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Irishness: What the rest of the world thinks of us

Old image of mystical romance is being replaced by the idea of a modern, progressive nation


We lost our souls during the Celtic Tiger. Forgot who we really were. Succumbed to a greed that is alien to the true nature of Irishness. As if the Land War of earlier generations had been a spiritual rather than a materialistic quest. As if the religiosity of the 1916 Rising had been more important than its aim of temporal power.

This is not to equate the Celtic Tiger with the Land War or the Easter Rising but to point up a foundation stone of our self-image – and one that we successfully promote abroad through the arts and tourism – as a mystical rather than a materialistic people, preferring the spirituality of poetry to possessions and property.

The words and the music, the poignant laments of the dispossessed and powerless and indeed the beauty of the land itself create a sense of the spiritual. The mist sweeping over bare Ben Bulben’s head is easily taken for the mystical.

But the traditional hunger for the land wasn’t for its beauty; it was for its wealth and power. And our insistence that Ireland is a modern European country, happy to accept the consumer comforts and freedoms of the First World while claiming an empathy with the Third World, implies a different set of values to the spiritual.

It was ever thus: there have always been two dominant and contradictory images of Irishness co-existing at the same time. James Joyce summed it up more than a century ago: “Oh Ireland my first and only love/Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove.”

Though never far apart, the hand and the glove are frequently uncomfortable fits. Conflicting images of Irishness go back centuries. The spiritual one has its roots in a land of saints and scholars, an antidote to the predominantly English image of the brutish Irishman, violent, drunk, lazy, feckless, untrustworthy and in thrall to a superstitious religion.

It can still raise our hackles, although we apply it with casual ease to the most downtrodden among us, even if it is no more true of Travellers than it was of our ancestors.

True Irishness, we like to believe, harks back to a mythical golden age when our holy men reintroduced Christianity and civilisation to the Europe of the Dark Ages, when Celtic chieftains respected their poets and harpists above all others. As if they never took up a sword or axe to seize their neighbours’ cattle or land, never committed any acts of violence until such were forced upon them by Vikings, Normans, and English.

Blood sacrifice

The former took enormous pride in the Wild Geese and the Irish who fought in the armies of Europe and America; in fact, in any army other than Britain’s.

The latter took equal pride in the Irish who battled for the British empire: as someone once said, the Irish fought for the empire, the Scots administered it and the English took the profits.

The religious symbolism of 1916, marrying the Rising with the resurrection, the blood sacrifice with the Mass, left us with an ambivalence towards violence. Politically motivated violence hardly deserves the description of violence at all, submerged as it is in the David versus Goliath struggle of the weak against the strong, and the romance of the rebel.

The day-to-day, stomach-turning nastiness of the Troubles in the North, for instance, has quickly faded back into rebel ballads since the reality came to an end.

Although the State itself was created through violence, it quickly saw itself as a model of non-violence through its neutrality and as a beacon of morality for the rest of the world through the lack of materialism and the piety of its people.

Neutrality, a pragmatic policy during both the first and second World Wars, quickly took on the mantle of a principle in the late 1940s and then morphed into the sense of moral superiority in which it still remains wrapped.

It was, and still is, aimed primarily at states, especially the usual suspects, and not, of course, at rebels: we were always proud of the example of revolutionary violence we provided to other peoples struggling under colonialism.

How the outside world saw our neutrality was a different matter. On a diplomatic level it left us with awkward questions to answer about where we stood on Nazism. It blighted our official relations with the US for decades and prompted the Soviet Union to veto our membership of the UN on the grounds that Ireland had been pro-German during the war.

Eventual membership allowed us to become involved in peacekeeping operations, a matter of great pride at home, probably not so well known abroad, but further proof of our independence and of the fact that we were one of the few western European nations never to colonise anybody (except spiritually and leaving aside the many Irish people who manned the British empire).

Rebel violence

The main images of Irishness in the latter part of the 20th century were of violence and drink. Not in the sense of pub brawls but the violence of the North’s warfare and the drink symbolised by the spread of Irish pubs around the world. The two names most widely associated with Ireland abroad were, separately, the IRA and Guinness.

The early hopes of many of the civic and religious leaders of the new State that it would provide a moral compass for the world through example proved relatively short-lived.

But it was not for want of trying. Methods of social control from censorship to naming-and-shaming from pulpits and the powerful who-do-you-think-you-are sneers of communities were used to ensure people knew their place, stayed in it and conformed to the dominant ideology.

Emigrants, some of whom left to escape the controls, were criticised by The Irish Times and the Catholic Church (in a rare meeting of minds) as dupes of the false promises of Birmingham’s bright lights and Hollywood vulgarities: worse, they were sometimes depicted as economic traitors.

Meanwhile, our missionaries spread out across the world as their distant ancestors had done, from pagan England to darkest Africa, to spread the light of Catholicism.

The ideal aimed for was Éamon de Valera’s vision of frugal comforts, by no means a cynical euphemism for the widespread poverty over which he presided.

Though much derided for his vision of comely maidens dancing at the crossroads (although he never used that phrase), his vision of anti-materialism is in essence still repeated regularly by his successors as president. Our souls, albeit no longer traditional Catholic ones, are still more important to our secular preachers than the false gods of consumerism.

However, de Valera’s idyllic vision came to an end in the 1950s. Self-sufficiency was revealed as an economic cul-de-sac, leading to the mass emigration of three out of every four children born in the State during the 1930s. Doubts developed among some of the old revolutionaries and their sons and daughters about independence itself.

The cultural efforts to remake the nation in the preferred image of Irishness were also beginning to wilt behind their facade of religious conformity. Membership of the European project in the 1970s offered an escape route, providing a link with the continent our ancestors had once saved, an alternative to Anglo-Saxon dominance, and generous grants for farmers. Joining was a no-brainer, spiritually, culturally and materially.

Successful stereotypes

But we sometimes connive at reinforcing parts of the stereotype we don’t like. Why, for instance, have successive governments required visiting foreign leaders to drink a pint of Guinness in a pub? It immediately says drunken Irish to many of their home audiences.

Perhaps, it is a measure of the extent to which our problem with alcohol is unacknowledged that we do so.

But we have little enough control over how outsiders perceive Irishness without pandering to such images. Neither do we have total control over whom outsiders choose to select as our representatives.

In previous decades we had a somewhat ambivalent view of Irish writers whose fame abroad meant it was impossible to ignore them, many of whom portrayed a less than rosy picture of Irish realities.

For decades James Joyce was not one of our image-building blocks, a blasphemous pornographer who wouldn’t even accept an Irish passport: in return we wouldn’t accept his dead body. Seán O’Casey upset many of his fellow revolutionaries with his all-too-real Dubliners.

When he wasn’t away with the fairies, WB Yeats was a little too nuanced for many of the State’s founders and image-makers about the terrible beauty of 1916 and his clear-eyed view of the passionate intensity of the violent.

Traditional self-images

Our traditional critics would have been nodding their heads and murmuring about murderers, Tammany Hall and papists.

The Celtic Tiger also shocked our ingrained sense of moral superiority, of being above the material and the mundane, prompting the worry about our souls and boosting – at least verbally – our preferred and most enduring image of the uniqueness and exceptionalism of Irishness.

Thankfully, we’re back on message in relation to violence: the peace process allows us to offer the world a model for the resolution of other intractable conflicts. And we’re as proud of the marriage equality referendum as an earlier generation was of the Eucharistic Congress. Once again, we see ourselves as examples to the world.

We are now refashioning our traditional self-images. The 1916 centenary commemorations were notable for the way they refined, even redefined, the Easter Rising. Religion, which was a central aspect of every previous significant commemoration, as indeed of the event itself, was sidelined and barely mentioned this year.

Pride of place was given instead to those excised from the previous narrative, especially women, leading some people to claim the independence movement for feminism.

It is all part of our current project of refining our self-image as a more inclusive society, a modern country which is a sum of the more progressive parts of the European social contract allied to 21st century feminism. It doesn’t have the same mystical romance as the old image, but it might allow us to continue to assert our special status as an example to a (western) world on the edge of uncertainty.

Joe Joyce’s novel Echoland has been chosen as Dublin’s One City One Book for 2017