Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Ireland I Had Dreamed Of (VI)

I'd rather abandoned this series, not sure where to take it next, but recently I've been reading a book called Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-79 by Terence Brown, which suggests a few thoughts. Though really it's nothing I hadn't said already.

Brown is of the conventional school of Irish historiography that holds that the 'humanism' (to use his word) of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Literary Revival was betrayed by a narrow-minded, stultifying, conservative establishment after the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922.

I can't agree with this. I believe that the vision (cultural, rather than political) of the Irish Free State was exactly what the Irish people, as a whole, had been seeking during the struggle for independence. I believe it was a fine vision, and I'm sorry it was abandoned.

I'm not going to comment too much on the economic aspect. Brown believes that the first governments of the new State were excessive in their determination to balance the books and limit public spending. This may be the case. Certainly, their slowness in tackling the overcrowding problem in Dublin-- where, as Brown points out, there were 22,915 families living in one room dwellings-- seems lamentable. He admits that there was some anxiety about whether the new State would be economically or politically viable, and that the new rulers were entirely unused to holding the reins of government and were understandably cautious. But think of all those people living out either the best years of their lives, or the last years of their lives, in such overcrowding. (Children, on the other hand, tend to be more buoyant, and most of them would have encountered better conditions later on.)

Personally I am in favour of pretty extensive government spending. I don't think microeconomics and macroeconomics are the same, and I think a government has much more latitude than private individuals and private companies in running up debts and borrowing. There are many parts of the world, like Germany and Scandinavia, that seem to have high levels of public spending and do just fine. As for Greece, in my recent reading of Evelyn Waugh's diary, I came across an entry from the 1920's where Waugh complained that it was always a bank holiday in Greece and nobody did any work, so I think that their problems are very long in the making.

And that's as much as I am going to say about economics-- aside from the admission that the Irish economic and social model of the time seems to have been dependent on enormous levels of emigration, and that economic modernization probably should have happened sooner rather than later-- a primarily agricultural country, where most of the farms were small and where inheritance generally went to the eldest son, didn't have a whole lot to do with the other kids (and though there was a great deal of celibacy in Ireland at this time, those who did marry had significantly bigger families than was the case in other countries).

But my whole argument is that economic modernization did not necessarily demand cultural 'modernization'. 

Brown seems to think otherwise:

"In the 1920s, it was the notion of the virtuous countryman that writers, artists and commentators accepted as the legacy of the Literary Revival period, rather than the heroic aristocratic figures of the mythological cycles. A vision of rustic dignity and rural virtue was popularized in speeches, poems, play and paintings...patriotic writers had produced countless poems in which peasants and farmers had appeared not to reveal human possibility but to exhibit the unspoiled simplicity of the essential Irish who for many centuries had endured the ravages of climate and opppression. Poems of this kind had exploited essential properties, such as the bog, hazel trees, currachs, the hearth, primitive cooking utensils, ploughing, sowing, and rough weather, employing a verse technique that owed its simple repetitions and structure to folk-song...They celebrated a vision of Irish pastoral, when rural life was a condition of virtue in as much as it remained an expression of an ancient civilization, uncontaminted by commercialism and progress.

The social reality of the countryside was more dynamic, unheroic, hardly bucolic, and involved in change in ways which were to disrupt in entirely...."

Brown actually admits that this traditional country life remained intact to a great degree, but then adds that the Irish countryman was "ready to use horse-driven threshing machines, prepared to experiment with steam, and in the 1930's he began to welcome the tractor, which would render the agricultural labourer increasingly redundant, into his rural world. By the 1920s the countryman had willingly accepted mass produced articles of clothing, boots and shoes....the bicycle had introduced a new mobility to the Irish countryside and life in the long dark winters was made more agreeable by the widespread use of commercially produced paraffin oil lamps which replaced the traditional rushlights."

Well, there you go. Farmers started using tractors and so pastoral became obsolete.

Does this strike you, as it strikes me, as being rather silly? Are the arts required to keep perfectly abreast of social change? Or are they not inherently selective?

It seems to me that the same argument would apply to any social ideal. I don't read any modern Irish literature or modern Irish poetry (because I don't read any modern literature or modern poetry full stop), but I see from the colour supplements in the broadsheets, and from advertising, and from various other sources, that twenty-first century Ireland holds up an imaginative ideal of itself that is every bit as unreal as the agrarian vision Brown complains about. For instance, in newspaper articles and in advertising I am always reading about wild office Christmas parties where a great deal of seduction and letting off steam and interpersonal bonding goes on. (And it's always office parties, because apparently everybody works in an office.)  I've been to lots of office Christmas parties (or library Christmas parties, anyway); they've always been pleasantly dull affairs.

Similarly, all the literature and journalism and advertising of our era-- in Ireland and elsewhere-- seems to suggest that most people are sexual promiscuous, whereas (from what I can tell) very few people are actually sexually promiscuous. 

You get the point I'm making. All art, all social aspiration, tends to be somewhat unrealistic. I would further say that every social vision tends to romanticize either tradition or change. Personally, I am all for romanticizing tradition. To some extent, surely, it must help preserve that which it romanticizes.

But the part of the book which really excited me-- I found it so moving, I was quite overpowered-- was the section about the idealization of Ireland's West coast. As you can imagine, it excited me in a way that Brown did not intend.

The West of Ireland at this time was seen as the bastion of unpolluted 'Irishness'. The biggest Gaeltacht areas (the term for an area where Irish is actually spoken as the language of the people) was in the West, as are the Blasket and Aran islands-- islands where a very traditional way of life survived, and which were a fashionable subject for artists and dramatists and poets during the Gaelic Revival. (Biographies by some of the actual islanders, in Irish, also became popular).

Brown quotes this very interesting account of a visit to the West from the Irish writer Séan Ó Faoláin, which seems very typical of the self-conscious artist's horror of all things romantic and populist:

 It was like taking off one's clothes for a swim naked in some mountain-pool. Nobody who has not had this sensation of suddenly 'belonging' somewhere-- of finding the lap of the lost mother-- can understand what a release the discovery of Gaelic ireland means to modern Ireland. I know that not for years and years did I get free of this heavenly bond of an ancient, lyrical, permanent, continuous immemorial self, symbolized by the lonely mountains, the virginal lakes, the traditional language, the simple, certain, uncomplex modes of life, that world of the lost childhood of my race where I, too, became for a while eternally young.

Now, what was Ó Faoláin so afraid of? Why spurn something like that? I can understand the restlessness of the artist, the desire to break out of a box, the need for new horizons and new subject-matter. But need there be a conflict? Does it have to be all or nothing, every artist and poet and novelist restricting himself or herself to writing about the Blasket islands, or all serious artists discarding the theme completely? Is there not an infinity of ways such an ideal can be featured in art, in the same way that Christian art has found an infinitity of ways to meditate on the Cross and the Resurrection and the scenes of the gospel and the lives of the saints? Can it not inform urban and 'modern' life, as well as rural life?

And if some artists had an allergic reaction to this, and had to let their imagination roam free in some completely different atmosphere, did artists as a whole have to rebel?

And if artists had to rebel, why should the people rebel?

Indeed, the people never did really rebel. To a great extent, the myth of the West and of a primordial Irishness remained popular, in advertisements and tourism and popular art and in all the things aesthetes disdain.

I've never been to the Aran Islands (the Blasket Islands are now uninhabited). I'm not personally particularly keen on literature and art from the West of Ireland. But I do cherish the kind of idyll that found its fullest expression there, and I think there was no need to assume it was played out or stale or obsolete. I could easily imagine hanging paintings of West of Ireland landscapes in my home or office.

Terence Brown himself shows an almost amusing fear of the West's hypnotic power as the cradle of the race:

"In the 1920's a number of literary works were published which attempted a more realistic treatment of the western island and the Gaeltacht, in a tradition that had begun with the short stories of the Irish language writer Pádraic O'Conaire and Seumus O'Kelly. Novels such as Peadar O'Donnell's Islanders (1928) and Adrigoole (1929) and Liam O'Flaherty's Thy Neighbour's Wife (1923) are works therefore not of romantic discovery but essays in rural naturalism and social criticism..."

And yet! "In both O'Donnell and O'Flaherty's writings there are passages of epic writing therefore which obtrude in their realistic settings. At such moments class politics and social analysis give way before an apprehension of the west as a place of fundamentally natural forces, of human figures set passively or heroically against landscapes of stone, rock and sea in a way that makes their work less radical than they perhaps thought they were. There is implicit therefore in their writings a sense that Gaelic Ireland in the west is the authentic heroic Ireland in a way that confirms rather than contradicts the conventional image of the west as 'certain set apart'. The power of this conventional image was perhaps so great that it affected as intelligent a social commentator as Peadar O'Donnell and overwhelmed the turbulent anger of Liam O'Flaherty's social criticism. "

On the next page, Brown quotes what seems like a most erudite insight from 'an English visitor':

The West is different. Its spirit was used by the intellectuals in the late struggle [for national independence] but it was never theirs'. It seems to come from some primitive elemental force which smoulders on, like a turf fire, long after such movements have spent themselves. It is a permanent factor to the existence of which no Irish statesman can safely shut his eyes.

Indeed, this 'primitive elemental force' has haunted Ireland-- intellectual included-- long after it was supposedly debunked. Certainly Irish artists have never found an equivalent matrix of images and ideals.

I think the human imagination is drawn instinctively to something timeless, to folklore and 'elemental energies', to some kind of dignified simplicity. Personally, I find this in the practice of the Catholic faith. I am a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true; but I do think that, in the rhythms of the liturgy and the rosary, and the cycles of the liturgical calendar, and the treasury of saint stories, and the timeless unity of Catholic life, I also find what artists and tourists and so many others sought in the West of Ireland.


  1. I am only catching up with you after an absence (due to minor illness - nothing serious - and, joy, oh joy! the internet broke down for a week).

    I will be very glad if you do not tire of this series. I think you are exploring very important things. This extremist aesthetic disdain you analyse here needs really pondering and challenging, for the health of the modern Irish soul.

    There is then important work to be done, even if it seems vast, difficult and faltering. I am very very glad you are attempting it.

    More I want to say, but it must wait for now ..

    1. Thanks Roger. I'm sorry to hear you are unwell and I am glad you are on the mend. We need you!