Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (IV)

I started writing about Irish cultural nationalism in my last instalment, and really it's such a big subject that it's hard to know how to get a handle around it. But one entry-point that suggests itself to me-- especially given how my own thoughts on both nationalism and other topics have been drifting in recent times-- is the matter of identity, the persistence of identity, and how anything can be said to remain itself over time.

We live in an era that is hostile to the notion of any fixed identity. 'Essentialism' is seen as naive, crude, simplistic. This especially comes out in the matter of gender. Ireland recently passed a law that makes it possible for someone to simply decide their sex, and have this reflected on their birth certificate. Even this is rather too essentialist for some; it is almost orthodox thinking amongst the progressive intelligentsia (who have their feet well under the table in academe and other power centres) that gender itself is infinitely fluid.

But gender is only one example. This solvent is applied to all things.

In this meditation on snowglobes I tackled this subject. I admitted that I don't really know how to decide the question between essentialism and nominalism, which is one of the oldest of philosophical debates. But essentialism seems far more rewarding, far more interesting, far more fruitful to me than nominalism. The easy, glib thing to say is that we are what we make ourselves and there is no fixed identity. Easy; but boring.

I'm sure my reader can see where I'm going with this. It's a standard argument against any sort of nationalism that national character, and indeed the very idea of the nation, is historically contingent anyway. For instance, it's commonly said that the ancient and medieval Irish who belonged to a profusion of petty kingdoms would not have seen themselves as belonging to an "Irish nation"; they belonged to their own tribe, their own petty kingdoms, and they were perfectly willing to ally with the Normans or Vikings or English against their fellow-Irish in order to pursue their own goals. The Battle of Clontarf in 1014 was traditionally seen as the battle where an Irish High King drove the Vikings out of Ireland; more recently, it is seen as a complex battle with Irish and Vikings on both sides. They also claim that Brian Boru (like his fine successor Maolsheachlann) was not the High King of Ireland, since Ireland never had a High King.

There is, inevitably, a great deal of truth to such claims. And it's a truth I not only acknowledge but whose force I feel myself. Irish nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth century tended to see a continuous identity from the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland all the way down to the Irish of the day. This idea was echoed in my own schooling-- more in its atmosphere than in anything anyone actually said. When we went to the National Museum of Ireland and looked at the reconstructed skeletons of the Great Elks, we were looking at something that belonged to us, that was a part of us.

But, in my most fervently nationalistic phases, I had to acknowledge the limitations of this idea. When I read about the medieval Irish, for instance, their culture seemed both exotic and alien. I will exemplify this in one example; the institution of the Irish bard, the file. The Irish bard was very different from an English poet. He was a person of considerable standing, one who had been given a rigorous (and very formalised) training, one who had a prestigious place in the court of the chieftain. He was more than a poet; he was a genealogist who was valued for preserving the records of the tribe in verse form. And his poetry tended to be written to a very precise and stylized format, and for very specific purposes. All this is described in Daniel Corkery's famous book The Hidden Ireland.

Daniel Corkery, a fervent nineteenth century cultural nationalist, was in no doubt that the Irish bard was a higher and more noble type than the English poet. But as for myself...try as I might, I was rather left cold by all of this. I loved English poetry more than anything in the world; I loved its lyricism, its personal nature, its amateurism (it might be written by a knight of the realm or an impoverished governess), its preference for creativity and originality over form and rigid tradition. (Obviously, I'm not talking about the sort of modern poetry that abandoned form and tradition completely, which I couldn't stand.) The Irish bards seemed to write mostly occasional verse (verse written to mark a particular occasion) and satire (usually when their patrons let them down). I had a marked dislike of both.

So, when I really looked at ancient and medieval Ireland, I might take pride in a highly civilized and advanced culture, and lament its disappearance, but I had to admit that it had disappeared. It was foreign to me.

But identity is a mysterious thing. After all, I can't remember being a baby, and I know for a fact that baby Maolsheachlann had a very different set of priorities and anxieties to 37-year-old Maolsheachlann. But that baby was still me. And I have no doubt that, under the surface, many of my deepest preoccupations and predilections must remain. For instance, I can never remember a time when I did not get excited at the sight of snow; I would not be surprised to hear that this was true even when I was a baby. Another instance; I am very drawn to the fashions (I mean the everyday fashions) and music and whole cultural atmosphere of the seventies. I was only three when they ended. I can't help thinking that my exposure to the seventies as a baby has something to do with that.

And when I look back into the depths of Irish use the cliché (because I like it) into the mists of Irish prehistory....I do feel a sense of affinity. For instance, the Irish have always had a fascination with the supernatural, with death, and with all things mystical. The Irish fascination with death runs from Newgrange (an elaborate underground tomb, which is older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids, and which I've visited twice) right to the modern-day Irish wake. The Irish invented Halloween. We have the story of the banshee, the otherworldly woman who wails when a member of a particular family dies (and I have heard this told as true story). I was told in my childhood not to pick up a comb that was lying around in the street because it was a banshee's comb. I was told this as a joke, but it shows how the legend still lived on in some form. Irish folklore is full of tales of journeys to fantastic places, like the Land of Youth. I know that all national folklores are full of supernatural elements, but Irish folklore seems to have a particularly otherworldly tendency. Given my lifelong interest in horror, and the supernatural, all of this obviously feels native to me. (But I want to emphasize that I don't know very much about all this folkore. It's an impression, a blurry horizon, more than anything else.)

Or take the famous frontispiece of the Book of Kells:

Now, maybe it's because I have seen this reproduced all my life, in so many contexts, and with the message that it was quintessentially Irish. But I really do look at this image and feel a tremendous sense of belonging. More than anything else, it is the earnestness of the image that appeals to me; the stiff, gaunt, dignified solemnity of it. But the colours, the knotwork, the unique dark-brightness, and the sense of timelessness and eternity also seduce me.

So this is the point I want to make; I think we see our national identity (and maybe our family identity and even our personal identity) through a series of removes, and this doesn't invalidate it in the least. I see ancient Ireland through the lens of nineteenth century romantic nationalism, and I see nineteenth century romantic nationalism through the lens of twentieth century romantic nationalism, and I see all of it through the lens of nineteen-eighties Ireland, the time when I grew conscious of my surroundings. It's like growing up with a mountain range on the horizon, a mountain range that was often seen through mist and that you rarely or never visited, but that was always there, in the background.

But ultimately, my nostalgia is for the Ireland of nineteen-eighties; which I fully realize was only yesterday. That sort of cultural nationalism is my ideal, if only because it's what I remember from my childhood.

Ireland in the nineteen-eighties was already very modernized and secularized. In fact, I think it was more modernized and secularized than I realized at the time, coming from an unusually traditionally-minded background. In some ways, the Catholic Church was in a worst state than it is now-- this was the high noon of the 'trendy priest'. (Today they have mostly died, converted to Buddhism, or become bitter writers of newspaper opinion pieces.)

But, essentially, this period is congenial to me because it's very recognisable while still being essentially Catholic and nationalist. I can't imagine living in ancient Ireland or medieval Ireland or even nineteen-fifties Ireland. It's just too different, too unknown. (And to be honest I think I would miss my modern conveniences.)

But there are significant differences. For instance, we are currently in a situation where tens of thousands of Irish people are emigrating every year. This was also the case in the nineteen-eighties. But it seems to me (and I think I'm not imagining this) that the attitude towards this emigration has changed. I remember, when I was a kid, emigration was treated as an unalloyed tragedy. People wrote ballads and songs and poems about it. It was presumed to be heart-breaking.

Today, there is much discussion of the emigrant experience, but the tone is much lighter. Emigration is seen by many as a lifestyle choice. Even those who regret is don't seem to treat it as any kind of tragedy.

Another difference is the visibility of nationalism. Back in the eighties, and even into the nineties, the Irish national broadcaster RTE played the national anthem at close of broadcasting, over a video of rather Arcadian imagery. Similarly, I think images of Irishness were evoked more often in television and magazine advertisements, and used in commercial trademarks and shop names and product names and so forth. (Using the bit of Gaelic for company names was more common, too. Recently, the Irish gas board has announced an imminent name change from Bord Gais to Gas Networks Ireland.)

More generally, I remember (and I do not think I am merely inventing this) a rather cosy feeling that Ireland was a little (but overachieving) country in a big, big world Out There. We were very conscious of the difference. When we looked out at the world, it was as if through a window, and we saw the frame of the window. And, as G.K. Chesterton said (it was actually the very first of his prose sentences that really struck me): "The largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

This sensation (which I think must be unique to small countries) hasn't gone away. One sad instance of it, recently, was the death of several Irish students in Berkeley University, when a balcony collapsed. The entire nation seemed to be in mourning; there was much talk of their bodies 'coming home'. Many people actually commented on the sense of the nation coming together.

It's this "family" feeling that, to me, is perhaps the most marked sign of cultural and social nationalism. Of course, the family isn't really a family writ large. (I sometimes think that the defining characteristic of the family is that, when a member of family comes to you for help, you can't say no-- and they can't say no to you.) Anyone sleeping on the street might laugh at the idea that the nation is a family writ large.

And a sense, it is. The people in a nation share a living space, common memories, common experiences, common reference points, common practical arrangements like trains and schools. To a greater or lesser extent, they may share common values and beliefs. I suppose I am nostalgic for my childhood because it seemed that a critical mass of the Irish people did share certain values and beliefs which made them distinctive-- Irish Catholicism (even if it was lapsed Catholicism) and Irish nationalism-- while today, if there is a shared belief system, it's in a progressive philosophy which has nothing distinctively Irish about it.

I said the subject of cultural nationalism would be daunting...I realize haven't really described the sort of cultural and social nationalism I would like to see in my ideal Ireland. Hopefully I will get to that in my next post.

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