On this blog I have often quoted Eamon De Valera's famous (and, to many, notorious) St. Patrick's Day radio speech of 1943:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of,
would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis
for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort,
devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose
countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and
villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping
of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of
happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene
old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God
desires that men should live.
For decades, this speech has been derided as Exhibit A of backward-looking, insular Irishness. In fact, it's taken such a hammering that a certain reaction has set in. (There is an ineradicable chivalry in human nature.) Even those of a liberal-left persusaion (and there aren't many of any other persuasion in Ireland, at the moment) now tend to acknowledge that De Valera has been rather unfairly lambasted for this flight of lyricism.
Even as long ago as 1997, in my first year of college, our extremely bullish politics lecturer-- more of a libertarian than a liberal-- said something like: "It's easy to laugh, but this is one of the few visions of Irish society that an Irish politician has held up". The most popular Irish historian of our time, Diarmuid Ferriter (such a regular visitor to my library that he may as well be on the staff, and certainly no conservative himself) has also defended it.
As regular readers will know, the speech needs no defending in my opinion. I have always seen it as a noble vision, even when I was allergic to Irish nationalism.
At Mass this morning (for my attention always wanders at Mass), I found myself thinking of some particular wish I myself have for society-- I forget what the particular wish was. And suddenly the inspiration struck me-- why should I not write a blog post about my vision of what I would like Ireland to be, and what I would like society in general to be? Isn't that quite a positive thing to do?
Please note, I don't use the phrase 'my ideal Ireland', or 'my ideal society'. I'm not talking about Heaven on earth-- a world without violent crime, serious illness, unrequited love, or anybody ever losing the edge of the sellotape roll. Sure, everybody would like a world like that. It's not going to happen. The Ireland that I'm picturing-- and I'm now going to go right ahead and start using the word 'ideal', once it's clearly understood that I'm not talking about outright fantasy-- is one that seems fairly plausible to me. How plausible is, of course, a matter for reasonable debate. I'm not offering anything that seems obviously gaga-- to me, anyway.
I think this is a legitimate exercise. Since I seem fated to quote Chesterton in every second or third article, here is a wonderful excerpt from his own work of ideal sociology What's Wrong with the World:
The present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men
were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man
demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man
really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life,
he forgets it himself...Most of us have suffered from a certain sort of ladies who, by
their perverse unselfishness, give more trouble than the selfish; who
almost clamor for the unpopular dish and scramble for the worst seat.
Most of us have known parties or expeditions full of this seething fuss
of self-effacement. From much meaner motives than those of such
admirable women, our practical politicians keep things in the same
confusion through the same doubt about their real demands. There is
nothing that so much prevents a settlement as a tangle of small
surrenders. We are bewildered on every side by politicians who are in
favor of secular education, but think it hopeless to work for it; who
desire total prohibition, but are certain they should not demand it; who
regret compulsory education, but resignedly continue it; or who want
peasant proprietorship and therefore vote for something else. It is this
dazed and floundering opportunism that gets in the way of everything.
If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If
we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the
And aside from this, I personally have always wanted (and expected) everybody to stand for something. When I was younger (and possibly as a result of my slightly unusual upbringing, which I remember as a kind of hothouse of debate) I simply assumed that everybody was like this. I thought that, just as you might ask the first stranger on the street for directions (which I never do myself), one should be able to ask him his opinion on extraterrestrial life, feminism, fast food, the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and the Rubik's cube. When I realised that many people (most people?) didn't stand for anything in particular, I was shocked. I've never quite got over this. So in offering my vision of an ideal Ireland, an ideal society, I am simply doing what I would wish everybody else to do in their turn.
In an excellent essay entitled "What Christmas Means to Me", C.S. Lewis wrote: "Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival.
This is important and obligatory for Christians, but as it can be of no
interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it
here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first,
but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for
merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on
this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I
approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no
reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend
their money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly
probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want
theirs." This seems like a miserable attitude to me. I do have views on "how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure amongst their own friends"; I also have views on how they should dress, eat, drink, celebrate, and so on. Furthermore, I expect other people to have their own views when it comes to me. If they tried to make me go along with these views, I would be outraged; if they badgered me about them, I would be outraged; but I expect them to have such views. I want them to have them, even when I strenuously disagree with them!
(I should add that I'm not condoning judgementalism, or busy-bodiness, or contradicting St. Paul's injunction in Thessalonians to "lead a quiet life" and "mind your own business". I'm not talking about judging individuals here. I'm talking about having a particular view of the public, private and social good-- right down to little things.)
And so on to my own view...
First off, I would like to say that much of my ideal Ireland, my ideal society, already exists. After all, I am a conservative (as imprecise as that term is). I don't want to abolish private property, or the profit motive. I don't want to abolish gender roles. I don't want to abolish the State, or government, or politics, as many people want to do. ("The best government is that which governs least"; not a sentiment with which I agree.) Not only this, but there are a thousand (and more) actually-existing institutions whose existence fills me with satisfaction-- the cinema, the weekend, Christmas, school plays, book clubs, fancy dress parties, jumble sales, snowman-building, and any number of others.
But what would I like to see more of, or less of?
First off (and to nobody's surprise), my ideal Ireland would be a Catholic Ireland. Eighty-five per cent of Irish people listed themselves as Catholics in the last census; it doesn't seem too extravagant to wish that this eighty-five per cent (or most of them, at least) were practicing, orthodox Catholics.
I saw the disappearance of Catholic Ireland in my own life-time, although it was simply the playing out of a game that had been decided before my birth. I remember (and I'm sure I've mentioned it before) the moment when the death of Catholic Ireland came home to me. I was not a practicing Catholic at the time, nor would I be for many years to come. It was Christmas time. I was walking down Grafton Street, Dublin's showpiece street. From a shop's sound system I heard Frank Sinatra (or was it Bing Crosby?) singing: "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the king of Israel." And, out of nowhere, I was crushed by the realisation that Ireland had been a Catholic country in my childhood, and was so no longer.
As my ideal Ireland would be a Catholic country, there would be no bones made about public celebrations of Catholicism-- about streets named after saints, statues build to religious founders, television programmes of a devotional nature, and so on. It goes without saying that abortion and euthanasia would be, not only illegal, but not even on the agenda. Marriage would be between a man and a woman. Most schools would be Catholic, most colleges would at least have a strong Catholic presence, and priests and nuns in their collars and habits would be a common sight on the streets.
Am I hankering for a 'theocracy'? By no means. I am not picturing an Ireland without atheists or agnostics; I think it would be presuming upon the Holy Spirit to do so. Nor am I picturing an Ireland without other faiths. But I am picturing an Ireland where religion itself was held in respect by all, and where militant atheism had no foothold-- or only a small one. (I do sincerely believe that even atheists should cherish religion, even where they cannot bring themselves to believe. I think religion makes for a better, more interesting, and more picturesque society.)
I'm not conjuring up a land of saints and scholars here. I'm talking about the sort of practicing Catholics you and I know, the sort of practicing Catholic I am myself, and that you might be yourself-- that is, a bad Catholic who keeps trying.
Since I could write about this aspect forever, I will move on. I am not going to approach this desription of my ideal Ireland methodically, but in an almost random manner, as subjects occur.
I would personally like to abolish all lotteries, both national and private. I realise they raise money for good causes. I realise they bring some kind of pleasure into peoples' lives-- though it seems a very dubious pleasure to me. All the same, I find them degrading. I have never bought a lottery ticket for myself and I have twice refused to accept scratch-cards given to me as gifts. If that makes me a prig, so be it.
Why am I so down on lotteries? They seem so desperate, that's why. The odds of winning the big prizes in a lottery-- and people only play them for the big prizes-- seems so astronomical that it's exploitative. And it has often been pointed out that the poor play them disproportionately. They are games of chance with no skill or creativity involved at all, which I personally find depressing. And their advertising-- in the media and in shops-- are generally tacky, the most unabashed appeal to greed and extravagance.
Having said all that, I am not Joseph Stalin and I don't expect I could abolish lotteries entirely. But I would certainly like to see them scaled down, so that there were much smaller grand prizes, and so that people had more of a chance of winning one of the lesser prizes. I would also regulate the advertising of lotteries very heavily. My local supermarket has a huge plasma screen which advertises Ireland's national lottery constantly, with countdowns to the next draw and various tacky promotional videos. I find this odious.
Public Transport and Private Transport
Like Peter Hitchens, I see nothing 'conservative' about being pro-car or anti-public transport. I am much more favourable towards buses, trains and trams than I am towards private motor vehicles.
There was a time in my life-- ah!, the pugnacity of youth!-- when I called for the prohibition of all private cars. (I remember, when I was seventeen, my English teacher got us all to address the class on a topic of our choice-- anything at all. The prohibition of the private car was my topic of choice.)
I don't support this anymore. Too many people are too fond of their cars for me to want to ban the car entirely-- and, unlike the fondness for playing lotteries, cars do actually bring happiness into the world, and not simply desperate and ever-disappointed hope.
Besides, I have come to accept that cars have their own poetry, their own sublimity. For one thing, teenagers (and older people, too) often use them for that activity which Americans term "making out"-- and I am all in favour of bringing the sexes together in this way. "Road trips", too, have a poetry to them. And conversations in a car can have a particular intimacy (and I'm not just talking about 'making out' again. I mean intimacy of every kind.)
But that's as far as I'm willing to go, really. I think public transport has a lot more to offer society-- in terms of shared experience, solidarity, public-spiritedness, and the simple fact of having fewer vehicles on the road, and less pollution and congestion.
I would like to see city centres and town centres pedestrianised entirely. It's hard to see how this would not make them more pleasant, more human. Not only this, but I would like to see public transport become less utilitarian, and more of a national and cultural point of pride. I see no reason, for instance, why buses should have numbers rather than names. Why shouldn't a route be named after a notable person who is associated with that route? Why should individual vehicles not have more of an identity? A recent article I read by Keith Waterhouse gives a nostalgic description of the trams of his childhood, which were not uniform but were of different builds and decorations. He mentions one tram which was extravagantly decorated with many-coloured lights, and which seemed to waltz through Leeds city for no purpose other than municipal pride. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about.
(Here is the quotation from Waterhouse: "There was even an illuminated tram which cruised aimlessly about Leeds during the summer months, festooned with thousands of electric lights and bedecked with the flags of all nations. I never quite knew the purpose of this-- perhaps it was just municipal high spirits".)
Men and Women
I am personally in favour of a return to chivalry. I don't just mean chivalry of men towards women. I also mean chivalry of women towards men-- which is a different kind of chivalry, but equally important. Fundamentally, I mean a respect from men towards womanhood, and a respect from women towards manhood.
I must admit that I am not the most effectively chivalrous man myself. I blame my shyness, but I know that's not an excuse. I don't spring forward very eagerly to help women with baby carriages get off the bus. When I do overcome my diffidence (which is not that rarely), the lady is always most grateful, and I do feel a warm glow.
I think it would be nice to revive many of the old chivalric gestures such as men standing up when women enter a room, and men raising their hats (if we wore hats) for ladies. It's hard to se how this would be actually revived-- everybody would be so embarrassed at first. I took to wearing a baseball cap recently (but lost it). I found myself wondering if I should raise it when I passed a lady, but never quite had the courage. I imagined it would be received as either flirtatiousness or mockery.
In general, I think the golden rule of chivalry is that men should not denigrate women, and women should not denigrate men. Each sex should honour the other. Anti-man jokes and anti-women jokes should be told playfully and affectionately, not bitterly.
I think a very important aspect of this is to return the taboo upon sex talk; dirty jokes, casual references to the sex act, clinical appraisals of other peoples' sexual attractiveness, and so forth. The sexes cannot relax around each other as long as this is habitual. The sexualisation of our conversation introduces an unease, not only in interaction between men and women, but into all social interaction. We are always frightened of lapsing into sexual innuendo, of provoking a giggle, or giving a particularly risqué person an opening.
But it's more than that. When social interaction does not treat the topic of sex with reverence, it cheapens sex and sexuality itself. It cheapens manhood and womanhood. It's like tramping through the front parlour in muddy boots.
I also think that the very fact of having a taboo is a good thing. It introduces a restraint into conversation, into art, into social relations-- and restraint is healthy. There seems something infantile in the hostility towards all boundaries, all self-discipline. What gentleness can there be in a free-for-all? How can there be an atmosphere of gentleness, of respect, in a free-for-all?
From as long as I remember, I have always felt a yearning for more local pride and local identity in the world.
I take great pleasure in writing my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column for The Open Door magazine. I like the fact that it is a local magazine and that it is distributed in a specific, rather narrow, area. Especially in this era of the 'global village', I find this very desirable.
Speaking of Chesterton, his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill expresses (in exaggerated form) exactly the kind of local pride that I've always wished to exist. I honestly don't know why every suburb should not have its own flag, its own nickname, its own festivals, its own foods, its own parades, even its own games and sports. There might be a certain artificiality about this at first, but-- just like in Chesterton's novel-- we could hope that it would gain its own momentum after a while.
I think this already exists in many Irish towns and villages. It's really city suburbs and satellite towns that lack it.
All my life, I've had two contrasting attitudes towards the countryside and the city. The first was an unquestioning acceptance that rural life was superior to city life, that the soul of every nation was its countryside, and that it was entirely proper for a country to take its symbols and its idylls and its poetry (visual and written) from its rural life. So I never felt the slightest aversion towards Da Valera's St. Patrick's speech because it drew its imagery from rural life.
On the other hand...well, readers of my series of essays on tradition may remember my attitude towards Christmas. I love Christmas as much as anybody loves Christmas-- I love it even more than anybody else does. But I don't want Christmas to have all the traditions. I think the rest of the year needs its traditions, too.
In the same way, I've always hated the temptation to abandon the suburbs and the city to impersonality and anonymity and soullessness. I don't have much respect for the artist or the poet who washes his hands of the city, and goes to live in a cottage in the sticks. It seems like the merest escapism to me. It's too easy, too glib. After all, more and more people live in the suburbs. The real challenge is to romance the suburbs, to ennoble the suburbs, to give the suburbs a soul.
(Ever since I started writing poetry in a disciplined way, from the time I was about seventeen, I chose to write about the suburbs, supermarkets, city streets, cinemas, and so on. I felt that this was my 'beat', that the real challenge was to find the poetry in such places. One poetry editor, rejecting a poem I wrote about the local swimming pool, referred to "the subject matter, such as it is." Ha!)
This is a very delicate balance, though. Any suggestion that art, or national identity, or poetry that draws its inspiration from the countryside is 'backward-looking' or 'reactionary' or lacking in 'relevance' is enough to make me froth at the mouth, and feel inclined to write nothing but Wordsworthian sonnets about the moon, the harvest and the dawn chorus. I think we should accept the specialness, indeed the superiority of the countryside-- but without ever giving up on the conurbations, or losing sight of the fact that this is where most life happens. We should be seeking to raise the suburbs towards the spiritual standard of the countryside, rather than to wallow in their sewers and their motorways. Instead of celebrating their absence of traditions, social bonds, identity and all-round 'folksiness', we should be seeking to impart those things to them-- and to celebrate whatever soul they do possess.
Whew, that's enough for the moment. Every line of thought, on this subject, seems to open out onto others. What did I get myself into? Well, I shall plough on regardless-- but this is a good place to pause.