The Debatable Land #10: The Importance of Being Irish
The rise and fall and rise again of Ireland
Hello and welcome to the tenth edition of my newsletter, The Debatable Land. This week is a special edition looking at two newish books on the history of modern Ireland. As always, if you felt like sharing this post on social media or by email or whatever that would be a kind and much appreciated act.
In the autumn of 1993 I arrived in Dublin to take up a place at Trinity College. This was, in certain respects, an unusual thing. Before applying to Trinity, I had never been to Ireland, had no Irish relatives or connections to any part of the island and had, in truth, never thought about the place at all. My knowledge of and interest in Ireland was largely confined to speculation as to how the Irish rugby team might fare in what was then the Five Nations championship.
Had I not first been keen to leave Scotland, second, not had a disagreement with Cambridge and third not had Trinity suggested to me by a friend who had secured a place there himself Ireland would most likely have remained a little land, not so far away, about which I knew nothing.
So it was some gorgeous accident that I arrived in Dublin and doubly accidental that this coincided with a revolution in Irish affairs. For no western european country has been so thoroughly changed as Ireland these past thirty years. It has been a social, economic, and moral transformation that has left Ireland all but unrecognisable from the place I landed in nearly - god almighty - 30 years ago.
I - we, frankly - didn’t necessarily realise it at the time but our generation of students were the luckiest in the history of the Irish state. The first to emerge into the sunshine of a state abundant with possibility; the first for whom emigration was a choice, not a necessity.
Even so I - an innocent in the world, having grown up in the Scottish Borders and been shut off from the outside world for the five years I attended an exclusive educational penitentiary on the Highland boundary - could not fail to be struck by how, as late as 1993, the most treasured possession any young Irish man or woman could have was a piece of paper confirming the holder’s right to work in the United States of America. These visas were winning lottery tickets and everyone - really, everyone - seemed to have a relative living on the far side of the Atlantic. Go west, for that was where the future lay.
Five years later such futures could still be had but they had been superseded by something much more remarkable and even thrilling: the idea of a future made in Ireland, the idea of a future at home.
We hardly knew it but Ireland’s transformation was already underway in 1993. More, perhaps, than any other western country Ireland was the great beneficiary of the post-Cold War era of globalisation. It had, as Fintan O’Toole observes in We Don’t Know Ourselves, a “personal history of Ireland since 1958”, the great good fortune to be an English-speaking country within the European Union with a glut of well-educated young people thirsting for opportunity. American investment - eventually amounting to more than 800 companies - made firms such as Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Pfizer, Apple, IBM, Oracle, and many more the frame upon which Ireland’s first modern economy was built.
It helped, too, that having never industrialised Ireland was not saddled with the legacy costs of deindustrialisation. Dublin had never been Detroit and never would be. During the 1990s unemployment halved and, for the first time, Ireland became a place to which people moved, not just a place from which people fled. By some - admittedly questionable - measurements, Ireland became the richest proper country in Europe.
O’Toole’s book has been hailed as the best published in Ireland last year and this seems a fair verdict. It is both sweeping and deeply penetrating while also being something daring: a call to recognise Ireland as it really is and was, sweeping away the myths and comforts which, in ways good and bad, sustained Ireland’s idea of itself for generations.
But, as I say, we had little inkling of these possibilities in 1993. Then, much of Dublin retained an air of shabby failure. Temple Bar was not yet a tourist trap; trees grew from the roofs of crumbling, even ruined, buildings. Good coffee was almost impossible to find. The food was dreadful. In the Liberties, a working-class neighbourhood minutes from the city centre, you might regularly encounter horse-drawn carts. You could, if you needed to, use sterling as a substitute for the Irish punt. There were, at best, two ways of getting around the country: slowly or very slowly. Provincial towns - Monaghan, Sligo, Athlone, Waterford - were sullen and grey and faintly carceral. At the university, Trinity’s two debating societies advertised “the annual abortion debate” and “the annual Northern Ireland debate”, perennial intimations the same old arguments would be held, with little hope of movement, for years to come. (We were wrong about this, but we didn’t know that then.)
The great, unavoidable, irony about modern Ireland is it is built upon the failure of the Irish state. The men who made Ireland free also ensured its misery. Ireland would be free and catholic and Irish-speaking and it would have 32 counties. It would be self-sufficient in culture and as near to damnit in goods too. A unique place for a chosen people. But Eamonn de Valera’s Ireland was a soul-crushing horror and some of the best passages in O’Toole’s book demonstrate the impoverishment - both material and moral - upon which Dev’s Ireland insisted. Four out of every ten people born in Ireland in the 1930s left the country and in the 1950s just two European countries endured a fall in population: Ireland and East Germany.
During that decade, even the IRA - then a broadly ridiculous organisation - worried about emigration because it exposed young Irishmen to the “irreligious and completely materialistic atmosphere of England”. Albania, for heaven’s sake, had television before Ireland did but then Albania did not have to worry about being corrupted by England.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, de Valera indulged himself with the hope Ireland might “become again, as it was for centuries in the past, a great intellectual and missionary centre from which would go forth the satisfying saving truths of Divine Revelation”. The alternative was horrifying: Ireland might instead “sink into an amorphous cosmopolitanism - without a past or a distinguishable future”.
All of this had to fail for Ireland to be liberated from itself. If O’Toole’s history is impeccably Whiggish it remains the case that, in Ireland, the whigs were right. The whole thing had to be torn apart before something better could be built. That may explain why O’Toole’s book is often a surprisingly angry one.
Conveniently, perhaps, the first seeds of transformation were sown in 1958, the year of O’Toole’s birth. In that year Ken Whitaker, an official at the department of finance, wrote and published a 250-page off-books manifesto titled Economic Development in which he suggested “It would be well to shut the door on the past”. Ireland must join the modern world and become an open economy not a closed one. This was revolutionary even if the scale of the ambition was also, in one sense, laughable: doubling economic growth from one percent to two percent a year. But it was a beginning and one which, despite many steps back, enjoyed the patronage of de Valera’s successor as Taoiseach, Sean Lemass. For once you start opening doors they are not easily closed.
But, my, the hypocrisy of it all. There were always multiple Irelands and they were only on nodding terms with one another. Though he doesn’t quote it, O’Toole’s analysis reminded me of a famous line from Borges’ The Mythical Foudation of Buenos Aires:
The afternoon had established its yesterdays, and men took on together an illusory past. Only one thing was missing – the street had no other side.
Ireland was half-built too. Or, as O’Toole writes: “Just because everybody knew the lie for what it was, this did not mean the sham did not have to be maintained” and, again, “everybody knew about it, but almost no one could utter it without the stammers of euphemism and evasion”. In this latter instance, he is talking about the brutality of a school system largely administered by the Christian Brothers but it is a line which stands for the greater part of O’Toole’s analysis. “We don’t know ourselves”, after all, because we choose not to.
And it was a mean and vicious Ireland too. The broadcaster Gay Byrne recalled in his autobiography how the Christian Brothers “bear the tar out of us… We were beaten with straps, sticks, even the leg of a chair. We were beaten for failure at lessons and simply, it seemed to me, on principle.” These were the lucky boys; much worse befell those condemned to Ireland’s so-called “industrial schools”, places of genuine horror.
Bad as it might have been to be a boy it was worse being a girl. Irish women were not permitted to control their own bodies or, indeed, their own lives. Abortion was one of Ireland’s more notable, if rarely commented upon, exports; the contraceptive pill an import of which it was decided to say nothing at all. “Hypocrisy was the tribute realism paid to piety” O’Toole writes and this applied to almost everything in the public square where Irish identity, Irish morals, and Irish reality met.
And then there was the matter of unwanted pregnancies. The Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes were places of Dickensian horror; proof that nothing can be so cruel as a society which compliments itself on an unearned decency. As one woman pregnant outside marriage said: “I learned that babies like the one I might have are usually placed in brown paper bags and left in a toilet and I resolved to do this. For that reason, I started to carry around the one penny I would need to get into the toilet to have the baby.” A problem buried is a problem eradicated and in this fashion Ireland made an alternative reality and thought it real.
This duality leached into almost everything. Tax evasion, for instance, was a national sport semi-approved of by the state that was being cheated. Countless middle-class professionals took advantage of schemes known to be dubious but, in a land where nothing was ever quite what it seemed, only a mug would play by all the rules. (Ireland was sometimes quite like Italy, you know.) Some of this endures, too: when a European court demanded Apple pay 13 billion euros in back taxes, the Irish government appealed against a verdict which would have enriched it but at the price of inconveniencing, and perhaps angering, the kind of American multinationals who were in Ireland but not quite of it; a shadow kind of economy requiring different rules.
For O’Toole, Ireland’s liberation required three things: the death of clerical authority, the eclipse of Fianna Fail, and the abandonment of 32-county nationalism. To one degree or another each of these happened. The church’s demise is a well-chronicled story of earned infamy but an Ireland busy rejecting its own past is also a country liable to question the political party that considered itself the embodiment of that history. As for nationalism: it was obvious even to a callow teenager in the early 1990s that a united Ireland was a matter of sentimental yearning that should not be confused with any concrete desire for such an outcome.
Small countries may be especially susceptible to wild swings of emotion. Perspective is easily lost. Thus the boom years were, in Dublin, years which put 1980s London to shame. Ireland woke up to discover it had become a kind of poster-child for the rest of the western world. If the Irish - the Irish! - could achieve an economic miracle, surely anyone could? With this came a certain smugness and complacency. Sure, we’ve only gone and cracked it. You did not need to be a super-forecaster, however, to wonder how sustainable it all was. When taxi drivers - that reliable source of journalistic impressions - were boasting about property they had purchased in Eastern Europe it was hard to avoid the thought something terrible must be about to happen.
O’Toole acknowledges that a lot of people had a lot of fun during the years of economic transformation but his verdict is oddly charmless: Ireland was only catching up to where it should have been all along. Perhaps so, but here for once O’Toole stacks the deck. Change was not just an accident even if many of the things which contributed to it were accidental or at least unforeseen.
Moreover, between 1995 and 200 the value of Irish exports doubled and in 2007 there were twice as many people working as had been the case in 1988. In that year more than 70,000 people - two percent of the population - emigrated and it seemed as though, once again, Ireland was on the brink of being a failing state. The problems of the boom, replete with all its vanities, were at least preferable to this. So too, despite everything, the humiliations of the post-2008 crash though the rapidity with which, after years of sovereignty-stripped austerity, the boom times were seen to have returned did suggest a people disinclined to learn from history or appreciate the quiet values of perspective.
The great non-clerical villain of O’Toole’s book is Charlie Haughey, the dominant force in Irish politics throughout the 1980s and the symbol of all that was worst about Fianna Fail in particular and Irish public life more generally. A crook whose crookedness was never disguised but, instead, considered an ordinary part of life; a hypocrite whose double-life - trousering millions from wealthy businessmen, blustering about family values while enjoying a decades-long, open, affair with a gossip columnists - existed in plain sight but without censure. A figure, it was hard not to suspect, whose popularity was in some strange way enhanced by this nodded-and-winked doubleness, not compromised by it. An inexplicable figure whose survival could, in the end, only be explained by his very Irishness; a natural meeting of country and individual.
It is one of the virtues of Gary Murphy’s monumental biography of Haughey that he allows all of this without permitting Haughey’s legend to obscure Haughey’s reality as a politician. If Haughey wanted to play both sides - as Sean Lemass’s son-in-law he was an economic moderniser even as he was also, in matters of morality, publicly a traditionalist - that must reflect both his own character and his appraisal of where the country was and what it might accept. If he was Janus-faced, so was Ireland.
When, after all the scandals, Haughey finally fell he quoted from Othello: “I have done the state some service, and they know it”. There he left his defence, largely keeping his counsel even through the years when his reputation was thoroughly shredded by the disclosure he had been accepting cheques from businessmen the better to afford his lavish lifestyle. (These should not be underestimated: at one point Haughey’s domestic staff must have cost more than his parliamentary salary brought it. Then there were the racehorses, a yacht, his own private island, handmade shirts from Paris, and so on and so on…) Haughey’s defence amounted to, in effect, saying “So what?”
Now, more than 15 years after his death it becomes possible to reappraise Haughey’s career. Strip away the hypocrisy and the scandals and the suspicions of corruption and the presidential de haut en bas style and a fair reading of Haughey’s record, I think, must account for his achievements. If his first and second terms in office (1979-81, March to December 1982) were in different ways disastrous, his third from 1987-92 restored some sanity to the public finances and laid some of the foundations for the Irish economic miracle. It was Haughey who, on the recommendation of Dermot Desmond, established the Irish Financial Services Centre that - via means honest and dubious - would play a large part in galvanising Irish economic growth and it was Haughey who kept trade unions on board by agreeing a “social partnership” that would later be credited for easing the transition to economic modernity. If the spending cuts he presided over were brutal, so too was the reality of the situation with which he was confronted.
Acknowledging this imposes not requirement to think him a better man but it is a weakness of O’Toole’s book that his Haughey is cartoonishly flat and a strength of Murphy’s that his is greyer but multi-dimensional. As Murphy says, “Haughey had an uncanny ability to compartmentalise the various facets of his public and private lives” and in this he was perhaps merely reflecting his country’s ability to do something similar with its own contradictions.
In Northern Ireland, too, Haughey could grow. Disgraced by the 1970 Arms Trial (Haughey was acquitted on charges of conspiring to import arms for the IRA) Haughey was still a nationalist of the delusional Brits-out school when he opposed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Yet it was also Haughey who, quietly and secretly and through intermediaries, began talks with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein that would later become the basis for the Hume-Adams talks that themselves became the basis for bringing the Republican movement into a peace process worth the name. Murphy is good on all this and much besides and the Haughey which emerges from his account is more substantial than it is now fashionable to recognise.
At Trinity there was never much of a Haughey caucus. Or, at any rate, there wasn’t in the circles in which I moved. These were - by Irish standards anyway - largely liberal and Trinity was, in any case, still an unusual, compromised place. It was, of course, Irish but it still retained a frisson of its Anglo-Irish and Ascendancy past. (In 1945 TCD students had flown the Union flag on VE Day, a provocation which enraged some and persuaded a gaggle of students from University College to storm the building, haul down the Union Jack, and replace it with the Irish tricolour. Charles Haughey was there to play a part, albeit one later embellished by legend.)
Viewed from Trinity, Ireland’s place as a landing spot between the lure of America to the west and Europe to the south and east seemed sensible and even normal. And at Trinity, too, it seemed clear that if the Irish were in certain respects Eastern Americans (or so they liked to think themselves) they were also and unavoidably Western Britons too (even if they disliked thinking themselves this).
Ireland’s European experience - 50 years old this year - necessarily meant shifting the country’s economic gaze from Britain to the continent. The Americans were here because of Europe, not Britain. Culturally, however, Ireland and Britain retained their mutual influence upon each other. They watched many of the same television programmes, listened to many of the same songs, followed precisely the same football teams, spoke the same language and so on. Modernity and its acceptance meant this could be done without sacrificing Irishness or Irish distinctiveness. Nationalism, particularly the cultural kind, is always defensive and requires a kind of cringe. A New Ireland could move beyond that, recognising the irrelevance of such antiquated thinking.
For de Valera and the other revolutionaries of 1916, modern Ireland would be worse than unrecognisable. It would be understood as a kind of failure and, worse than that, a betrayal. But it is precisely by being less unique, less distinctively Irish, that Ireland today can be more honestly and more happily Irish. Its rendez-vous with modernity has been a heck of a ride but one with a surprisingly fortuitous ending. At long last, perhaps, it may be time to appreciate the value of perspective; at long last the prospect of self-knowledge must be considered a real one.
Stat of the Week
David Willets writes: “Whitehall-controlled day-to-day spending will have gone up by £111 billion between 2010 and 2024. An extraordinary £84 billion of that will have gone to the Department of Health and Social Care.” Increasingly the British government (and its devolved subsidiaries) are health and social care providers with sideline interests in other areas. That has consequences that go beyond questions of inter-generational fairness (though these are important) but that are, typically, largely ignored by whatever counts as ‘the discourse’ these days. Conservatives might not like it, but it means tax increases - and broad-based ones at that - are all but inevitable and not just because a measure of what remains of the government’s credibility relies on pushing through the planned increase in national insurance contributions. The longer-term problem, of course, is that the costs of health and social care will continue to rise even as the number of people required to pay for this will decrease.
Each week The Times carries a piece urging readers to return to, or otherwise reconsider, a book which may have unreasonably slipped from fashion or been forgotten. This week I suggested James Kennaway’s Tunes of Glory meets that standard. Alas, space constraints prevented a lengthier discussion of Kennaway’s career but here are two things it would have been lovely to include:
In The Cost of Living Like This Kennaway describes an SNP-supporting hotelier thusly: “He had attacked Julian for being English; had quoted bogus figures in support of an independent Scotland; then towards the end of the journey he had openly confessed that he was only a Scottish Nationalist because he hated all the other parties.” This was published (posthumously) in 1969 so, you know, plus ça change and all that.
Kennaway was also an accomplished screenwriter, earning an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Tunes of Glory. He also wrote the screenplay for Battle of Britain. Alas, other projects never made it to the screen. One such was a biopic of Mary, Queen of Scots to be directed by Alexander Mackendrick (later most famous for the brilliant, The Sweet Smell of Success) and featuring, of all people, Mia Farrow as the unlucky Queen. This occasioned some chuntering in Scotland. “How will she manage a Scottish accent?” one hack asked Mackendrick. “Mary was educated in France and her first language was French”, the director sniffed. Kennaway then put an end to a somewhat fractious press conference by declaring, when asked about the guts of his script, that “We shall surround this civilised young woman with lots and lots of nasty fucking wee Scotsmen”. Well, quite.
Have you had enough of Dominic Cummings? I concede it is possible you may. But if not, you will enjoy Tanya Gold’s interview with him: “What’s fairness got to do with anything? It’s politics. All this is not fair. The fact that someone wins an election doesn’t mean that they should just stay there for years, right? If you’ve got a duffer, if you think someone can’t do the job, or is unfit for the job. My basic approach to it was there was a world in which he accepted his limitations and accepted that No. 10 could work in a certain way with him there as prime minister. But if he’s not going to do that and if he’s just going treat the place like his own …” He stops for a moment, then says, “You know, as he said to me, ‘I’m the fucking king around here and I’m going to do what I want.’” [NY Mag]
Christina Lamb reports from an Afghan tragedy the world would rather ignore. There are many kinds of journalism but sometimes it is a simple business: a matter of bearing witness, of declaring that this is happening whether you wish to pay it attention or not. “As a foreign correspondent for the past 35 years, I have seen too much famine, disease and death. But I have never seen anything of this magnitude. Here it is countrywide, it crosses social classes and it is happening before our eyes with far too little being done to mitigate it. All in a country into which the West poured billions in aid and military expenditure over the past 20 years — an estimated £40 billion from the UK alone.” [Sunday Times]
David Frum on the legacy of George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, a good deal of which was written by David Frum. [The Atlantic]
Why is Canadian architecture so bad? [The Walrus]
Ian Leslie on The Beatles: “What makes Get Back so dramatic, in its undramatic way, is seeing the Beatles struggle to adjust to waking life. The struggle unfolds in the music they’re making and in how they negotiate their changing relationships to each other. This was a group comprised of talented, wilful individuals who shared a powerful resistance to being told what to do. The question should not be why they split up so much as how they stayed together. The answer is that they loved each other, they shared an appetite for work, and they knew they were special as a group. But it was nonetheless hard and getting harder. In Get Back, the mythical, world-conquering, four-headed beast is revealed to be four young men, beset by uncertainty, wondering if they really want to be tied together like this forever.” [Substack]
Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs Elgar’s cello concerto at the 2019 BBC Proms.
That’s all for this week, folks. Thanks for popping by. Should you wish to share this newsletter - or even upgrade your subscription yourself - I’d be most grateful. See you next week.