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Romantic Ireland
is
Dead and Gone

The English-speaking Republic as the crucible of modernity

 
The author argues that Ireland has been consciously on the road to modernity ever since the Famine. First choosing to dump the gaelic language, the Irish went on, long before other countries followed suit, to confront the empire, declare a republic, create a national education system, and make the first radio broadcast in the world of a sporting event. Today, that modernisation process has taken a new turn with the rejection of the Catholic Church and the success of the economy.
By Decland Kiberd  

The truth is that the old Ireland always existed more in Hollywood than in Hackball's Cross.

On the immaculately painted wall of my local pub, in navy-blue ink written in a neat copperplate hand, appears a tiny graffito: "Ulster is British Let's keep it that way". Dubliners are born parodists, and northern Unionists are so easy to mimic. Right now, not even the house-proud publican would want to wipe the line away. Besides, he may privately agree with the sentiment. Not everybody in the Republic, which is currently enjoying unprecedented affluence, wants to assume full political and fiscal responsibility for the war-scarred battle-weary North. The 'unfinished business' of reunification may have to wait for a few more decades. These days, the business of the Republic is business.

Ten years ago, the novelist William Trevor was interviewed on BBC television. He was asked to contrast the Ireland in which he grew up with the England in which he very happily lived. He surprised his interviewer by remarking that whenever he returned to England, he was overwhelmed by the sense of its majestic past, "but when I get out at Dublin Airport I always think that this place isn't finished yet. It still has an open future and I would love to be around in a few years time to see how it all turns out."

Visitors are often surprised by Ireland's modernity. Irish-Americans, who come from St Patrick's Day parades where gay marchers are banned, are astounded to find a ready welcome for presentations by homosexuals in the Dublin celebrations. Some are even disturbed by the materialism of the new elite, who rise at ungodly hours and fling themselves into gridlocked traffic or skip lunch in familiar attempts to clinch an extra deal. (Irish per capita incomes now surpass those in Britain.) What, outsiders ask, ever happened to the ancient land of whitewashed cottages and rolling hills, the land that time forgot?

The truth is that the old Ireland always existed more in Hollywood than in Hackball's Cross. The current surge of modernity has been in the making for over 150 years; and recent scholarly studies emphasize this. They show that, far from being obsessed with the past, what the Irish really worship is their own power over it, including (if need be) their power to liquidate seemingly sacred traditions.

The speed with which a single generation in the mid-nineteenth century disposed of the Irish language is one illustration of that thesis. For centuries, the colonial authorities had devalued the native culture and sought (in theory, at least) to replace it with English, but to no significant effect. The great majority of people continued to speak their own language up to the 1840s. Suddenly, all that changed, and, unlike other emigrant groups bound for the New World, the Irish did not have to learn English on arrival in North America or Australia; uniquely, they chose to abandon their native tongue and to learn English in the homeland. Within a quarter of a century after the great Famine, most of the Irish changed languages, and, thereafter, came to approach their own cultural past uncertainly, apologetically .

Why did the Irish choose to learn English in Ireland? Many explanations have been given: to prepare their children for likely emigration; to master the language of modern commerce; to do well at school. One of the great paradoxes of nineteenth-century history is that English became the language of Irish separatism, the medium in which the nationalist case was put. If Benedict Anderson is right in saying that print-language creates a nationalism, then English was the ideal medium through which the bonding of a people into a unified movement could be achieved. Through newspapers, ballad-sheets, handbills and pamphlets, the technology which underpinned nationalism was available in the English rather than the Irish language. Even fluent Irish speakers such as Daniel O'Connell, when they addressed mainly Irish-speaking audiences, chose to speak in the language of London for similar reasons that protesters in Baghdad today hold up placards in English rather than Arabic. Colonialism has always emphasized a line of demarcation between colonizer and colonized; in Ireland, the natives looked like the settlers, so it may have secretly suited the English to have most of the natives Irish-speaking. In that context, the desire of many to learn English might be seen as an attempt to thwart the cultural version of the "colour bar", as an anti-colonial mechanism in itself (rather than the act of national apostasy it is seen as in some nationalist circles). The achievement of the people in mastering a new, difficult language with little institutional help has never been sufficiently recognized, even in a modern Ireland which has failed, with massive institutional support, to reverse that process.

Yet acceptance of English as the major medium of Irish nationalism seemed to undermine the very basis of the separatist claim, for if the distinctive Gaelic culture was rapidly evaporating, then the Irish Question could be treated as one that was more economic than political or cultural in nature.

It was easier in a Britbashing mythology to blame the old enemy for the near-erasure of the Irish language than to recognize that Irish people themselves had made the decision not to speak it.


It was as if the Irish had moved too far too fast in cultural terms. To give up one language and learn another would perforce become one of the defining experiences of modernity for many people in the twentieth century, but for hundreds of thousands of Irish, it happened a hundred years earlier. Far from being a backward looking people, the Irish have for the past century and a half been one of the more future orientated peoples of the world. To have begun your life in a windswept valley of West Mayo and to have ended it in Hammersmith or Hell's Kitchen was to experience the deracination and reorientation that would for so many millions constitute the central "progress" of the twentieth century. The Irish were among the first to be caught in a modernizing predicament. If at times they evinced a nostalgia for a lost Gaelic past, they did so as the natural human response to being hunted into the future at such speed.

For such a people, modernization has not been so much an option as a necessity. The sense of being denied a familiar context and of being asked to improvise a set of values in a terrifying open space recalls the world of Waiting for Godot. On the stage, Beckett's tramps are forced to invent a set of instant traditions. They must also imagine a detailed landscape, full of subtle hints as to how they might behave, when what confronts them is a blasted, near-empty setting.

The official textbooks of nationalist Ireland in the decades after independence tended not to admit much of this. It was easier in a Britbashing mythology to blame the old enemy for the near-erasure of the Irish language than to recognize that Irish people themselves had made the decision not to speak it. To admit that would, after all, throw a painfully sharp light on to the situation today, in which Irish people still have a choice: either to speak or not to speak their native language. For an analogy with the lack of sentiment with which a mid-nineteenth people "rejected" Irish, one has only to consider the recent collapse in the teaching authority of the Irish Catholic Church. Throughout the 1990s, the Church has reeled from one scandal to the other: the revelation that the Bishop of Galway had a grown-up son by an American woman; the exposure of sexual abuse of children by priests; the uncovering of cruelty in orphanages run by nuns, and so on. Not only has church attendance dipped badly (especially in the cities), but also the obedience of the remaining flock has wavered. At least one in five children is born out of wedlock (about 8,000 a year ) and the average family size has fallen from 4.0 in 1971 to 2.1. The late Father Peter Connolly, a gifted literary critic and a liberal, predicted these trends in 1980. "When Irish Catholicism goes, it will go so fast that noone will know what is happening", he said, adding that it would take sociologists years to register the effects. In saying that, he might have been describing the similar shock effect of the decline of Irish. But it can be argued that political nationalism in the later nineteenth century filled the cultural vacuum which the decline of Irish left in its wake. One of the many paradoxes of Irish nationalism is that it never made much headway in Irish-speaking areas but prospered in places that had been heavily anglicized.

The history of Ireland in the nineteenth century can be read as one long exercise in modernization. As leader of the movement for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s, Daniel O'Connell was and remains one the heroes of British liberalism; his portrait today holds pride of place in the hallway of the Reform Club in London. He was the first great mass-democratic politician of the modern age, attracting more than a million people to his "monster" meetings for the repeal of the Act of Union in the 1840s. It was partly through O'Connell's influence that Ireland enjoyed the introduction of a national education system in the 1830s, long before the benefits of such a system were spread across Britain. Ireland also enjoyed a national postal service some years before Britain. The reasons for such modernization are obvious enough: as a colony, the country was a laboratory in which innovations of social policy could be tested. Some of these were painful in the extreme, but others were positive and progressive. Ireland became the sounding-board for British social reform the zone in which the future might be tested. Some of the progressive reforms of the later nineteenth century such as the disestablishment of Church and State in 1869, and the dismantling of the landlord system in the 1880s, have yet, over a century later, to be fully completed in Britain.

Both Joyce and Pearse relished their capacity to make tha past answer present and future needs.


Recent commentators have claimed that Ireland was one of the first countries to embrace modernity. For instance, the Easter 1916 Rising has generally been depicted by revisionist historians as a nostalgic attempt by poets and playwrights to return to a Gaelic Ireland; but it was really part of a wider movement to seize control of the process of modernization. The rebels wanted the benefits of modernity and the liquidation of its costs; and so they presented themselves as both modern and counter-modern at the same time.

Nothing could have been more romantic than the symbolic choice of Easter and springtime for an attempt by poets and playwrights to bring back the Gaelic world; but the date also made practical sense, since it was a public holiday. The colonial administration were off-guard and vulnerable; the police and military spent the day at the races. A similar mixture of the poetic and practical, the past and the future, may be found in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It begins with the phrase "Irishmen and Irishwomen", thereby including women in the body politic at a time when British women still had no vote. Over forty women fought as soldiers in the Rising, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was designated as a minister in the inner cabinet in the event of the insurrectionary government taking power. She would have been the first female government minister in the world.

The rebel leader Patrick Pearse summoned the Celtic hero Cuchulain to his side, it is true, but he did so to justify his hopes of a welfare state, "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". This vision had as much in common with Rosa Luxemburg as with Cathleen ní Houlihan, and the Irish modernizers who shaped it knew how to have things both ways. After all Pearse had studied the educational methods of Maria Montessori in Belgium and imported them to Ireland with the soothing assurance that they amounted to no more than a return to the old fosterage systems of Gaelic Ireland. A man with something new to offer, he chose to present it as a reassuring restoration. At much the same time, James Joyce was learning how to gift-wrap Ulysses, the most subversive narrative of the age, in the structures of one of Europe's oldest stories, Homer's Odyssey. Both Joyce and Pearse relished their capacity to make the past answer present and future needs. This was one way of coping with the effects of modernity: the adoption of a philosophy which chose to see past and future as complementary rather than opposed categories.

The effect of British policy was to turn Ireland into a crucible of modernity. Friedrich Engels had predicted as much in a letter to Karl Marx, claiming that the British wanted "to make the Irish strangers in their own country". Radical thinkers in Britain as well as Continental Europe had always been responsive to the idea that the modernizing experiment in Ireland could be turned to the advantage of the colonized. Marx, for instance, had repeatedly spoken of Ireland as the key to revolution in Britain; only if colonial rule in Ireland were broken could socialists expect the wider collapse of imperialism and with it of chauvinist ideas in Britain itself. By seeking national rights, the Irish would be thoroughly international in effect. For a real revolution to occur, said Marx, the aristocracy had to be overthrown and that was more likely to be achieved in Ireland, "the Achilles heel of the empire". James Connolly, the socialist leader of the Citizen Army in the 1916 Rising, put the same idea more colourfully when he wrote that "a pin in the hand of a child can pierce the heart of a giant".

Ireland was the first English-speaking country in this century to decolonize, the first to walk in darkness down a now familiar, better-lit road.


The international Left had no doubts about the modernity of the 1916 Rising. "The misfortune of the Irish", lamented Lenin, "was that they rose too soon", but he added as an important qualifier: "before the revolt of the European proletariat had matured". Had they waited for another year or two, their revolt might have called forth repression at home, leading to mutinies by Irishmen in the British ranks and copycat reactions among other war-weary troops at the front. The rebels might have created a world-historical precedent. James Connolly was well aware of that potential when he threw in his lot with the Nationalist Pearse, but he was not a fetishist of history. Warning that worship of the past might serve only as a cover-up for the mediocrity of the present he said that a neglect of living issues might "only succeed in crystallising nationalism into a tradition, glorious and heroic indeed, but still only a tradition". He too was an Irish modernist, aware of the need to present his anarcho-syndicalism as a restoration. In "Labour in Irish History", he argued that socialism would be a return to the old Gaelic system of landholding, except that on this occasion it would be the State rather than the chieftain holding land in the name of an entire people. That representational tactic what Terry Eagleton has called "the archaic avant-garde" has been a feature of Irish modernizers ever since. In their attempt to renovate a national consciousness, the Irish have often found themselves embarked on a campaign to liberate others. It was those two jocular socialists, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, who decided that "saving Ireland" might necessarily involve saving England from deforming effects of British imperialism. Shaw argued that "Home Rule for England" was one of his core policies. The idea has been taken up in recent times by the radical MP Tony Benn, who has argued for an English Parliament in a new republic, while the Prime Minister Tony Blair has made a step or two in the "Home Rule" direction by sanctioning assemblies for Scotland, Wales and under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland.

Blair also appears to have borrowed elements from Irish political science. His emphasis on "community" values is a striking echo of Eamon de Valera's philosophy, not least in its attempt to transcend the Left-Right ideological oscillations which over the past three decades in Britain have seen each government party unpicking the work of its predecessor. The constitututional claim on the six counties of Northern Ireland which de Valera wrote into the 1937 document is now being dismantled as "irredentist", but Dev's concern for a healthy environment has found more than an approving echo in the manifestos of the Green Party. The current period of affluence has witnessed a wave of films, autobiographies and novels which are critical of the censoriousness of de Valera's Ireland; but when compared with the ideological fervour unleashed in other Catholic countries of Europe of the 1930s amd 40s, the Irish repression may seem rather mild. An economy retarded by the long concussion of colonialism and the struggle for freedom could not cherish all children equally in those years; but real advances were made. The semi-state industries provided a model of mixed state and private enterprise; and Irish radio made the first live broadcast of a sporting event in the world. The religious orders filled the gaps left by a less than adequate State in caring for the poor, and if some priests and nuns abused their trust, the great majority served society well.

Ireland was the first English-speaking country in this century to decolonize, the first to walk in darkness down a now-familiar, better-lit road. Compared with many other former colonies, it avoided some of the major pitfalls of independence; within a decade it had achieved the orderly democratic transfer of power between rival parties recently split by civil war; it assumed an authoritative voice at the League of Nations and, later, the UN; and Irish society was bound together by a high degree of social consensus. Unlike post-imperial Britain, it accepted a fully democratic form of the State with a written constitution which recognized modern ideas of citizenship and rights. The early years of the infant state were characterized by an obsession (honourable in itself) with public office; the holding of a state post became the goal of many lives, what the Irish now had in place of the old aristocracy of inherited wealth and land. This served to create a "state class", which lived only to hold office and which made a fatally absolute identification of the private and public interest. Like the old gentry, the new class often regarded merchants or business people as crass, even uncivil, and it favoured classical learning as an apprenticeship for public service rather than science or technical subjects. A job in the civil service was as prized in independent Ireland as it would later be in post-colonial India or Africa.

Clientelism of the kind that brought Charles Haughey to power in the 1970s and made him a "kept man" of a few business moguls is now dead, as people deal directly and confidently with agencies themselves.


Only in recent years have Irish intellectuals woken to the fact that the setting-up of businesses is hardly an immoral, anti-social activity, but, rather, the very essence of a republican democracy. This may be a consequence of the fact that among the Republicans who left Ireland in 1923, after the Civil War, were quite a number who made good in the United States. Their succesors now return to endow special chairs at Irish universities. In the early 1980s, for every 100 working, there were 220 dependent, a ratio of 2.2. Now that figure hovers at 1.6 and will drop further, perhaps to 1.3. With fewer dependents and greater liquidity, people believe that the present economic recovery may be of real depth and duration. It is as if the promise of the words Sinn Féin (the Irish for "ourselves", betokening self-reliance) is at last being acheived.

Why did it take so long? Wherever the emigrants of earlier days went, they won praise for their industry and application. Many made fortunes in consequence, and were left wondering why at least some of those at home could not seem to do the same. But the State which emerged in 1922 was a powerful apparatus for the discouragement of enterprise. Those who assumed control of it were exhausted after years of war and had little energy left with which to reimagine the national condition, to shape new administrative forms. Worse still, the Civil War of 1922-3 (fought with almost theological rigour, not over Northern Ireland so much as over an oath of allegiance to the Crown) had further depleted their energies, inducing in the new government an excessive caution. "We were the most conservative revolutionaries in history", said the young minister for justice, Kevin O'Higgins. The state apparatus remained unmodified since British days, and it condemned many citizens (as it was designed to do) to live like an underground movement in their own country. In the largely rural society which emerged, a political elite inserted its members as "fixers" between the poor and the forces of social authority. Since most of the poor had little reason to accept, much less love, the new State, convincing had to be done to win for it a certain assent and thus emerged de Valera's Fianna Fáil party out of the ashes of a lost Civil War. Founded in 1927, it soon enough recognized the State and was elected to single-party government in 1933, acting thereafter as a buffer between individual and State, rather in the manner of the Congress party of India. In doing this, Fianna Fáil won over to the State a whole range of people whose loyalty might otherwise have been withheld Irish speakers, landless labourers, Protestants, small farmers, women. As happened also in India, this middle group of fixers fed off various forms of insecurity the insecurity of a fragile new state about the loyalty of its people and the insecurity of many people about the viability of the state. The death-knell of the fixer was sounded in the recent Payments to Politicians Tribunal in Dublin; in today's Ireland, a self-confident people regard such with derision, an attitude signalled by the relatively low pay awarded to politicians. Clientelism of the kind that brought Charles Haughey to power in the 1970s and made him a "kept man" of a few business moguls is now dead, as people deal directly and confidently with agencies themselves. Fianna Fáil's current leader, Bertie Ahern, is at once a more pragmatic and effective leader than Haughey; the settlement deal which he signed with Tony Blair will allow the current Sinn Féin movement to enter constitutional politics just as Fianna Fáil did in 1927.

The new generation might be described as the first truly Republican generation in the nation's history: liberal on questions of personal freedom and morality, self-reliant but socially compassionate on economics, and perhaps a little traditionalist on questions of culture. Unlike the earlier generation of Republicans who faught the Civil War, it has no problems with the State as such, merely with its scale and with the distribution of its forces. Its assurance may, however, have roots older than it realizes, for it is in most ways the full flowering of the "Sinn Fein" ideal which animated the Irish renaissance. In cultural terms, the period from 1890 to 1922 was arguably the most vibrant in Irish history. Movements such as the Gaelic League, the Co-operative movement among farmers, the Abbey Theatre and Local Government Reform were all based on the notion of self-help, as a response to the failure of the Parliament at Westminster to deliver a promised Home Rule Bill in 1893. A people long frustrated simply took power unto themselves. Writers such as John Millington Synge or James Joyce thought nothing of writing about their country in foreign languages for French or Italian readers.

Joyce's generation had the cultural self belief to confront an empire. The current generation seems possessed of real economic acumen. If those two forces can be combined in the reinvention of Ireland, they may come together as a constellation releasing entirely new energies in culture but also in politics. Then the immense talent for formal experiment to be found in so much Irish literature may manifest itself also in shaping better, more appropriate, forms for society.

The Belfast Agreement offers a postcolonial version of overlapping identities of a kind for which no legal language yet exists. It sees identity as open rather than fixed, a process rather than a conclusion. It leaves behind concepts of sovereignty and nationhood, yet it will in effect be a working constitution for the next two decades. A common bond uniting all on the island who voted for it will be fidelity to the document, which will probably override their actual relation to their respeclive sovereign powers.

The scale of these changes is daunting, but it is matched by the way in which, over a century ago, the Irish stopped speaking their own Ianguage and, in the past decade, the way in which many among them have rejected the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. It is now becoming clear why James Connolly inserted the word "only" before the phrase "a tradition". Far from being nostalgists, the Irish may be the pragmatists of the postmodern, postcolonial world.
 
Declan Kiberd is Professor of Anglo-lrish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin.

This is an edited of version of a lecture given at the College des Irlandais, Paris, on April 29. 1998. The article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, on June 12,1998. Republished with permission.
 
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