Putting the Irish Nation Together Again

                                     Irish Political Review, January 2012

For those of  us for whom Ireland itself is a fundamental value, it is not sufficient to be sour about the anti-national  ideology that is now in the ascendant in Dublin or about the actions or inactions of the Irish State that are inspired by it;  or about  The Irish Times, historical revisionism  and so on. All of these trample on our disintegrated nation, true; but a more constructive approach to that disintegration is also needed. Mere direction of sourness at the agents of the Counter-revolution amounts to casting their victory in stone.

The Ireland that we value is the Ireland that the leaders of the Irish Revolution expressly aimed at. That was and remains an Irish nation that would be intellectually self-determining; sovereignly and democratically self-governing; economically self-sustaining; and culturally self-shaping.

It is what Daniel Corkery, in 1931, in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, called  ‘a normal nation’. I cite the entire passage:

It was... Lessing who did a man’s part in giving the German nation confidence in itself and in its star...Ireland’s present condition is incomparably worse than Germany’s ever was, and not one but a whole battalion of Lessings would be needed to establish a normal state of mind among us. One can but predicate not one Lessing nor a succession of  them, but rather a succession of nationalistic movements, rising and falling, each dissolving into a period of reaction, of provincialism, yet each for all that leaving the nation a little more sturdy, a little more normal, a little less provincial than before.

Obviously by a ‘normal nation’ Corkery meant ‘normal’ in the context of the Europe of that time; something like what, say, Norway or Denmark  were at that time.  He meant a realised nation. such as those nations were and such as the leaders of the Irish Revolution had aimed at. A realised nation is characterised by freedom, cultural integrity, dignity, creativity in all spheres, confidence in its dealings with the world, and the power to transmit those qualities to its citizens.

It is constructive to recognise that we, or more precisely, our parents or grandparents, did not bring that about enduringly for the Irish nation; in other words, that the Irish Revolution largely failed, as Corkery more or less predicted  it would. True, as he also predicted, it has left us some degree of national realisation: two nationally useful things that we did not have before it. We have a formally sovereign and democratic system of government, albeit with no due allocation of power to the nation’s communities. The fact that we have pooled most of the state’s sovereignty with that of other European states does not take essentially from this; we could also take it back.

But our nation is now neither intellectually self-determining nor economically self-sustaining  nor culturally self-shaping, and is therefore far from being the normal nation that the Irish Revolution aimed at.

Obviously, and Corkery assumed this, a nation can exist in a form far short of normality or realisation. It can exist as a mass of people who are vaguely aware that they are a social unit of mankind who have shared a common course through history. But to become a realised  nation, existing actively in the world, that mass needs to acquire, as a first step, what Corkery calls a nationally ‘normal state of  mind’.  I have spelt that out as ‘intellectual self-determination’.

The first act of that self-determination is to create a shared idea of the nation’s defining  and distinguishing characteristics and values. Only then, with that defined notion and consciousness of its distinct self, can the nation set about realising itself factually—acquiring the other attributess of normal nationhood.

During the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth the Irish nation performed this seminal intellectual act of defining its distinguishing characteristics and values. It came to see itself, and to present itself, as an ancient, essentially Gaelic, Catholic and rural nation, which had fought a long freedom struggle, was opposed to all imperialism, and adhered to liberal democracy as the method of acquiring and exercising political power.

Those were not only what the Irish nation perceived as its defining characteristics, they were at the same time what it regarded as its defining set of values which together made it a thing of great value. Moreover, four of those valued characteristics—ancient, Catholic, rural, and pursuing a long freedom struggle—were  the features which in the eyes of Europe and the wider world characterised the Irish nation.

In the decades preceding the Revolution some of those who would lead it identified another characteristic of the Irish nation which was not a value but the opposite. This was its ‘slave soul’ or, figuratively speaking, its bent back; in plain language, the self-doubting psychological condition inflicted on the nation, collectively and individually, by the centuries of alien mental colonisation. (Much later, academic study would give great importance to this national characteristic, as in Raymond Crotty’s  Ireland in Crisis: A Study in Capitalist Colonial Undevelopment, 1986,  and  RTĒ Radio’s Michael Littleton Lecture 2010  on ‘The Role of Malignant Shame in the Rise and Fall of the Celtic Tiger’, given  by Dr Garrett O’Connor of the Betty Ford Institute.) The revolutionary leaders saw the Revolution as directed as much against this ‘slave soul mentality’ as against British rule.

Equipped with that defining view of itself, the Irish nation fought its Revolution. After achieving a moderate independence, it activated its identity in some of the terms defined before the Revolution, and set about trying to add to those characteristics ‘fully sovereign, economically self-sustaining and culturally self-shaping’. Over a twenty-year period it made itself by degrees fully sovereign by taking a series of actions culminating in its declaration of neutrality in the Second World War.

Achieving economic self-maintenance meant, in effect, producing mainly through Irish enterprise sufficient saleable goods and services to pay for a standard of living sufficient to retain the existing population. This was made very difficult by the abnormally low level of economic enterprise in that same population. The State contributed electrification and in the 1930s established semi-state enterprises (Aer Lingus, Bord na Móna), encouraged tillage rather than pasture, and nurtured private industry by imposing tariffs on imports of the relevant goods. During the Second World War, the state, faced with the steep decline in Irish merchant shipping since Independence, established Irish Shipping to ensure the supply of basic necessities. (Norway, with a similar size of population, had already put together one of the largest fleets of merchant ships in the world.)

The effort to be culturally self-shaping  took place on two tracks. On the one hand, the reborn nation endorsed the existing cultural institutions—from the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Royal Dublin Society and the National University to the GAA, Abbey Theatre and Gaelic League—insofar as they enriched the life of the nation. Simultaneously, it set about activating the intellectual self-determination of the nation as ancient, Gaelic, Catholic, rural and anti-imperialist. 

While guaranteeing freedom of religious belief and practice, it endorsed the lived lives of Catholic Ireland with its rituals, moral rules, sacraments, devotions, beliefs and customs, and the lived lives of rural Ireland, especially in the west. Out of ‘Catholic’  sprang the largest  Christian missionary movement, clerical and lay, male and female, of the twentieth century—many of its personnel previously active participants in the War of  Independence and carrying its political message to colonised Africa and Asia. Out of ‘Gaelic’ sprang efforts to sustain the Gaeltacht materially, the decision that Irish must replace English as the vernacular, and measures aimed at effecting this. These consisted mainly of  making the teaching of Irish compulsory in the schools, and making knowledge of Irish necessary for entrance to the civil service.

In foreign affairs, within successively the British Commonwealth, the League of Nations and the United Nations, Ireland of the ‘20s and ‘30s played a confident and innovatory role. In the first two of those contexts, as on other occasions, Ireland enacted its opposition to imperialism.

Simultaneously, to protect the culturally self-shaping process, the State instituted systems of banning films and publications (including books) deemed injurious to Irish, more  specifically Catholic, morality. In Dublin the large brothel quarter was eliminated and, later, in Dublin and elsewhere new housing estates replaced slums.  Dublin’s lively theatrical life was enriched by the new Gate Theatre, specialising in Continental and American drama.  Galway acquired the Irish-language Taibhdhearc while Cork led in opera. A national radio service and the Irish Press newspapers were founded. AE’s  Irish Stateman, D.P. Moran’s The Leader and the Jesuit Studies were followed by a succession of  journals, notably The Bell, which carried on crtiical debate about the nature and course of the national revival.

The art of stained glass continued to flower; the new home-made coinage was beautiful.  The rise of modernist painting in the 1930s led, from the 40s onwards, to the annual Living Art exhibitions and the Independents group.  The 40s also saw the foundation of the National Symphony Orchestra and the emergence of the amateur dramatic movement which flourished in the 50s. Muintir na Tíre and Macra na Feirme joined the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in raising living standards, fostering new skills and enhancing social life in the countryside and small towns.

Poetry was strong and the Irish short story attained world status. In 1951 the Arts Council was established and the Fleadh Cheoil founded.  In 1955 Samuel Beckett was brought back  to Dublin with the second English-language performance (after London’s) of his Waiting for Godot.  The 60s were marked by the rise to world renown of Irish traditional music and the foundation of the first Irish television station. In 1966 RTẾ Television contributed a dramatic re-enactment of the Easter Rising to the fiftieth anniversary commemoration. 

However, in the four decades from the 40s onwards, the nation’s ability to realise itself  durably in the terms in which had defined itself crumbled piecemeal and ultimately dissolved. During the war years heavy migration from the countryside to the cities and abroad took place. As this increased dramatically during the 50s, Ireland ceased to be characteristically a ‘rural’ nation. As the Gaeltacht shrank, criticism grew of  the state’s reliance for language revival on the schools. The language movement, notably Gael Linn, produced new approaches. The Conamara Gaeltacht led a revolution of the Gaeltacht generally against Dublin’s hegemony, declaring that where Irish was the vernacular, rather than a place where it was not, was the logical base for the restoration of Irish generally; but its key demand for Gaeltacht self-government was refused by Dublin’ ingrained centralism.  Likewise from the 40s onwards public criticism of the crudely undiscerning book censorship had become persistent.  At the end of the 60s it was reformed and rendered minimal.

The heavy decline of population in the 50s provoked a decisive response in the Whitaker/Lemass economic policies. Faced with the apparent evidence that the Republic could not be economically self-sustaining, the Lemass government called foreign industrialists  to the rescue. In the 60s over 300 of them arrived. Henceforth the Republic was to be dependent, economically, on a combination of foreign investment and enterprise, and after 1972, when Ireland joined the European Economic Community, on subsidies from that quarter. For the first time since the Famine, the population began to rise.

Another result of the government’s new ‘realism’ was its replacement of the policy of making Ireland ‘Gaelic’ again by a vague policy of creating  a  bilingualism, with Irish  retaining an honoured public status.

Simultaneously, in the 60s, American left liberalism, calling itself  ‘liberalism’, was engaged in its ideological takeover of Western Europe. It was imperial America’s answer to Russia’s implantation of the Communist ideology in the countries of Eastern Europe and in East Germany. From London, its European centre of diffusion, the new American liberalism was introduced to Ireland by Irish sympathisers; first, tentatively, in The Irish Times, then through RTẾ.

By the early 80s the Irish ideological pluralism of the Dublin mass media was being replaced by a left-liberal orthodoxy. The Irish liberal Correctorate  (every West European country had one)  made clear its aversion to treating the historic freedom struggle as a national value. Accordingly, it was strongly hostile to the ongoing armed strugggle of the Northern nationalists. The Irish neo-liberals also preached that the nation’s  Catholicism (or indeed any religion) was not a national value and should therefore not influence the Republic’s affairs. On both these matters, they used the co-ordinated Dublin media daily to create a substantial public that was similarly minded.

The Correctorate was de facto displacing the Catholic Church as moral teacher of the nation. The   legislators were conforming to it as diligently as they had to its predecessor.

In 1985  a visiting Australian writer, William Buckley, noted the new public orthodoxy in his book Memory Ireland and sketched it as follows:

Ireland is not a nation, once again or ever, so the new story runs, but two nations; maybe several; it does not have its characteristic religion—or, if  it does, it ought not; it does not have its characteristic language, as anyone can see or hear; it has no particular race or ethnic integrity. Ireland is nothing—a  no-thing—an interesting nothing, to be sure, composed of colourful parts, a nothing mosaic. It is advertising prose and Muzak.

But it was not until 2003 that Ireland’s new condition was affirmed symbolically in the centre of its capital city. For years there had been public debate about what should replace Nelson’s Pillar at the centre of Dublin’s   O’Connell Street, opposite the GPO. The Pillar, honouring Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of Britain and the British Empire, had been blown up by republicans in 1966. Prominent among the suggestions for its replacement were a statue of Pearse or Connolly or statues of   both, to join the other statues lining the street; a monument honouring the Easter Rising; or a monument commemorating generally the ultimately victorious Irish freedom struggle.

In the late 1990s Dublin City Council decided to erect instead a spire of  stainless steel, 221 metres high, three metres wide at the base, 15 centimetres at the apex, manufactured in England. and signifying—literally, how right William Buckley was!—Nothing. Completed in 2003, it affirms the nation’s condition and identity then and today.

So while the ancient, rural, Gaelic, Catholic nation, heir of a long freedom struggle, recedes in memory, we live amid the furniture of national nothingness. Irishmen who died fighting Britain’s wars being commemorated  on a par with those who died for Irish freedom. The nation speaking,  never mind not Gaelic, a foreign English shaped largely by American films, tv series and pop songs, with some  input from  British television and newspapers. The Irish Catholic Church, discredited by its tolerance of paedophile priests, under verbal attack from anti-Catholic ex-Catholics echoing the Ian Paisley of old and the old Ascendancy. Those two cardinals of  the  Correctorate, O’Toole and Browne, in print and on the airwaves, habitually using the adjective  ‘Irish’ with the same negative connotation as did Englishmen for centuries, while exploding variously, like cartoon English Majors, into ‘appalling’, ‘outrageous’ ‘horrific’, ‘disgraceful’. Of our expòrts, the healthiest part of the Republic’s economy, 90 per cent coming from foreign-owned firms. Uniquely in Europe, and for the first time in a century, Irish magazine shops not offering a single home-produced magazine of ideas. A government passive in the face of the world, going now along with some action led by others, and, now again, following other leaders.          

It is easy to be sour and to snipe, but it is not sufficient, changes nothing, confirms national defeat. The needed response is to ponder and discuss what to do.  Is it to try again? Our first attempt to make Ireland a normal nation was not, its economics apart, a bad effort; might a second attempt, with some lessons learned, succeed?

First, let it be said that no normal European nation has gone through history with its initial act of intellectual self-determination fully intact. I mean with the valued distinguishing self-identity that was defined by that act maintained fully intact. As history progressed and circumstances changed, every normal European nation has adapted that valued and distinguishing self-identity while retaining its essential core. Think of such experts in this high political skill as England and France.

That is not to say that, given appropriately skilled leaders, Ireland might have done this at some point in the wake of the Revolution. On the one hand, we were beginners, mere amateurs, and acquiring and transmitting that adaptive skill takes several generations. On the other, we were subjected to a foreign ideological invasion that valued nothing of what Ireland stood for and that had the power of the post-war American empire behind it.

‘Trying again’, even with the acquired benefit of an existing Irish state and functioning democracy, does not seem practicable now. It would require us, as did the first attempt, to identify a set of valued distinctive characteristics of the existing and imagined Irish nation for which there is a general consensus.  And such a consensus is now simply not there; nor even the nucleus of it,  Indeed, there is no consensus that even in some undefined way Ireland is a value, except in international sports events because it is ‘our side’.

       I may be wrong, and would be glad to hear other views. For myself. I take solace from William Buckley’s modification of his ‘nothing’ judgment: ‘an interesting nothing, to be sure’, he said, ‘composed of colourful parts’.  I agree about the ‘colourful parts’. Ireland is full of them, many of them not only colourful but, because of their confidence and initiatives and the pleasure they take in being themselves, inspiring.

What we have been talking about, is the common roof, the gel, the collective pride and power of all the parts, that would give the Irish a proper shared home in the world and a confident voice in it. What to do in these disintegrated days?  While encouraging the most promising of the disintegrated parts, to keep in mind that ultimate objective and to ponder it.