(Published in Village Magazine, February, 2016)
In the 2012 documentary Dreamtime Revisited poet-philosopher John Moriarity climbs Derada Hill in his adopted home of Connemara. Observing its hinterland he remarks that all about him is crooked from the contours of the Oranmore River to the crooked coast towards the Aran Islands and the crooked horizon of the Twelve Bens. He calls this his ‘wonderful crooked world’.
Throughout much of the country a rugged, undulating landscape is familiar. And it seems to have found a reflection in a human character where straight lines are avoided: in our literature language has been distorted and remade; traditional Irish music allies bewitching interchange between minor and major keys with polyrhythmic time; in day to day exchanges a sense of humour is often prized above other qualities, including honesty. Travelling west from the Pale into wilder terrain these qualities grow more pronounced: mythos overwhelms logos in the sodden bog of collective memory.
In France terroir connotes the long-standing relationship between a people and their landscape that is said to impart distinctive flavours to the food and wine produced there. In Ireland, where gastronomy has traditionally been awarded a low priority, terrior might be observed in linguistic and musical dissonances that spring from the undulating, even chaotic, landscape. We talk about what the Dutch would do if they lived in Ireland, but perhaps they are a product of the straight lines on their sunken horizon, and the practical concern of keeping the ocean at bay.
Even the Irish weather, grudgingly benign at least until recent time, finds a reflection in the periodically sullen and infuriatingly inconsistent Irish temperament. We might all recognise its description by Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy: ‘I know it was warm again the day I left but that meant nothing in my part of the world where it seemed to be warm or cold or mild at any time of the year’. The poor quality of the built infrastructure here would be insufferable in other parts of Europe at a similar latitude that endure harsher winters.
Observed empirically, to some extent Ireland retains the political economy of a post-colonial outpost, now a tax haven. Une isle derriere une isle according to one French geographer – spared both Roman conquest and barbarian hordes – the country did not join the European mainstream. Ireland was a repository of learning and mysticism during a brief golden age, then passed into a millennium of obscurity before a shuddering encounter with an advanced civilisation of the neighbouring island.
The ensuing appropriation imposed a system of individual private property ‘from Heaven to Hell’ distinct from what had been communal arrangements under native Brehon Law. The arrival of the potato in the seventeenth century saved many from starvation during a calamitous seventeenth century and allowed exponential population growth despite severely restricted access to land. But, sui generis, Ireland is the only country in Europe, and perhaps the world, whose population was greater in the 1840s than today due to the Great Famine and its legacy.
The Irish nation is a product of the late eighteenth century when the movement of the United Irishmen failed to unite all creeds: simultaneously in 1795 the orchestrated emergence of the Orange Order and of Maynooth University that created a quasi-established Catholic Church put paid to the aspirations of Wolf Tone and his colleagues. The Old English descendants of the Normans and the native Gael coalesced inviolably to form an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
The Normans might have tempered a native tendency towards the fast and loose, but contemporary English observers bemoaned the cultural slippage that attended the medieval wave of colonisation: as if the rivers flowing from the hilly regions inhabited by the Gael imbued the plain-dwelling Normans with their characteristics. Or perhaps it was just the unrelenting drizzle. The Protestant New English that arrived primarily in the seventeenth century descended into a familiar decadence albeit preserving a singular sectarian identity by avoiding miscegenation. Only in the north east corner, within the cultural orbit of lowland Scotland, did a distinct culture emerge.
Ireland’s dramatic landscape is not unique, but what is unique is first an isolation from and then quite sudden absorption of its substantial population (by comparison with the equally untamed Scottish Highlands for instance) into as advanced a polity as early modern England’s. John Locke encountered the banshee with predictable results. An Irishman Other has long acted as a foil to the sober, judicious Englishman and often revels in his allotted role as revolutionary misfit, bard and poet. From this we might trace a cultural tolerance of drunkenness.
The contradictions between the two cultures engendered a great cultural ferment that animated an Irish literary Renaissance that began at the end of the nineteenth century. In its wake Irishmen were awarded a remarkable four Nobel Prizes for literature, and this with James Joyce, widely regarded as the preeminent novelist of the twentieth century, missing out. Even a century later what seem parochial themes resonate beyond our shores such that an unremarkable rock band like U2 compose songs that connect with a global audience.
But translate the crookedness of the Irish character into Irish politics and what do we find? If in literature the distortion of language can be art, in politics it is artifice. Endemic corruption is one aspect, but it runs deeper. It creates a laxity whereby a politician can say one thing to one crowd and another to the next. Enda Kenny can assert Ireland’s commitment to Climate Change while almost in the same breath whisper his continued support for Irish agriculture’s expansionary and carbon-intensive ambitions.
The media hardly demur as they often engage in the same double speak. An Irish Times editorial on December 5th came with the title: ‘Rhetoric must give way to action in push for COP21 deal on climate change’. They criticise Enda Kenny’s hypocrisy but follow his example saying: ‘If that is the case we must make meaningful commitments on other fronts’.
Accounting for the absence of clear ideological demarcation between Irish political parties requires further exploration of Irish history. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom could resume trade with the Continent making Irish grain relatively expensive and gave a comparative advantage to cattle farming. The Famine accelerated the transformation of the rural economy from labour-intensive tillage to extensive pasture where profitability required a low labour input. Population continued to decline from the 1850s through to the 1950s as emigration denuded rural Ireland especially of its youth who might have brought entrepreneurial creativity or failing that revolted.
The Land War of the 1880s, while destructive to the Protestant Ascendancy that had been at the apex of an almost feudal society since the seventeenth century, did not alter the fundamental economic structures as pastoral agriculture remained dominant. An increasingly petit-bourgeois Irish peasantry sold beef and butter and purchased, mainly imported foods and other goods, on the British imperial market. A declining population, absentee landlords, a lack of state intervention, and distance from markets explain why the Industrial Revolution only arrived in the North East. The large surplus of Irish labour migrated to Lancashire, Glasgow, New York and beyond. Without a substantial urban proletariat socialist movements had little support base.
The arrival of Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) in 1905 presented the possibility of a new kind of politics of self-reliance and re-distribution, but throughout its history and that of its progenies the national card has trumped the egalitarian. An historic opportunity presented itself at the end of World War I when Ireland became independent and a generation mainly in their thirties came to power.
But this unprecedented generational shift descended into a murderous Civil War whose source of contention was a point of doctrine, in what seems a throwback to the arcane disputations of a medieval church council: the Oath of Allegiance to the King. That ‘empty formula of words’, as it was later conceded by Eamon de Valera in another example of linguistic contortion, was the main point of contention in the Treaty debates.
Thus the political lines were drawn between, essentially, two parties that have been the dominant partner in every government since independence. Any individual ambitious to attain high political office has, except in rare, tidal, circumstances, had to work within the confines of these parties. It is not unusual that two parties should dominate the history of a state but ideological incoherence in Ireland creates a gravitational pull towards the centre ground.
Contrast this with the UK where a radical politician such as Jeremy Corbyn can survive in the broad left-wing church of a party of government such as the Labour Party. It has been argued that this political climate favours foreign investment but the absence of genuinely left-wing administrations has delayed the arrival of socialist measures found elsewhere in Europe that could have alleviated the poverty that has haunted the history of the Free State. We have not seen a government like that of the post-War Labour administration in the UK which introduced the Welfare State and the NHS.
An ideology of individual self-reliance has tended to be in the ascendant especially as Sean Lemass’s influence superseded de Valera’s peculiar brand of peasant nationalism. The triumph of individualism was epitomised by the ripping out of Dublin’s tram tracks in the 1960s to make way for the motor car. The economic planning of the 1960s under the guidance of the almost-universally lauded T.K. Whitaker amounted to a liberal rationalisation of the economy. It has reached a point where maintaining the rate of corporation tax at 12.5% in the face of criticism from European partners seems to be the most fiercely guarded part of our sovereignty, and has been agreed to by all the main parties.
The crucible of the Civil War forged political allegiances often owing more to personal loyalty than ideology. We see these tribal loyalties passed down to descendants a century later. Pádraic Pearse, the poet leader of the 1916 Rising whose rhetoric of blood sacrifice invites comparison with fascism, implanted in the body politic enduring notions of nationalist heroism. From the outset, insufficient attention was paid to dreary notions such as building infrastructure or regional development. The Sinn Fein gene pool has generated Cumann na nGaedhal (1922-35), Fianna Fail (1927-), Fine Gael (1935-), arguably Clann na Poblachta (1946-65) and the latest manifestation of Sinn Fein (1969-). Each has played musical chairs with their ideological stances: Fianna Fail swinging between protectionism and open markets; in Fine Gael a tension between the idea of a Just Society and the economic conservatism of Christian democracy. What really distinguishes one from the other is their degree of commitment to the nationalist cause. Even Fine Gael became the party of conciliatory nationalism that captured the former Unionist constituency in the South.
There is little hope that the current incarnation of Sinn Fein won’t bend their current socialist leanings to political expediency. It should be recalled that in 1969 the Provisionals split with the Officials over the former’s commitment to the nationalist cause and the latter’s attention to the workers’ struggle. The Officials became the Workers Party and then Democratic Left. Sinn Fein became the political wing of the nationalist Provisionals.
As a fundamentally nationalist party it is unsurprising that Sinn Fein should in opposition seek radical economic redistribution before being wedded to ‘economic realities’ on entering government. Certainly their record in the Northern Executive and opposition to a Property Tax in the South reveals pragmatic tendencies. That is not to say that parties in coalition should never make concessions to coalition partners, but when a movement’s core value is nationalism genuine commitment to social and economic objectives recedes.
What of the Labour Party, the only mainstream party of the Left throughout the history of the state? Before independence leaders such as James Connolly and James Larkin argued in favour of radical re-distribution in Irish society, but without a significant urban proletariat they could not muster a substantial opposition to the different hues of green. As the state has developed the party has grown unhealthily close to a ‘permanent and pensionable’ civil service and other privileged groups. Instructively, their core support is among the wealthy denizens of South Dublin.
Another problem in Irish politics is that the abstraction of the wider culture permeates the electoral system laid out under the Irish Constitution. Our PR-STV electoral system where 40 constituencies elect 158 TDs gives an opportunity to independent chieftains who jealously guard their generally rural redoubts and show scant regard for the country as a whole, let alone the wider world. Moreover, in order to compete with independents, politicians from the established parties must also seek spoils for their constituencies: again national issues fade in importance, and we muddle on.
The election of 2011 was supposed to be a watershed, but the parties originating in the Sinn Fein movement of the early twentieth century remain ascendant, and this might be even more pronounced after the next election if Labour suffers its predicted bashing.
Many countries have experienced far more brutal recent political histories: a basic decency flows from Irish people that makes living in the country tolerable, and even pleasurable, despite exasperating inefficiencies and sad inequalities. But the want of direct talking, as you usually find in conversation with a Dutch person, results in stasis and ill-equips us for long-term planning. Writing in the Irish Times (31/12/15) planning consultant Diarmuid O’Grada bemoans how the Department of Environment has been incapable of strategic planning: ‘it must be regretted that the Custom House has not been associated with evidence-based innovation since the 1980s when the minister closed down its research wing.’
Ireland confronts Climate Change with a Green Party that is on the brink of extinction. This is not entirely the fault of its well-intentioned, if conservative, leadership. Most of the population displays little support for environmental regulation. We insist on one off housing, private motor cars and pastoral agriculture, a Tragedy of the Commons that generates high energy costs and emissions. Unlike John Moriarty most of us fail to climb the mountain and see the whole picture.
Before the 2007 General Election Enda Kenny offered a form of contract to voters assuring them that if elected Fine Gael would respect undertakings he had given as a business would an agreement with another party. That this was little more than a gimmick imported from the United States was recognised as such by the electorate. But Kenny’s gambit suggested a realisation that people would welcome cast iron guarantees from a party of the original Sinn Fein gene pool with no fixed ideological position. Revealingly his centre-right party was offering measures including free health insurance for all under 16s that one would associate with a left-wing party. In the event the electorate returned Bertie Aherne as the boom grew boomier and despite a gathering storm of revelations about corrupt private dealings and multiple warnings that the economy was over-heating.
It would be a sign of Ireland’s political maturity if we elected parties with clearly delineated ideologies. It is difficult to predict what way Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will swing if elected. At least the Progressive Democrats unashamedly spelt out their liberal convictions, but that appears to have been too transparent for the Irish population. Lucinda Creighton’s Renua are seeking to inherit their mantle but lack the authority and depth of a figure like Eddie O’Malley. The newly-formed Social Democrats offer an interesting new dimension on the left as Labour flounder, but they are unlikely to be sufficiently organised before the next election to win a substantial number of seats. A personal preference, however unrealistic, would be for the next government to be a broad alliance of the left excluding Sinn Fein but including the Greens.
A simple electoral reform that could curb aspects of the Tammany Hall excesses in Irish politics would make it necessary for political parties to achieve a minimum threshold of five percent as is the case in many European countries. The likes of Lowry and Healy-Rae would hopefully disappear from the political constellation, and national politicians could start to focus more on issues affecting the whole country rather than seeking to beat the offers of local chieftains.
Any culture is in a constantly dialectical relationship with its social and physical environment. In Joyce’s Ulysses the character of Stephen Daedalus muses that: ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, and often it seems this country is still in a form of dreamtime where actions are taken haphazardly and reactively. Thus even after the experience of the Celtic Tiger nothing meaningful has been done to curb the onset of another property bubble concentrated in Dublin.
But Irish culture has the capacity to change. Post-colonial legacies fade in time and the originality of the Irish Mind can be deployed constructively. A native crookedness can help us think laterally. Moreover, over ten percent of the population living in the state were born elsewhere, and in time they will exert more of an influence even if our archaic laws excludes non-citizens from voting in General Elections. Most of the population have also travelled widely and recognise better practice in other countries. The bursting of the Tiger Bubble did make many people re-appraise their priorities and the generation coming up are animated by global issues such as Climate Change.
1916 could be a year of renewal in Ireland when we start to think collectively and with a view to the future. Ideally an older generation of tired politicians will exit stage left, with younger and an increasing proportion of female candidates elected. Sadly it seems more likely that we will continue to react rather than plan.