makes sense, people do not simply become realists. They become prey to any old story at all.’

Nations tell themselves stories. They are not fully true, they are often bitterly contested and they change over time. But they are powerful: they underlie the necessary fiction that is “us”. And at the moment it is not quite clear what the Irish story is. What is the state of “us”?

The majority story, the narrative of modern Catholic Ireland, has had six different elements – components that have sometimes complemented, sometimes competed with, each other. The striking thing is that none of them really works any more.

If they were novels, we could call these stories, Survival, MOPE, The Scattering, Thoroughly Modern, Top O' the World, Ma! and Who's Sorry Now?

One story was about resilience and survival: Catholic Ireland was threatened with obliteration by a dominant and Protestant Britain but it endured. Closely related was a story of oppression and resistance, of Ireland’s unique suffering (Liam Kennedy’s MOPE –Most Oppressed People Ever – syndrome) and ultimate, though as yet incomplete reward of full national freedom. Sitting uneasily alongside these big narratives was the tragic epic called The Scattering, a tale of endless departures in which Ireland was essentially a place to be remembered from afar and, therefore, bathed in nostalgia.


Then there was the tale of tradition and modernity: the transformation of a rural, underdeveloped, highly religious, educationally backward, culturally monolithic little state into an urban, industrial (indeed often post-industrial), cosmopolitan and extremely globalised economy. It morphed into the triumphalist Celtic Tiger fable of the best, richest, smartest, most creative, most everything place on God’s earth. And that in turn was replaced by a parable of guilt, punishment and repentance – we had sinned and we must purge those sins by being the best little Europeans at seeking redemption through austerity.


Of course these stories left many things – and people – out: Protestant Ireland, most women, social class. But they were nonetheless potent, not least because they could overlap and echo each other. None of them ever seemed to be quite over. The triumph of Irish independence had its long coda in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The religious imagery of endurance that was forged during the Penal Laws served the same purpose when the penal laws were being imposed from Frankfurt, Washington and Brussels. The swagger of the Celtic Tiger was partially justified as a reaction to a sense of historic oppression – were we not entitled to have fun after centuries of misery?

But if these stories were never entirely true, they are now less convincing, or less relevant, than they ever were. The great epic tale of the survival of Catholic Ireland in the face of all attempts to obliterate it now has a poignant edge: Irish Catholicism, viewed as a monolithic power, in the end managed to destroy itself. There are very many Irish Catholics, and the faith is still very much a part of Irish culture, but the Catholic “nation” is no more.

The MOPE story has largely gone the same way. It endures for a minority of zealots but the way in which the 1916 centenary was marked last year suggests that for the majority the idea of the “national struggle” has become much more complex and nuanced. It is now broadly accepted that Irish suffering was far from unique, that Irish nationalists came in many varieties (including many of those who fought and died on the Western Front and in Gallipoli). Anglophobia – the fuel that kept the MOPE vehicle on the road – has all but disappeared. And the Belfast Agreement, with its suggestion that the end of this story will be consensual, ambiguous and tolerant of difference, has replaced the simplistic claim to the “reunification of the national territory”.

The Scattering is still, in some respects, a viable narrative – large-scale emigration is still part of the Irish psyche and the speed with which it reasserted itself when the economy crashed in 2008 was remarkable. But it is immensely and permanently complicated by being mirrored in equally large-scale immigration. Those essential poles of the Irish experience – Home and Away – cannot hold their positions any more when so many of those who are home in Ireland are also away from where they and their families grew up.

The Thoroughly Modern tale has lost its usefulness. In part, this is because “tradition” in the form of a belief in the endurance of a rural, ethnically and religiously coherent society has little purchase, even as a nostalgic construct. But in part it is because its nemesis, modernity, didn’t quite turn out to be what it seemed either. Ireland didn’t really create its own economic modernity, it imported it in the form of multinational investment. And that in turn meant that Ireland moved very rapidly from “tradition”, not to modernity, but to post-modernity, the hyperglobalisation of an extremely open economy.

The last two stories can be seen as short-term attempts to fill the vacuums being left by the fading of these other, older narratives. Top O’ The World Ma! was always a hyperbolic fantasy, MOPE turned upside down to reshape a long tale of woe into a short extravaganza of heady delusions. And Who’s Sorry Now? was always a rather transparent ideological fiction. It did the job of getting the populace through a very grim period of austerity without a major revolt, but it never achieved anything like general consent. Too many people wondered why only the debtors were sinners while the lenders were saints. Too many people had never felt like the “we” who had supposedly partied for a decade.

So what’s the story now? One answer to this question is another question: who cares? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. After all, the stories we told ourselves in the past were at best only partial truths. Realities will always be more fluid and complex than the necessarily crude fictions that underlie national identities. Can we not simply be subsumed into a larger narrative – the European project, perhaps, or the utopian dreams of the perfectly functioning marketplace that is promised by neoliberalism?

The problem is that people do need a sense of collective purpose, a sense that there is something that they belong to and that belongs to them. All the evidence is that if one set of stories no longer makes sense, people do not simply become realists. They become prey to any old story at all, especially one that has a potent contrast between Us and Them: Take Back Control, Make America Great Again. If there is no positive Us, there is always its evil twin: Not Them. There is no reason to think that Ireland is immune to this temptation, especially as it faces, in addition to all of the disruptions and inequalities of hyperglobalisation, the specific uncertainties of Brexit, an unfinished peace process and an incomplete transition from a monolithic to a multifaceted culture. If a benign story cannot be convincingly told, a malign alternative will surely emerge.

Common purpose

A sense of common purpose is necessary precisely because it is so difficult. Ireland offers no firm ground, just a set of tensions and contradictions. There is, in the first place, an odd disjunction that results from Ireland’s peculiar form of economic development: There are two economies and the dominant one is not the one that most of us inhabit. It is a highly globalised economy, shaped by and for a small number of giant transnational corporations: over half of all value added in the non-financial Irish business economy is created by multinationals. And this multinational economy is highly specialised. Essentially, the “Irish economy” on the global scale is about two things: chemicals and IT services. An extraordinary 57 per cent of all goods exported from Ireland is categorised as chemicals. And it is a similar story with services: 47 per cent of all services exports are computer services.

But these immense sectors of the economy are not where the vast majority of Irish people work. Ninety per cent of businesses in the Irish economy are classified as micro-enterprises and nearly 70 per cent of jobs are in small and medium-sized enterprises. The day-to-day economy that Irish people typically inhabit is small and local, but “the Irish economy” is something quite different, a creation of a small number of vast global corporations.

Secondly, there is a tension between what the Irish State has to do, on the one hand, and, on the other, the dominant political discourse about the nature of the State. This tension is rooted in a basic economic reality: partly as a result of having two radically different economies, Ireland has the most unequal distribution of market income (which means income before taxes and public benefits) in the developed world. To keep inequality within any kind of containable limits, therefore, the State has to do an extraordinary amount of heavy lifting. The very structure of the Irish economy makes a big, active State an imperative: the tax and welfare systems have more work to do than in other developed economies. The Irish State is thus social democratic by default. But it is conservative in ideology and inclined to see the State as the enemy. Again, there is a mismatch between what goes on and the story that is being told.

Third, Ireland is a pluralist society with a monocultural hangover. Ethnic, religious and political diversity have grown at an astonishingly rapid pace because they have been driven by four equally powerful engines. There is inward migration, much of it from parts of the world with which Ireland previously had at best tenuous links. (Unlike other western European countries, Ireland does not have a migrant population that has come from its former colonies.) There is membership of the EU: 82 per cent of Irish people – one of the highest rates of all countries – say they feel they are “a citizen of the EU”, which suggests the vast majority is comfortable with a least one part of its citizenship being multinational as well as multi-ethnic.

There is the secularisation that accompanies urbanisation, higher levels of education and the decline of the Catholic church’s “moral monopoly”. And there is the profound re-thinking of Irish nationalism that is both a cause and a consequence of the Belfast Agreement, with its radical ideas about the legitimacy, not just of different identities, but of dual identities.

But many of Ireland’s most basic institutions – schools and hospitals in particular – are still owned by one church, and some aspects of the law (the extreme restrictions on abortion, for example) are still rooted in that church’s teaching. And the space in which a more sophisticated nationalist narrative has been emerging is threatened with foreclosure by Brexit and the possibility of a return to crude geographical and political divisions. The pluralist story is one that does not yet match Irish realities.


Fourth, there is a profound disconnection between the local and the national. A sense of locality and community is immensely important to the way Irish people think about themselves. But it is entangled in two great contradictions. One is that we are in reality extremely bad at caring for our localities: the toleration for dreadful planning, ugly and inept development and environmental degradation is high. The other is that this sense of the local has very little political or institutional power. Ireland is, politically and administratively, one of the most centralised of all developed societies. Local democracy is weak. As a result TDs function essentially as local councillors while local councils are mere adjuncts to and training grounds for national politics.

Finally, there is a disconnection between the power of the word “republic” on the one hand and its lack of meaning on the other. Perhaps because republicanism came to mean merely extreme (and generally violent) nationalism, it became a difficult concept to express. And yet the 1916 centenary events showed that “republic” is indeed a potent term for most Irish people, and that its potency is not simply a function of chauvinist nostalgia. It suggests some kind of public ethic that might, eventually, fill the moral vacuum left by the decline of Catholic authority. It seems fitting that this ethic is most often articulated through an entirely misconstrued phrase about cherishing all the children of the nation equally. Fitting, too, that this phrase is most often used to describe, not what the State does, but what it patently fails to do.

The question, then is whether there is a story about “us” that comes closer to our economic realities, that takes pride in an active State, that embraces a secular pluralism, that frees up our sense of place and community and that gives some content to our attachment to a republican ideal. As national narratives go, it would be no more a complete representation of “us” than any other. But it might look a little more like the way we really are.

Fintan O’Toole is European Press Commentator of the Year and winner of the Orwell Prize 2017