Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (III)

I am very pleased and gratified at the reaction so far to my "Ireland I Had Dreamed Of" series of posts. A comment from Roger Buck (who blogs at Cor Jesu Sacratissimum) looked forward to my treatment of cultural nationalism. Of course, along with Catholicism, that is at the core of my vision of an ideal (not perfect) Ireland. However, it is also the most daunting part of such an outline, which is why I rather delayed coming to it.

National identity is a subject I have dealt with again and again in the four years I have been writing this blog; I'm a little bit scared of boring my readers about it. It's a subject I have been thinking about my entire life, and my attitude towards it has shifted radically, not only once but again and again. In truth, questions of national identity have preocuppied me for much more of my life than have matters of religion.

As a phenomenon, national identity-- and patriotism, and nationalism, and everything else connected with national identity-- is the most maddening of subjects. Sometimes, nothing seems more nebulous; at other times, nothing seems more solid and real. It's always there, but it's rarely in the foreground-- only at times of national crisis (and more fleetingly, when there are major international sporting triumphs, or defeats).

Despite having reacted strongly against my Irish nationalist background in the past (and that background was far more than just a family background; it was extended family, community, school, and more), I have very much become a believer in nationalism. I like to specify that it's cultural and social nationalism I believe in, to distance myself as much as possible from the terrorism of the IRA during the the last forty years or so. (I have nothing but contempt for the murderers of the IRA; incidentally, their political wing, Sinn Féin, are the most secular and anti-Catholic party in Ireland).

Why am I a believer in nationalism? For many reasons; but I think it boils down, like many other of my social and cultural beliefs, to my fundamental anti-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, as you know, is the belief in "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"; its most famous proponent, Jeremy Bentham, insisted that the pleasures of pushpenny (a kind of game) and the pleasures of poetry were, effectively, the same. You can't weigh one sort of happiness over another, in other words; if round-the-clock reality TV brings more happiness to society than art galleries, than round-the-clock reality TV should be chosen over art galleries.

Now, that is the most bullish variety of utilitarianism, and other utilitarians (John Stuart Mill, notably) have tried to soften it and to take higher and lower pleasures into account. In any case, the utilitarianism that I am 'anti' is not so much the philosophy (though I am anti-that, too), but utilitarianism understood in the simple sense of putting the most value on what is useful rather than on what has no obvious use.

Everything I'm passionate about, in terms of what I value, is anti-utlitarian; it has no obvious usefulness. Nationalism is useless. Tradition is useless. Community is useless. Poetry is useless. Ritual is useless. Ceremony is useless. Masculinity and feminity are useless. Public monuments are useless. Of course, an argument can be made for the usefuless of all these things; but it would have to be a roundabout argument. Their utility is not obvious.

Christianity is a profoundly anti-utilitarian religion. It insists that God created everything from pure love; He didn't have to create anything. Furthermore, Christ redeemed us even though we didn't deserve it.

Undoubtedly (to my mind) the greatest anti-utilitarian text of all time is the story of the woman pouring the jar of perfume over Jesus, in the house of Simon the leper. The disciples (or just Judas, in John's gospel) complain that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. We all know Jesus's response: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me with you."

More concisely, during his temptation in the wilderness, he tells Satan that "man does not live by bread alone", which phrase is often used to express this idea of anti-utilitarianism.

In our own time, the Catholic Church is constantly attacked for its "pomp and ceremony"; which is really just the voice of Judas in the house of Simon echoing down the centuries. It's always a good sign when the Church is attacked for its "pomp and ceremony".

Of course, that does not bear directly on the question of nationalism. In fact, it seems to me that the Catholic Church has said very little authoritative on the subject of nationalism and patriotism; and what it has said is open to considerable interpretation. So I will not dwell on it.

There is an obvious danger of the nation becoming an idol, of nation-worship. This is such an obvious danger that I almost resent having to mention it, but I suppose I should. I think it was best expressed by C.S. Lewis, who said: "A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs to God: himself."

Who is really in danger of this, though, in our modern Western society? Patriotism is at such a low ebb that it's hard to think of anybody who is tempted to idolise the nation. A kind of over-reaction to the Nazis, Italian fascism and imperialism is partly responsible for this, I think.

How important do I think patriotism should be, and what role would it play in my ideal Ireland?

The best way I can put it is this: in my ideal Ireland, the soul of Ireland is a subject for regular public debate; a subject that people take very seriously, in the way they take water charges and hospital waiting lists seriously. It should be, perhaps not a burning issue, but a live issue. The maintenance of Ireland's distinctiveness, the preservation of its traditions, should be something that ordinary people worry about-- not all the time, but a good deal of the time.

This raises the problem of cheesiness-- at least, to other people it raises the problem of cheesiness. My international readers may have heard terms such as "plastic Paddy", "stage Irishness" and "Paddywhackery". These are pejorative terms for an ideal of Irishness, which is (supposedly) often harboured by those of Irish extraction, amongst others. This ideal, we are told, is overly romantic, sentimentalised, and reliant on stereotypes. Stage Irishness bothered W.B. Yeats to the extent that he insisted none of his books should be bound in green cloth, and he used the word 'trefoil' in preference to 'shamrock'.

In deference to Yeats as the greatest poet of all time, and the greatest secular Irishman of all time, I find this sort of thing more than a little tiresome. Everyone frets about 'authenticity' when they are in their teens. When they grow up, they stop worrying about it so much; not because they become any less idealistic, but because they outgrow the simplistic dichotomy between 'fake' and 'real'. They realise, for instance, that there is nothing brave or noble about rudeness, and that there is nothing necessarily shallow about cheerfulness. Along with this, hopefully, they learn that there is difference between a romantic ideal and a lie.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Irish people subscribed to a romantic ideal of themselves that was agrarian, lyrical, rather isolationalist, high-minded, exceptionalist, rugged, and so forth. Its iconography featured such images as round towers, Celtic crosses, Irish wolfhounds, thatched cottages, Celtic knotwork, shamrocks, St. Bridget's crosses, and the like.

I am very comfortable with this sort of iconography. Intellectuals and aesthetes may scoff at it, preferring a more complex and nuanced vision of Irishness, one reflected in the ambiguities and self-questioning of high art.

But high art is always a minority pursuit. The soul of a nation is not, for the most part, shaped by poems and plays. The soul of a nation is shaped by popular songs, advertisements, commercial art, shop signs, magazine covers, logos, street names and place names, and so forth.

When I think of cultural nationalism, I always think of a particular school copy-book that was widely sold in my childhood. On the back of the copy-book, there was a map of Ireland. On the front, there was a round-tower. The name of the copy-book was written in uncial script, similar to the script used in the Book of Kells. My vision of cultural nationalism is that crude, and that vulgar, and that populist. It really is!

Well, I said this was a big subject, and I'm far from finished with it. But I'll leave it there for now. I'm tired.  


  1. This is all very rich, Maolsheachlann.

    As I've said elsewhere, I've had a life-long difficulty with patriotism. An American, as you know, I grew up with a nauseating, unquestioning attitude all around me: "America is the greatest country in the world".

    But what you write is very different from this sort of idolatry.

    This paragraph speaks a great deal to me:

    "The best way I can put it is this: in my ideal Ireland, the soul of Ireland is a subject for regular public debate; a subject that people take very seriously, in the way they take water charges and hospital waiting lists seriously. It should be, perhaps not a burning issue, but a live issue. The maintenance of Ireland's distinctiveness, the preservation of its traditions, should be something that ordinary people worry about-- not all the time, but a good deal of the time."

    You use the words "take very seriously" which leads to something I am thinking much about. I'll use the words "care" and "guardianship" which is different to idolatrous patriotism.

    I wonder if some of us have particular vocations to care and guardianship.

    This could be something very large, like guarding the soul of Ireland.

    Or it could be lesser, like guarding the legacy of Beethoven or Chesterton or, for all I know, the science of termites.

    My point is that God gives us different tasks. And I wonder if your lifelong wrestling with this is indicative of some kind of vocation you have, a vocation you share with others, of course.

    I expect your wrestling will bear rich fruit in the end and am very interested where you are headed with this.

    With me, it is very mysterious, I am both an American and British citizen and yet all this means far more to me than the soul of America or Britain. I imagine there are those called to guard the souls of those countries too, but I feel nothing calling me in that direction …

    Oh and many thanks for the link to my blog. I shall return the favour when the time and topic are right.

    1. Roger, I wonder are you too hard on America? I personally find the "America is the greatest country in the world" attitude endearing. Agreed, if it's too bullish it can become nauseating, but....really, America IS the greatest country in the world in so many ways! I am very much an Americanophile and I can't distance my wishes for a more patriotic Ireland from the kind of flag-waving patriotism you find in America. I would like to see much the same thing here.

      Of course you have had vastly more experience of America than me so you can tell me of the bad side of this.

      I also think "disinterested patriotism" is a very respectable tradition-- Byron's attitude towards Greece, for instance-- and I welcome your concern for Ireland's own struggles with its identity!

  2. This is really interesting for me, too, across the water in the United Kingdom (where, in contrast to Roger, I felt growing up that Britain was almost entirely devoid of patriotism; I remember being quite young and wishing we were as patriotic as Americans are! But I think there are complicated reasons for British unpatriotism).

    This subject fascinates me as well, and not only because the question is different for every nation. And sometimes it is so difficult as to seem almost impossible. This series on B.B.C. Radio 4 (, about Germany, is almost dizzying: Germany's borders have moved all over the place over history; entire cities, culturally German for centuries, like Strasbourg and Koenigsberg, now lie in other countries; speakers of other languages have lived in territories thought of as German, and so on... and yet there is this word 'Deutsch' which binds that culture together meaningfully.

    But even in France, a very centralised country, and a culture which knows itself, which is still taken seriously, and which remains much stauncher than British culture is in Britain, there is much agonising over the question of what it is to be French. The government actually launched a great debate on the subject a few years ago.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the soul of a country lies in its popular traditions, street-names, place-names, idioms, dialects and so on. This is why I am very near to despair when I encounter popular culture as it is in Britain today. I think people deserve, and need, a great deal better fare. Correspondingly, I also feel that English culture reached a kind of zenith when composers of 'high' music turned to folk-melodies as their inspiration, and poets tried to write generously, so that anybody might share in their quest for beauty.

  3. I also cherish, and think important, the old affectionate Catholic epithets, like calling England 'Mary's Dowry' and France the 'eldest daughter of the Church'. That, along with dedicating nations to saints, seems to place love of country in exactly the right position: in a high position, but below and distinct from love of God, and to articulate the unified variety that is one of the Church's greatest freedoms.

    1. Very elegantly put, Dominic. I wish I had said that!

      I'm a little wary of identifying Irish patriotism with Catholicism, because I always feel patriotism is a bad motive for piety, but I can't help coming back to it.

  4. Quickly, I appreciate the points above and suspect that I may in time come to see more in American patriotic feeling. What really got to me in my youth is not the importance of communal national feeling that you are richly evoking, Maolsheachlann - but the absolute unquestioned superiority of it all. Again: idolatry. This included people's absolute shock - even hurt - that I could choose to live in Europe. Note this was not because I was alienating myself from my people and homeland. That would be entirely understandable. It was more: "Don't you realise America is THE *greatest* country on earth?". There are more complex things here too, but no time now. I will just say I have moved (whether evolved or regressed, I'll leave for you to decide) to a darker vision of many things than I think either you have or I had in younger years. Despite this potential area of disagreement between us, though, I am finding great richness and meaning in all 5 parts of this series ...