Being Irish, or why we don’t know ourselves

Notes from the Western Periphery

FLUX AND FORTUNE At once a land of progress, contradiction and continuity, Ireland has evolved while remaining rooted in its singular cultural identity.

John Bradley

Winter is a time for reading. Over Christmas I tackled Fintan O’Toole’s latest book, ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958’. Frank and open accounts of growing up in post-War Ireland are rare, so this was a treat and set off memories of my own childhood during the decade prior to 1958.
Which of us in middle age, while rummaging in dusty attics, has not happened on a book with our name written in a childish hand, followed by something like: ‘Murrisk, Westport, Mayo, Ireland, Europe, the World, the Universe?’ A child sees the rest of the world as through the wrong end of a telescope. Other places are remote. An understanding of identity only comes with age and experience, when we interact with other nationalities and cultures.
O’Toole’s book triggered reflections on the way the Catholic Church dealt with the modernisation of Ireland from the late 1940s. His narrative is at times raw, bitter and unforgiving. It is also gloriously gossipy. He excoriates failings of political and Church leaders.
In contrast, I revelled selfishly in the opportunities that education offered. Returning from summer jobs in England, I loaded up with ‘banned’ books (Broderick, Dunleavy, McGahern, Sartre, Nabokov, etc) and longed to be arrested, but never was!
It was inevitable that many would take the ‘exit’ route, in mentality and belief. One recalls what Edward Wilson, the famous entomologist who died in December, said ironically about common sense: “If common sense means living by a set of rules of thumb that have worked in the past, but living without examining these rules too closely or in detail, then, yes, ants have common sense.”
But the times were a-changing. In the late 1950s, ‘Religion’, or more precisely, ‘Apologetics’, as taught in Secondary Schools consisted of perfunctory, ritual denunciations of almost all modern movements in science and philosophy. The education system that facilitated this misguided and doomed preparation for modern life only began to change in the late 1960s, driven by the opening of the economy and accelerated by the reforms of second-level education launched by Donagh O’Malley in 1966.
Church authorities, who dominated education, simply had no strategic understanding of how their alienating, closed and domineering world was about to be shattered. The demise of Franco, Salazar and Pétain – Catholic, anti-communist heroes whom they praised – had taught them nothing.

Delicate balance
For most of my adult life I worked as an economist, a profession built on language and concepts that compel international comparisons. My work started in Ireland but later took me to many other countries. Only as I grew older did I develop a better understanding and appreciation of ‘Irishness’.
To be Irish is like being in an inter-tidal zone between alternative worlds. We are suspended between two cultures: one, British, made us citizens of the modern, urban world of trade and commerce; the other, a gentler Gaelic heritage, made us spiritual, traditional and rural. The tension between these forces animates our thought and artistic expression.
We gave up our language yet retained a strong and distinct cultural identity that we express (often very elegantly) in two languages. As a child, I learned the names of flowers, crops, animals and places in Irish and the facts of commerce, geography and science in English. We were exposed both to Shakespeare and Wordsworth as well as to Seosamh Mac Grianna and Máirtin O Direáin.
We became comfortable in a global economy, yet in many ways we remained inward-looking. We were both insiders and outsiders. We could be deeply religious, with a tendency towards asceticism, yet our hedonism is exported all over the world in the phenomenon of ubiquitous Irish Pubs. We leave Ireland in droves, embrace the world, but often return.
This delicate balance between different Irish cultures has interesting consequences, even in the dismal science of economics.

Pleasant surprise
Some years ago, I gave a lecture in Ljubljana on the Irish experience of foreign direct investment. As I related the story of how our manufacturing sector was dominated by foreign multinationals, I became aware of how unpalatable the Slovenians found this notion.
My Slovenian colleagues explained to me that they had not achieved independence in order to give their economy away to foreigners. How convenient, I thought, to live in Ireland, an island nation far away (in modern times) from the battlefields of marauding armies of empires in conflict!
However, now is a better time to be Irish, when our rapid economic progress has catapulted us from the role of poor laggard to a prosperous, albeit error prone, host of high-tech multinationals, driven by education and hard work.
Until the late 1980s, we huddled in our wet and windy island and longed to be Dutch or Danes or Finns or Norwegians; anything but facing into our miserable fate of being Irish! Today we have become a development role model for the smaller states of Eastern Europe, an object of international study and admiration, not all of it deserved.
We would be less than human if we did not enjoy this role, but we know in our hearts that success surprised nobody more than ourselves. Perhaps we have finally come to know ourselves better.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.