Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Tunnel of Time

Every workday, I walk through a "tunnel" which leads from the John Henry Newman arts faculty building to the James Joyce Library. (Everyone calls it a tunnel, even though it's not underground. It's a glass-roofed covered walkway.) For a good few years now, the tunnel has had a series of exhibition panels, representing the history of University College Dublin and the concurrent history of Ireland, running along one side of it. Since UCD was founded in the 1850s, the timeline begins there, and it ends (for some reason) in 1970. Perhaps there are later panels somewhere else in the university.

Walking from the Newman Building to the library is walking through recent Irish history, and walking from the library to the Newman building is walking backwards through recent Irish history.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time can imagine my reactions to this display. The photographs inspire intense feelings of nostalgia, affection, belonging, loss and protectiveness in me.

In many ways, they are simply fascinating in themselves. The group photographs (of graduating classes, for instance) are poignant, as group photos always are. I was a part of a group photograph yesterday and they always make me feel a little strange. I think everybody must have the same reaction; scanning those rows of long-ago faces, you wonder what happened to them. Did they live long? Were they happy? What became of them?

From my point of view, the exhibition chronicles a tale of decline; from a robustly Catholic, traditionally-minded Ireland to the era of student radicalism and campus unrest.

Here, for instance, is an image of two men who embody the Bad Old Ireland of progressive historiography, flanking a papal nuncio of some sort; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid on the left, and President Eamon De Valera on the right. I know it's a small picture, but just look at the sheer confidence with which they stride down the street. They are in charge and they know it.

One of the interesting things about the rise of the Alt Right is the rehabilitation of the idea of patriarchy. Suddenly, there are dozens of gorgeous young women queuing up to post YouTube videos in which they heap praise on patriarchy. Not so long ago, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha defended the divine right of kings based upon the authority of fathers, seemed an example of an utterly obsolete concept, a footnote in intellectual history. Perhaps not so, after all.

I wouldn't call myself a believer in patriarchy, since it summons up images of women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, but I will admit that, in my heart, I want a country to be run by old men-- a gerontocracy, as well as a patriarchy. It seems right and natural. Perhaps this is because the wise old man is an archetype. I don't know. Anyway, the exhibition is full of grey-haired, suited, anti-charismatic old men, and I greatly approve of this! (Perhaps this is another reason I am interested in later Soviet Russia-- it was a gerontocracy to a notorious degree.)

Of course, De Valera and John Charles McQuaid are admirable for more than just being old men. They were both reactionaries of the highest calibre. De Valera used the occasion of the very first television broadcast in Ireland to voice anxieties about the new technology. And how right he was! McQuaid agitated against mixed male-and-female athletics, organized a boycott of an Ireland-Yugoslavia soccer game to protest persecution of the Church in Yugoslavia, and told the Irish faithful at the end of Vatican II: "“You may, in the last four years, have been disturbed by reports about the council . . . You may have been worried by talk of changes to come. Allow me to reassure you: no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives.” How wrong he was! But if only he had been right!

However, if I don't proceed down the tunnel, I will be late for work.

Here is a picture of veteran's of Jacob's Biscuit Factory, one of the garrisons of the 1916 Rising. (American readers, please note that biscuits in Ireland are what you call "cookies").

Look how dignified they are, how assured of their place in history! The revisionist historiography of the 1916 Rising had yet to be written.

Here is my favourite picture of the exhibition: a UCD historian collects folklore from an old peasant woman.

I love, love, love this picture. It depicts a healthy ordering of values, in my view; the sober, scholarly, dark-suited historian is listening, deferentially, to the simple peasant woman. She is the repository of the nation's folklore, its greatest riches, its very soul. "Backwardness" is, in fact, the right way round. This is my idea of romantic nationalism.

Here is Patrick Kavanagh, the poet, who gave some lectures on poetry in UCD. On this blog, I've often quoted his line: "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder", which I consider one of the profoundest lines of poetry ever written. Sadly, he was a basher of cultural nationalism, or "bucklepping" as he called it.

Uh-oh, here's trouble! He is Noel Browne, an Irish politician with communist tendencies who was a fanatical enemy of the Catholic Church. Although he did good work in fighting the TB epidemic of the nineteen-fifties, he was an extremely bitter and egotistical man, a fact acknowledged even by his allies. He was famous for his confrontation with the Irish hierarchy over the Mother and Child Scheme, by which the State would provide free care for mothers and infants to a certain age. When I was taught about this in school (Catholic school!) the reasons for the hierarchy's opposition was left utterly mysterious. I presumed it had something to do with sex, or breastfeeding, or something like that. In reality, the Church was concerned at the power being given to the State, and its intrusion into the life of the family. Hard to imagine it today, when Catholic prelates answer to everything seems to be ever-more government. (And I'm not a libertarian by any means.) Here he is seen protesting outside the American Embassy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Here is a picture of Butch Moore, who represented Ireland in the first Eurovision Song Contest we entered, in 1965. I don't know if Americans know about the Eurovision Song Contest. It's a competition in which TV networks from various European countries enter one song each, and one song is chosen as the winner-- formerly by voting panels, now by the public. It's how Abba got their big break. Ireland has won it more often than any other country. People like to make affectionate fun of it; the songs are usually very cheesy. I have happy memories of watching it with my brother and mother; we would buy fizzy drinks and treats for it, it was a little occasion. The voting is much more fun than the music.

I included this picture because, although I'm such a backwards-looking person, I'm most nostalgic for relatively recent Irish history-- the sixties to the early nineties, perhaps. Ireland was still Catholic and nationalist, but recognizably modern. I can be nostalgic enough about the nineteen-thirties, but it's too foreign to really identify with. But I can imagine living in 1965, and I can remember living in 1985. I'd never heard of Butch Moore, but from the looks of him he seems a very respectable, wholesome kind of entertainer.

And now, onto decline and fall. You can get a broad view of it here, including the obligatory picture of the Beatles:

A little later, we get photos of students who are suddenly bolshie, preening, loutish, long-haired, sullen, and all the rest of it. There are other images of student radical magazines and posters, which I should have taken:

A sorry, dispiriting final destination.

When I conceived this blog post, I was mostly intending to write about nostalgia itself. I was going to acknowledge all its dangers and contradictions. However, it took a different direction, and now I realize that I don't want to do this. You've heard it all before. We've all heard it all before. Everything that can be said against nostalgia is pretty obvious, and is constantly said.

And to be honest, although I've written this post with something of an ironic tone, I've said nothing I don't sincerely believe.

There is one observation I'd like to make, and this is something that often strikes me as I walk past the exhibition. Has it ever occurred to you that the spirit of a nation and the spirit of a historical period, as concepts, are very similar? Liberals, deconstructionists, debunkers, and all those dreary people are always reminding us of heterogeneity, contradiction, complexity, and so forth. There is no "Ireland", they say. There was no "fifties", they say. And they would seem to have a case. There are so many elements to the life of a country, so many elements to the life of an era, that it seems a vain effort to distill some kind of essence from it all.

E pur si muove...Somehow, in spite of all this, there is a spirit of an age, there is a spirit of a nation. You only have to look at a photograph from a particular time to see it. I won't claim you only have to look at a photograph from a particular country to see it-- you might have to watch a TV broadcast, or read a newspaper. It's more diffuse, but it's there.

In the case of a historical period, it takes a distance of  years to see it. Take a picture today, and put it away for thirty years. Suddenly you'll see something in it that wasn't there the first time you looked at it. Now, this moment in history.

One of my most vivid memories of America is from the second or third time I visited. On my first visits, I'd been so eager to experience Americana that I'd been disappointed. Nothing seemed all that different. Then, on this particular visit, as I was sitting in Philadelphia airport, I looked up from my book and was suddenly hit by the American-ness of everything like steam from a sauna.

However, this doesn't make me complacent. I'm still anxious for the national distinctiveness of every country. I think the phrase: "There's no there there" is one of the most profound ever uttered. Looking at the exhibition panels in UCD's tunnel of time, I'm struck by the fact there's much more of a there in the earlier pictures-- the ones closest to the Gaelic Revival. I want more there for Ireland, not less. In fact, I want that for the entire world.


  1. I love that second last photo Mal. I see glasses instead of contact lenses and jumpers and ties and most people trying to sit up straight. They look confident and into the camera without feeling the need to make a stupid gangster sign to deflect attention from their face. They're sitting together and some have arms around their buddies. It's rare to see Irish straight men sitting so closely now unless they've drink on them. They don't look in anyway apologetic for being there. And none of them have iphones to goggle at! Never will such a photo be taken again. I love it. How's your snotty nose?


    1. I can see what you mean, but to me they also look very jumped-up and self-satisfied, not deferential or respectful at all, as youth should be. Of course, all this is subjective. I have pondered this photo before and it has occurred to me that, you know, maybe the guy with the moustache whose face I always want to slap was a member of the Legion of Mary. Ha ha ha. I've never been a fan of male bonding, I think it lacks dignity. I do agree with you about the glasses, though, I like how nerdy they are.

      My snotty nose is relentless, I'm stuck in bed today. Thank you for asking, I appreciate it.


  2. Does the appearance of deference mean being po faced though? They look happy to me. Definitely subjective! I find the moustached dude endearing for he looks like he's buddying up with the little geeky lad. It's nice to see.

    You need your Sunday roast to get rid of that cold, loads of meat and keep the bones for a stock. And leave the heating on, it's frozen. It shouldn't be like this. Remember September used to be warm and starting school again was a dread with the sun still out? Hope you get over the worst of the cold by morning.


    1. Ha, no, you don't have to be po-faced to be deferential! Maybe some of my reaction is association of ideas, the images around it are student radical magazines and posters, and even a picture of a young Vincent Browne in jam-jar glasses.

      Thanks for the advice, much appreciated, I am sipping Lemsip and the heating is on!