Ireland no longer needs self-pity or hyperbole to tell its story. Here is an account that returns to the Irish the right to be unremarkable Europeansby Fintan O'Toole / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
Writing in the Guardian on Oliver Stone’s new movie about Alexander the Great, Fiachra Gibbons described the difficulties of a Hollywood director trying to deal with a small nation’s sensitivities about its history. Faced with the competing claims of Greece and the Republic of Macedonia to Alexander’s legacy, “Stone’s… masterstroke has been to give Alexander and the men of the Macedonian phalanxes Irish accents, while the Greeks speak clipped English RP. Macedonians of all complexions are content with this, each convinced it favours their cause.” Epic history, apparently, speaks in an Irish accent. Or, to reduce it to an equation, hyperbole plus history equals Ireland.
Nothing is more common, especially to small nations, than the belief that their own tribe has forged a unique destiny from unique sufferings. There is nothing unusual or necessarily disreputable about the tendency of people in both parts of Ireland to exaggerate their own importance. What is unusual, though, is that much of the world tends to go along with the belief that Ireland’s history is unique both in its heroism and its awfulness. Because of the disproportionate scale of its diaspora in America and Britain, its privileged place in Anglo-American culture, and its somewhat anomalous position as a corner of old Europe still haunted by the unfinished business of the reformation, Ireland gets a lot of attention. When, in the television gangster drama The Sopranos, Tony’s nephew Christopher comes out of a coma, he tells the family that he has been briefly in hell. It is, it turns out, an Irish bar where it is always St Patrick’s day.
Even from an Irish perspective, it is easy to sympathise with Christopher’s infernal vision of a place that celebrates its own significance so insistently and demands attention so effectively. There is something deeply immoral, for example, about the degree of international importance accorded to the conflict in Northern Ireland, which took fewer than 4,000 lives over 30 years, in contrast to the developed world’s relative indifference to the conflict in the Congo region, which has taken a thousand times as many over ten years. Ireland has had its problems, but over the course of the 20th century the island was a relatively lucky place, free of concentration camps or gulags, famines or droughts, rape camps or killing fields.
Yet the ambivalent position of Ireland in the wider world, its odd mix of underdevelopment and hyperdevelopment, of insularity and globalisation, has often sanctioned outrageous comparisons with Africa or the old eastern Europe. Some aspects of Irish experience in the 20th century can certainly be illuminated by reference to the great historical traumas of the rest of the world. Words like “torture” and “slavery” can usefully be applied, if merely as a rebuke to self-righteousness, to the imprisonment and abuse of children in the Republic’s church-run industrial school system, which ended only in the 1970s. The scope of literary censorship in the Republic from the 1930s to the 1960s has something in common with the control of literature in the communist world. Aspects of the relative poverty and underdevelopment which blighted the Irish economy until the 1990s can be analysed within frameworks that are more usually applied to Asia and Latin America.
But these analogies are also misleading, especially in the context of Europe in the 20th century. No Irish city has been besieged for two and a half years during which over 650,000 of its citizens died, as happened to Leningrad between 1941 and 1944. In no Irish city has virtually the entire female population been threatened with rape, as with Berlin in 1945. For all the systematic discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland and the subtler pressure on Protestants in the Republic, no Irish ethnic group in the 20th century has been subjected to the large-scale viciousness inflicted on Jews, Armenians, Gypsies and Bosnians in Europe.
The effects of the Irish civil war of 1922-23 still shape politics in the Republic, but it was a minor skirmish in comparison with the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s. The authoritarianism of Irish governments, north and south, real as it was, would have represented astonishing freedom for many Europeans during long periods of the century when Ireland was one of a small handful of surviving democracies. Some images of Ireland in the 20th century (the hollow ruins of central Dublin after the 1916 rising, for example, or the paratroopers with machine guns in the front yards of houses in west Belfast in the 1980s) recall the devastation of the wider continent in the 1930s and 1940s, but no Irish city has been flattened, divided by a wall or had its nationality changed and changed back according to the latest geopolitical contingencies.
Even the language of Irish politics has often tacitly acknowledged a nagging sense that, however awful things could be in Ireland, the real epics of human tragedy were unfolding elsewhere. The very term “the Troubles” – used for both the struggles of 1916-23 from which the Republic and Northern Ireland emerged and the north’s civil conflict of 1968-98 – suggests, even in the midst of great personal suffering, an understanding that Ireland occupies a footnote in the long book of the century’s cruelties. There is even a note of bathetic comedy in the Republic’s official term for the second world war, in which it managed to stay neutral: “the Emergency.”
None of which means that the history of 20th century Ireland is without a wider resonance. What justifies the word “transformation” in the title of Diarmaid Ferriter’s lucid and fresh new history of 20th-century Ireland is that, to the extent that Ireland did have an international importance during that period, it was significant for two opposing reasons. In the early part of the century, it was the arena for a path-breaking revolt against one form of globalisation, the British empire. In the last decade of the century, the Republic embraced another form of globalisation so thoroughly that it came to represent an extreme manifestation of the phenomenon. In 2004, the AT Kearney/Foreign Policy globalisation index, which ranks 62 developed countries for 14 variables relating to economic integration, personal international contact, technological connectivity, and global political engagement, put the Republic of Ireland, for the third successive year, at number one.
The story that Ferriter tells so well is that of the rise and fall of a political culture, forged in the reaction against empire, that made it both possible and necessary for Ireland to rejoin a global system in which the US had replaced Britain as the top dog. His is a history without hyperbole, free both from masochism and from self-importance, equally sceptical of Irish claims to special suffering and to a special destiny. By rejecting epic narrative, he allows the daily struggles of ordinary people – for personal and collective dignity, for a decent living, for freedom to live their lives, for the right to be unremarkable Europeans – back into the story. Neither a mythologiser nor a demythologiser, he tries, with a remarkable degree of success, to keep his eye on the way big events interact with small lives.
Daniel Corkery’s well-known definition of authentically Irish literature in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, published in 1931, took it as axiomatic that Irish distinctiveness resulted from an interplay of “three great forces which, working for long in the Irish national being, have made it so different from the English national being: (1) The Religious Consciousness of the People; (2) Irish Nationalism; and (3) The Land.” By the end of the 20th century, those secure landmarks no longer defined the Irish landscape. Catholicism had ceased to serve as a common culture, either in the Republic, where it was mired in scandal and uncertainty, or on the island as a whole, where, of course, it had long been one side of a divide. Although it still had some emotional purchase, Irish nationalism had been radically redefined by the Belfast agreement of 1998.
Ferriter charts the process by which Corkery’s fusion of land, nationality and religion came to the fore in the early part of the 20th century, explores the tensions that it generated, and describes the gradual unweaving of that potent ideology. While describing this broad arc he is unusually comfortable with contradictions and complications. Moving beyond the rather tiresome debates in which the revolutionary nationalists of 1916 tend to be seen either as magnificent martyrs or as deluded maniacs, he is able, for example, to understand the leader of the Easter rising, Patrick Pearse, both as a strange man and as a brave man. He writes of Pearse’s fascination with Peter Pan and his “obvious devotion to young boys,” and picks up on the extent to which these oddities are also ironically English, reflecting as they did “a typical Edwardian fascination with the cult of youthful masculinity.”
Ferriter is comfortable with these contradictions because he recognises that inconsistency is normal, especially in times of change. Historians are always shaped by their sources, but there is a sense that Ferriter has taken his method as well as his material from the written record. His is the first major study of Irish 20th-century history to draw on the recently released archive of the Bureau of Military History, which contains almost 2,000 statements from participants in the revolutionary upheavals of 1916-21. These statements don’t just add detail to the accepted story, they change its texture. The ambiguities inherent in the motivations and feelings of any individual help to restore the hesitancies and uncertainties that history often edits out.
Thus the Catholic priest Thomas Duggan recalls that his generation of students at the main seminary in Ireland “embraced the ideals of Easter week 1916 with… fervour.” But he adds immediately, “That did not prevent us from becoming chaplains in the British army.” Conversely, one of many similar statements from IRA men recalls the presence in their ranks of an ex-British army sharpshooter whose “job was to shoot the drivers of army lorries.” The reminder that many people had shifting allegiances even in the period when the lines of conflict were apparently at their clearest, sounds a note that echoes through Ferriter’s treatment of later events.
That later history, indeed, might have been rather happier if it had been possible for the two polities on the island, the Republic and Northern Ireland, to develop institutions that could do justice to the ambiguities in the lives and loyalties of their citizens. Partition, however, both resulted from and reinforced the failure of the governing ideologies of church and state to accommodate the possibility of mixed feelings. The problem with partition, moreover, was not that it created two cultural monoliths glowering at each other across a ragged border, but that neither was really the monolith it pretended to be. The Catholic state in the Republic could not hold on to the Catholics, who left in droves to search for a better, and freer, life elsewhere. The Protestant state in Northern Ireland could not make itself acceptable, not only to its large Catholic minority, but also to many Protestant liberals and socialists.
People in both parts of the island can, therefore, feel glad to have escaped the 20th century, which began in a turmoil of optimistic energy and ended with a sober but relatively prosperous disillusionment. Increasingly, and for good reasons, Irish people are happy to trade the feeling of being actors in a grand historical drama for the quotidian banalities of life in the marketplace. It is hard to argue with Ferriter’s downbeat concluding note to his often enthralling book, where he refers to a “pragmatic, dismissive and ideologically indifferent Ireland.” Given the petty cruelties of an Ireland that had, at times, too little indifference to narrow ideologies, it is easy to understand why pragmatism has such attractions. But there is a need for Irish people to begin a new, more easy-going and realistic historical narrative, and Ferriter has helped to create the context in which it might unfold.