Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (V)

At this point, as I launch into my third post on cultural and social nationalism, readers could be excused for getting frustrated. The title of this series is The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of, and here I am still probing the philosophy of nationalism. Why the heck don't I just write about what sort of cultural nationalism I would like to see, in its concrete particulars?

Well, I will get to that. And the truth is partly that my subject escaped from me, and that I got carried away. But it's also the case that, when it comes to nationalism (for want of a better word, and I have been struggling to know what word to use throughout) I care less about the concrete particulars than I do about the basic attitude. My ideal is an Ireland with a particular attitude towards its own national identity, and how that attitude then manifests itself is not that important to me.

My central question might be, how prominently should national identity loom in our collective consciousness? How much of our attentions should it occupy?

And my answer is: not that much. Not really. A very small percentage. I see it as something that is mostly in the background.

But I do think it should occupy some of our attention, and on a fairly regular basis. I think there are two basic attitudes to national identity, amongst those who think it matters at all. It's the same as the two attitudes to language amongst lexicographers. That is, there is a descriptive attitude, and a prescriptive attitude.

The descriptive attitude-- which is the fashion amongst lexicographers when it comes to language, and also amongst sociologists and cultural studies professors when it comes to national identity-- is that national identity is simply what it is. It's there. It is, in a way, as impersonal and matter-of-fact as the weather. It's something that has to be taken into account when formulating public health policy and business plans, or interpreting social trends. We might celebrate it or deplore it, but it is what it is.

The prescriptive attitude is one that seeks to preserve and shape national identity. It has a concerned attitude, rather than a scientific attitude. This, of course, is my attitude.

(Of course, these are both extremes, and most people are neither one nor the other entirely. Cultural studies professors, for instance, may be very open in their attitudes to language change or cuisine, but they will definitely be very prescriptive when it comes to political correctness, where this comes into conflict with some national characteristic-- as it often does, since political correctness tends to homogenize everything. And even the most totalitarian cultural nationalist could hardly have a programme for everything.)

How prescriptive should we be? How prescriptive can we be?

Once again, I don't think we can be all that prescriptive.

A nation is something intrinsically anarchic. Come to think of it, human society in general is intrinsically anarchic. Human nature is anarchic. Life is anarchic.

I can think of so many illustrations of this anarchism. Stepping into a back garden that has been neglected for a while is one that is particularly vivid. The sheer tropical abundance of the weeds and nettles is startling. When did they spring up? They grow so quickly, it seems silly you can't actually see them growing as you look. It's as though they do it when your back is turned. And then there are the critters crawling, creeping, hopping, and sliding all around you, blithely indifferent that this is somebody's property. And that spade that's leaning against the back of the house, how is there rust on it already? And that chocolate bar wrapper that must have blown in through the gate, how are the dyes faded on it already so that it is almost white?

I could almost write a whole article (or a poem) about this phenomenon, life's tendency to surprise us with its own abundance. History and experience, custom and memory, pile up far quicker than we expect them to. I don't want all my illustrations to suggest entropy and decay and wilderness. This applies as much to production and achievement as it does to decline and fall. It's like the moment when you realise you've gone from being a neophyte at some activity to being something of an old hand at it.

(Or take the internet. When did the internet cease to be new? When did everybody get an email address? When did 'cyberspace' cease to have a futuristic sound-- insofar as anyone says it at all? It just seemed to happen one night, while we all slept.)

Life is an anarchy, and the last thing that any nation can be is an intentional community (the academic term used for hippy communes and utopian societies and the like).

The twentieth century, as we never cease to be reminded, saw the catastrophic failure of social engineering on a grand scale. Italian fascism and Nazi Germany tried to legislate all social and cultural activity. (The Nazis called this Gleichshaltung, a word that appeals to me, and that means 'coordination'.) Marxist regimes, along with social and cultural engineering, tried to bring about a 'command economy', whose disastrous failure we all know about.

W.B. Yeats, who was intrigued by Italian fascism at the beginning, eventually rejected it decisively with the withering comment: "Only dead sticks can be tied into convenient bundles." (The term 'fascism' comes from the 'fasces', a bundle of wooden rods which signify discipline and control.)

My argument would be that there has been an over-reaction to the failure of these regimes, that the stigma of fascism or communism or totalitarianism now hangs over every aspiration towards collective identity, or every appeal to collective identity.

I like liberal democracy. I like its messiness. I like its "incorrigibly plural" nature. I like its tendency to give rise to sub-cultures and factions and fads and every sort of eccentricity. I don't want a suffocating sameness.

But I think there is room for shared identity and for pluralism. And I'm not talking about a watered-down, minimalistic, 'civic patriotism'-- which seems to me a contradiction in terms.

The only sort of patriotism that interests me is a patriotism that is particular, that is rooted in particular traditions and memories and associations.

As I said earlier, I think it should be something that is mostly in the background-- like the weather, or like Christmas.

In my ideal Ireland, Irishness would matter to the vast majority of the Irish people. Not all of them. I would not want a society devoid of determined cosmopolitans, or of the sort of people who are so besotted with some other culture that they identify with it, or indeed of ethnic minorities. In my ideal Ireland, however, there would be little support for the idea that minorities should be perpetually resentful of the majority, or that the majority (or the State) should be inhibited from celebrating national culture at the risk of excluding minorities. That's all nonsense.

Of course, some people would be more exercised about Irishness than others, and most people would get hotter and colder about it at different times, and the nation as  whole would go through similar phases. But there would always be a background commitment to cultural and social nationalism-- one that would be several notches higher than what we have today. (Though, since I started writing these posts, I've been noticing that there is rather more of it about than I usually think.)

The analogy with Christmas is a good one in this regard. Some people are Christmas nuts, others are rather dutiful about Christmas, other people are madly enthusiastic about it some years and dutiful about it other years, but nearly everybody participates to some degree. I would like Irish cultural and social nationalism to be the same. This same analogy shows that it doesn't have to be suffocating or stifling. Do people only do festive things all Christmas long? Of course not. Similarly, it doesn't take much to create a Christmas atmosphere; a few strings of tinsel are enough.

(While I'm talking about Christmas...I've mentioned this before, but one December a female friend of mine, who was recovering from a traumatic break-up, told me that she was going to ignore Christmas completely that year. Being a big Christmas man, I was shocked. Subsequently, though, this particular image has grown to be of far more consequence to me than she would have ever imagined. I like the idea of somebody ignoring Christmas one year. I like the fact that life is so rich we can sometimes be blasé about it. As I said in a previous post; I don't think you're living your life to the hilt if you spend all your time whitewater rafting or swimming with dolphins or writing poetry. Some of it at least should be spent watching DVD box sets in your pyjamas, all day long.)

So I would like most people to make some kind of effort at a self-conscious Irishness, regularly enough.


Well, by naming their cats after Irish mythological figures, of course.

Not just cats, though, and not just mythological figures. The same applies to houses. I don't mind people naming their houses St. Rita's or Padre Pio or Tivoli or anything they like. But, in my ideal Ireland, rather more people-- more than half, maybe-- would name their houses St. Colmcille's or Iona or St. Brendan's or Cois na Farraige (By the Sea).

And by giving their children Irish names, which is actually very popular these days.

And by singing Irish songs at parties-- and going out of their way to learn them. (There is a magazine called Ireland's Own and its lyrics page has the caption, "If you feel like singing...sing an Irish song!" I've just learned that this was a catch-phrase belonging to an Irish radio presenter.)

And by entrepreneurs giving Irish names to their companies and products and corporate headquarters and hotels and bed and breakfasts. And by the same entrepreneurs using Irish imagery (Celtic crosses, Celtic knotwork, round towers) in their marketing and design. (It doesn't matter if it's cheesy. That's absolutely fine.)

And by Irish rock musicians using "Celtic" themes in their music. There was a vogue for this in the seventies and eighties, led by the splendid band Horslips. They made several concept albums based on Irish folk epics. The genre itself is sometimes given the witty name "Sham-rock".

And by Irish people buying more postcards (and playing cards, and mugs, and tea-towels, and calenders) that show thatched cottages and portraits of Irish writers and scenes from country fairs of yore. It always makes me sad when I hear that these things are produced for the "tourist market".

And by more documentaries and seminars and debates about the soul of Ireland in the 21st century-- but not debates about whether national identity and national distinctiveness even matter. This should be a given, the starting point for most participants. (Please remember this is my ideal Ireland.)

And by the national anthem being played more often-- on TV, radio, and at social events-- and by the Irish flag, along with provincial and regional flags, being flown more often. (Let it be said that I don't particularly like our national anthem, and I rather dislike the Irish tricolour. That's not the point.)

And by those of a musical bent learning how to play more Irish folk tunes.

And by those of a dancing bent learning Irish dancing.

And by those of a bookish bent reading more Irish poets and novelists and writers, especially older and less well-known ones.

And by those of a writerly bent introducing themes from Irish history, folklore and literature into their own writing (something that is becoming less fashionable of late).

And what about the Irish language? Well, that is such a big subject that it deserves its own post. (I don't know if I have enough energy left to give it one, though.)

The truth is that I am an English speaker. All the poems, books, words and phrases that I love are English. I cannot find it in my heart to really wish for the Irish language to be the de facto national language of Ireland. My ideal Ireland would be English-speaking-- but with a bigger Irish speaking minority than we have now, and more people who are proficient in Irish, and more people using Irish more regularly. In my ideal Ireland, Irish-language greetings and phrases and quotations and so forth would be much more widely used. (Right now, you are much more likely to hear someone speak Polish or Spanish or Italian than Irish. I doubt I hear anyone speaking Irish in public, in an everyday setting, more than once a month. In my ideal Ireland, it would be a daily occurrence.) The ceremonial use of Irish (on signs, at official events, and so forth)-- something people complain about today, as a waste of public money-- would not only be retained but increased.

And that's enough about the language for now.

All of these are traditional expressions and displays of Irishness. But, of course, new expressions of Irishness are much to be desired. I would only wish for them to be in harmony with the existing ones, and not a radical departure. (No "new definitions of Irishness" seminars, please.)

All of this sounds like a lot. But it's really not a lot. I'm not for a moment overlooking the fact that people have a bewildering array of other interests. I'm not implying some kind of treason in an Irish person listening to Indian music or reading French novels or calling her dog Gandalf. I don't for a second think that the Irish people should be thinking about Irishness all the time, or even half the time, or even one hundredth of the time. I'm not saying that a patriotic Irish person who hates Irish music (for instance) should force himself to listen to it.

But in all the massive activity and aspirations of several million people, it only takes a little change of direction to make a very big difference.

So that's enough on cultural nationalism for now-- though I may revert to it, incidentally, in future installments of this series. Yes, there's more to come!

Meanwhile, some readers may be interested in (even amused by) these Irish TV ads from the eighties. I've been watching a lot of them recently and they have been shaping my thoughts on this subject-- they certainly should not be taken as expressive of my ideal, but they have fed into it in some ways. Especially in my increasing feeling that cultural nationalism is not only compatible with commercialism and corniness, but that they are even an essential part of it. (In many ways, the 'cultural nationalism' I detect in these ads is on a subtle level, like the voice-overs, which seem to me more gentle and formal than voice-overs on Irish ads today-- and I think gentleness and formality was a characteristic of Irish culture, one that has waned. Of course, anyone outside Ireland would never pick up on that, and I'm sure plenty of Irish people would challenge me about it and accuse me of a baseless nostalgia.)


  1. I repeat myself: but this series is very important for me. I am only catching up with it today. But it is a sign of its significance that I am printing, marking it up and will be re-reading it.

    I can't quite find good words right now, but will mumble that I find myself thinking of Aristotle, substance and accidents as you evoke Irishness and its various manifestations over time.

    In this, I am struck by this in the fourth part:

    "This idea was echoed in my own schooling-- more in its atmosphere than in anything anyone actually said."

    Here you evoke a difference perhaps particulars - what was said - and something more essential. Hence my reference to Aristotle.

    I would like to know more, much more about this "atmosphere". Links to other posts you have regarding it if they exist would be appreciated.

    It is strange for me that the while I too find alien this remote Irish past, those post 1922 cultural manifestations that emerged as a result of the Gaelic Renaissance (and maybe Knocknagow, which I've not read) …

    Those cultural manifestations sometimes considered an artificial, invented, almost Soviet style imposition … SPEAK to me.

    I would not like to be poor and cold in 1950s Ireland, without the internet etc etc etc …

    But I think I would feel surrounded by a soulfulness rather soullessness, that you still felt in an attenuated way in the 1980s.

    That soulfulness owes much both to Catholicism and this strange line I am currently trying to trace but can only mumble now … Knocknagow … Pearse … Dev.

    Mumbling now, I wonder too if the Chesterbelloc and that line ever intermingled.

    1. Well, to me, the essential point is that I don't see anything wrong in an "invented" national identity. To a great extent, I think a nation is what it chooses to be. That might seem to be a concession to the very nominalism I disavowed earlier (in a previous post in this series, I think), but it's not really. I don't see how something as intangible as nationhood can exist in any concrete way. I think it has to be mediated through the collective imagination-- not in an arbitrary way, though.

      I greatly respect both Pearse and De Valera but I don't think they had a monopoly on the ideal of Irishness. I think it was a shared ideal and, while I definitely lean towards their particuar ideal, I don't think (once again) that anything as intangible as national identity can be so definite. This is why I laid so much stress on the anarchic nature of life. I do think you have to take account of that anarchic nature. I think if you try to trace a "line" (as Pearse did in his essays) you may be frustrated because there are so many contradictions.

      As for the atmosphere of my schooling, that's such a big subject I don't know where to start! I may tackle it in future posts.