Saturday, February 25, 2012

Should Catholics be Patriots?

Hawk-eyed readers will have noticed that this blog is called the Irish Papist, and that the photo shows a statuette of Our Blessed Lady against a background of the Irish tricolour. I am also aware that I have had many posts with a papist theme, but few with a specifically Irish theme.

Patriotism, it seems to me, is very unfashionable. It is out of favour with almost everybody. Liberals dislike it because, well, they are liberals, and they tend to frown on anything that might be considered tribalistic or exclusive. Socialists dislike it because it distracts from the economic conflict, which they consider the real axis of history.

Conservatives? They emphasise it much less than they used to, since the term "conservative" increasingly seems to mean "a champion of the free market". And what does the free market, with its multinational companies and its intercontinental trade flows, have to do with patriotism?

In America, patriotism still means a great deal, of course; but even there, it increasingly seems to signal support for "the American way"; which, on closer examination, turns out not to be the essentially American way at all, but an eminently exportable system of free markets, personal freedoms, democracy and so on.

Islam, resurgent across so much of the world, is said to lack the Christian distinction between God and Caesar, between the city of man and the city of God, and thus seems essentially internationalist. (I may be wrong, as my knowledge of Islam is limited.)

Even Irish republicans, now that they have accepted British rule in Northern Ireland is not going to be brought to an end by force, seem to have turned their attention to various other left-wing causes, while waiting for demographics to achieve what the men in the balaclavas never could. (Considering the hostility of ultra-liberal Sinn Féin and of so many Irish republicans to the Catholic Church, their former confidence that nationalists have procreation on their side might have been misplaced.)

In any case, patriotism-- and by patriotism I mean the romantic, sentimental, aesthetic love and celebration of your country, because it is your country, and the desire to preserve and strengthen its traditions and distinctive culture-- seems to be in abeyance today.

When I visited America, I was surprised and pleased at the amount of American flags I saw everywhere, principally flying from house porches and over the aisles of supermarkets. I understand that this was, to some extent, an expression of support for the troops abroad, but I think it also showed a casual, everyday, unembarrassed love of country that Europeans would do well to emulate.

So, when I got home, I bought two little Irish tricolours in a Carroll's tourist shop. I hung one in my bedroom and I stood one at my desk in work. After it had been there some time, one of my colleagues said, "I keep meaning to ask you. What is the flag for? The rugby, is it?"

This, to me, is the whole problem; the idea that patriotism has to be for something; that the flag should only be flown in times of war, or at times of high political drama at home, or to support the national team at some sporting event-- or perhaps when Ireland win something like the Eurovision Song Contest.

The flag is for life, not just for Euro 2012.

I do think this whole mentality-- that patriotism only applies at times of crisis or challenge-- is symptomatic of a deeper human fault. It is the malady that Chesterton never tired of addressing; I think he described it somewhere as "losing every good as soon as it is gained".

Why do we only love what is new, or what someone is trying to take from us, or what is in danger? Why do we only pine for what we don't have? Why are we so blasé about the nation and traditions that so many Irish people worked, fought and died to preserve? Why did Adam and Eve lose Eden for the sake of the one fruit they were forbidden to taste?

Irish Catholics often seem as uninterested in patriotism as everybody else. This is understandable, to some extent. In the decades following Irish independence, there was something of a holy (or perhaps unholy) alliance between Church and State, Irish patriotism and Roman Catholicism. The motto of the Irish Christian brothers was Do chum glóire Dé agus onóir na hÉireann, "For the glory of God and the honour of Ireland". A fine motto in itself, but one that has suffered from its association with the Christian Brothers, who are now identified in the fickle public mind with sexual and physical abuse.

Yeats depicted, in The Municipal gallery Revisited:

An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. "This is not,’ I say,
"The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’

De Valera, in his (unfairly) infamous "comely maidens" radio speech of St. Patrick's Day 1943-- the speech that never used the phrase "comely maidens", but has become the expression of everything modern Ireland rejects about its recent past-- left no doubt that the Ireland of his dreams was a Christian Ireland. ("The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.")

So the marriage of the Church and the flag seems, in retrospect, unfortunate. The Church was blamed for all the faults, real and imagined, of twentieth century Ireland. Irish Catholics, for their part, might well feel that the Church was used as a kind of focus for national sentiment, a stick with which to meet the Protestant or Godless English, and then discarded when independence was safely attained.

But, as mainstream Ireland drifts further and further away from Christianity-- or even comes to ardently reject it-- I think it would be a shame for Irish Catholics to react by losing their patriotism.

For one thing, the Church enjoins us to be patriots, as we can see from the Catechism (where it is brought under the heading of the Fourth Commandment):

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.
(CCC 2239)

It often seems to me, too, that Christ's fullness of human nature included, not just friendship and filial emotion, but patriotism. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?"

Be that as it may be, it seems to me that patriotism is something that humans are always getting wrong-- in times of war and occupation, we elevate it to an idol, a substitute God. In times of peace, we seem to all but forget about it.

How, then, would I have us remember patriotism?

By giving our children Irish names. By giving our houses and boats and pets and private companies names that celebrate Irish history, mythology and culture. By preserving Irish traditions such as Wren's Day and the Irish aspects of Halloween ("Help the Halloween party!", not "trick or treat!"). By choosing uncial script when we have occasion to use fancy lettering-- for instance, in a shop sign. By choosing, at least sometimes, to holiday at home rather than abroad. By reading about Irish history and traditions and culture. By memorizing Irish ballads. By flying the tricolour for no reason.

I'm not much interested in debates over what constitutes "genuine" or "authentic" Irish culture, and what is merely Celtic Twilight fakery manufactured in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Personally, I am for anything that emphasises and strengthens our distinctiveness- or any other country's distinctiveness. I believe that thinking, talking and writing about Irishness, in itself, makes us more Irish. The very reaching out to our national past, no matter how clumsily or unlearnedly, enriches our nation. To seek to be a patriot is itself patriotism.


  1. A very interesting post. I agree that the Americans are exceptionally proud of their country. When I was there, I also seen flags everywhere. (I assume most are made in China!)

    I myself don't think the relationship between Church and State in 1950s Ireland was overly intimate. Though I realise that puts me in a very small minority. For me, it largely just reflected what people wanted at the time.

    Basically I like the Ireland of the 1930s-1950s. For me the values of society at the time are pretty much ideal, though with a good bit of tinkering.


  2. Well, I suppose the only thing I don't like about that time is that (maybe) a lot of Irish people seem to have been Catholic because they were Irish, because they saw it as an expression of Irish nationality. I can't really prove that but it's an impression I get.

    Apart from that, I agree with you. It seems a more civilized, cultured time though doubtless life was harsher in some ways-- memoirs of childhood I read from that era seem to suggest that the playground could be a cruel place, even more so than now. Also, there seems to have been a certain scatalogical turn in colloquial speech that makes me gag a little, and American cowboy films were rather inexplicably popular. Other than that, I would choose then over now all the way.

  3. I seem to remember John Lukacs defining a patriot as someone who loves his country's character, culture and traditions and a nationalist as someone who loves his country to the extent that his country is strong, successful, etc. To put it another way, a patriot would be someone who would see no contradiction between laughing at his country and thinking it hilarious and still loving it, while a nationalist finds his country to be a very serious thing. It's a distinction that makes a lot of sense to me.

    And I go back and forth as to what extent American patriotism actually exists under such a definition. Sure, you have regional subcultures that fit those terms such as the cajuns and southerners. On the national level all that you seem to have is a lot of talk about ideals and abstractions (freedom, equality, justice) along with a truly great flag. I suppose that it's what you would call the "proposition nation" thing. And while these ideals sound great in theory, in practice they simply mean whatever our elites want them to mean when they invoke them. To put it bluntly, I worry that they may be a poor substitute for shared culture, blood, religion, language or any other sort of tangible, binding ties. I'm not sure to what extent those things exist in America on a national level and whether real patriotism can exist in their absence. We do have lots of nationalistic pride in the wars and the olympic medals that we have won, but how much longer will that last?

    I myself live in what is perennially the most violent city in the US (it's usually either us or Detroit). It was devastated by white flight in the 60s and successive generations of bad policy and mismanagement in the time since then such that large swathes of the city now resemble war zones or have just reverted back to nature. Two of the bright spots that still look largely the same as they probably did in 1957 are the Italian and Irish neighbourhoods, whose response to the turmoil around them seems to involve being super Italian and super Irish to the greatest extent possible. If you drive through these neighbourhoods you see as many tricolours as you see American flags. They voraciously celebrate feast days and ethnic pride events, have their own neighbourhood schools, businesses, churches and so on. (Irish people would probably call plastic paddy on a lot of this, but these people have appropriated their heritage to suit them. And they've made it work, up to this point. ) I think that it's when I first started driving around in the city and noticing these phenomena that I began to have doubts about the fundamental sturdiness of a synthetic culture like America in comparison to what was going on at a lower, deeper level with the culture in these neighbourhoods.

  4. I personally don't go in for the "plastic Paddy" label. If somebody cares enough about my country to identify with it, or even celebrate it, then I think that is all to the good and I am not going to critique their view of it. And to be honest I think the plastic Paddy label is used by modernizers here who hate anything traditional and-- as far as I can see-- want every country to be exactly like every other country, apart from a few historical legacies which become more and more faint all the time. I wish Irish people who live here were half as proud of their heritage as Irish-Americans.

  5. "To put it bluntly, I worry that they may be a poor substitute for shared culture, blood, religion, language or any other sort of tangible, binding ties. I'm not sure to what extent those things exist in America on a national level and whether real patriotism can exist in their absence."

    It's funny you should write that, because just this weekend I was reading an article by Chesterton (written in 1912) that was defending the reality of Ireland's nationhood from English opponents of Irish Home Rule:

    "If Ireland is not a nation it can only mean there is no such thing as a nation...We all know a nation exists as we konw a firm or a club exists; because we correspond with it, kick at it, hate it, owe money to it, or otherwise behave as if we were in communication with an agent and a personality. And the essence and necessity of a nation is nothing connected with its remote historical evolution; it is nothing even connected with its existing official scheme. A nation is a thing which recognises a certain moral principle caled patriotism, of which the opposite is treason."

    I don't know if I entirely agree with that, especially the last line, but I do think there is something irreducible and all but impervious to analysis about nationhood, something that can exist in the absence of shared ethnicity, language, etc. I guess the only way I can put it is that, when someone says "America", I am aware of something as simple and immediate and unified as a flavour, a sound or a scent-- not something composite or purely abstract.