‘Ireland has a great tradition in literature so let us not betray it.’
—Edna O’Brien (RTE, August 2010)
In 1983 Eavan Boland wrote in an Irish Times review of a series of pamphlets published by the northern based theatre company, Field Day, that ‘if the new nationalism contained all the voices, all the fragments, all the dualities and ambiguities of reference,’ she would welcome it, ‘but it doesn’t.’ She went on: ‘Judging by the… pamphlets… this is green nationalism and divided culture,’ before quoting Derek Mahon’s quip that ‘whatever we mean by the Irish situation the shipyards of Belfast are not less a part of it than a country town in the Gaeltacht.’
Almost thirty years later the shipyards have gone and are being turned into a theme park for the Titanic, while the Gaeltacht shrinks and the future of the Irish language grows ever more vulnerable. The ‘new nationalism’ which Field Day sought to inspire and encourage debate about was a response to the political and social crisis of Northern Irish society that had spilled over into the rest of Ireland, Britain and elsewhere. Debates and political pressure surrounded the notion of the writer in Ireland throughout the nineteen-eighties and centred mainly upon the role and responsibility of the writer, who was seen as a kind of weathervane for the legacies of inherited conflict over cultural identity.
Thankfully, much water has gone under those bridges since the negotiated resolution of the conflict with the Good Friday Agreement and the decade and a half of relative peace that has followed on from it. The ‘reconciliation’ chimed with developments in Britain and Ireland as the then ‘new’ governments of Blair and Ahern took advantage of an improving economic climate to boost the optimism of the young (‘Things will only get better’). The infamous Celtic Tiger had started to roar and, with it, society in the south became literally switched-off from the politics of the past. The economy boomed. For the first time in its history, the Republic experienced the heady brew of sky-high property prices and wealth on an unprecedented scale. With an immigrant population swelling the state’s reserves, the transformation of Irish society into a multi-cultural secular democracy seemed inevitable; at ease with its neighbours, mixing it up with the best of them under the lax tax regimes of an indulgent government, taking its cue from property developers, bankers and corporate managers. The party would last forever; which of course it didn’t. But now that the ‘economic nationalism’ of the Celtic Tiger is in tatters, these comparisons are curiously apt because the writer is once again being asked to perform his/her patriotic duty as part of the expectation raised in various quarters, that culture and ‘the Arts’ in Ireland will, and should, ride to the rescue of an incompetent state and the exploitative class of bankers and others who squandered the resources of the boom, having first lavishly secured their own futures while bequeathing to the taxpayer the cost of the bailout.
This is a political problem that needs decisive action on economic and fiscal matters for the next quarter of a century. It has got nothing whatsoever to do with writing. The balm that cultural tourism brings should not be seen as anything other than a diplomatic boost to help things along; it is certainly no substitute for or solution to the abject failures of the economic and political system in Ireland in recent years.
Writers are being co-opted into a script of national idealism and self-centredness that recalls the response to the northern crisis of the Troubles. Linked to the belief that the image of Ireland has been tarnished by the commercial and financial chicanery of a few, it was inevitable that some revival of nationalism was on the cards. The real question is—what will this actually achieve? More specifically, what does it mean for our literary culture to become too aligned with, perhaps indebted to, the current immediacies of politically expedient agendas?
The actual tradition of Irish writers, from Wilde and Shaw and Joyce and O’Casey through the twentieth century, is one of artistic defiance and imaginative challenge rather than one of cultural compliance and orthodoxy. We shouldn’t discount as inconvenient Beckett’s dismissive letter of January 1938—in response to his good friend, the poet and one-time director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Thomas Mac Greevy’s essay on Jack Yeats. Beckett confesses to a ‘chronic inability to understand… a phrase like “the Irish people”, or to imagine it ever gave a fart in its corduroys… for any form of art whatsoever… or that it will ever care, if it ever knows, any more than the Bog of Allen will ever care or know, that there was once a painter in Ireland called Jack Butler Yeats.’
Writers have always had a complicatedly intimate relationship with the Irish state—one prominent writer spoke recently of his ‘shame’ at what was happening, a noteworthy personalising of the economic situation. People in Ireland, and Irish people outside the country, justly take pride and self-confidence in the achievements of Irish writing on the world stage. But we also have to recognise that the great twentieth century writers from Ireland—to take these as an example—had contradictory relationships with the Irish state and its ruling ideologies. Just think of Joyce, or Kavanagh, or Bowen, or McGahern. As writers each of them saw their work in the comparative context of other European and American writers, not in terms of how they felt about the place they came from—which was much too important an emotional connection to be exploited. Indeed the notion of feeling ‘passionate’ about things has itself become a meaningless cliché.
Part of the problem the country has faced in the outworking of the political and cultural period of the Celtic Tiger is that relatively little was learned from other economies which had experienced a similar rapid boom. No plans were put in place to secure the economic gains. And the class spread of the wealth was patchy at best. One need only look at how exposed the working-class estates are throughout the country to drugs, social disorder and dismembering violence on quite a shocking scale. The sense of apprehension in the night streets has become so customary that people are now inured to it as a fact of life.
The aesthetic impoverishment of many cities, towns and large swathes of the countryside sits bizarrely alongside the (by now) expired portrait of an Ireland as visually alert and committed to preserving what was best in the landscape, not destroying it. Yet the organs of the state and local governance simply were not fit for purpose or powerful enough to protect that landscape from greedy developers. As Fintan O’Toole remarked with an exasperation close to despair, ‘You have to be in awe of a ruling class that can use its incompetence to escape the consequences of its incompetence.’ In these circumstances, ‘awe’ may not be quite the right word.
Which signature building stands out, what big idea was produced? Was the sole major entrepreneurial achievement a cut in corporate tax? In the years ahead, others will sift through the published literature to see which were the achieved works carrying imaginative challenge and historical veracity to future generations. The post-Tiger years will slip into history and the culpability and mismanagement visited upon the country by the financial and political elite—with no ability of our own to seek recompense—will fade too, leaving in its wake the fiction that Ireland, while being culturally exceptional, is/was economically unmanned by all-powerful global forces beyond its/our control. Ownership of a recession is clearly a mug’s game.
Piety now raises its head where once there had been gung-ho speculators—in real estate as much as in cultural chutzpah. As John McGahern wrote of the nineteen-fifties, a much more difficult time than the present, ‘pious humbug often afflicts the Arts’. Indeed, McGahern’s beloved Kavanagh didn’t put a tooth in it in his Self Portrait:
For twenty years I wrote according to the dispensation of this Irish school. The appraisers of the school all agreed that I had my roots in the soil, was one of the people and that I was an authentic voice. What the alleged poetry lover loved was the Irishness of a thing. Irishness is a form of anti-art. A way of posing as a poet without actually being one.
It simply is not ‘healthy’, as a younger contemporary writer has put it, ‘for the cultural life of a country for the artists to be cosying up with the political elite and brand “Ireland.”’
Whatever about their beliefs and actions as citizens, this kind of expectation for writers is, as Conor Cruise O’Brien once had it, an unhealthy intersection. Remember Louis MacNeice’s injunction from the nineteen-thirties: ‘The writer today should be not so much the mouthpiece of a community (for he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct.’
Maybe in the decades ahead literary and cultural comparisons will be made with countries similar to our own. Rather than the dreamtime of a very old kind of soft-centred nationalism, what is needed now is an outward looking, clear-sighted and bouyant appreciation of where we are in the world. A practical vision based upon the country’s maritime and agricultural roots, committed to new ‘green’ technologies, mindful of our exceptional literary and cultural achievements, alongside the physical distinctiveness of the landscape. With its contradictory and varied history and longstanding ties to Britain, Europe and the US, Ireland is a unique island of the inbetween.