In 1985, the Irish-Australian writer Vincent Buckley, after spending some time in Ireland, wrote in his book ‘Memory Ireland:
“Ireland has been asked to lose its national memory by a kind of policy, in which politicians of almost all parties, ecclesiastics of all religions, media operators, and revisionist historians co-operate to create (and let us hope they do not need to enforce, for if they need to, they will) a new sense of corporate identity. This sense contradicts the immediately preceding one (the one based on the rising of easter 1916 and its aftermath), which proved first so exhilarating and then so wearying to its generations, some of whom had fought to realise it. Ireland is not a nation, once again or ever, so the new story runs, but two nations; maybe several; it does not have its characteristic religion—or if it does, it ought not; it does not have its characteristic language, as anyone can see or hear; it has no particular race or ethnic integrity. Ireland is nothing – a nothing – an interesting nothing, to be sure, composed of colourful parts, a nothing mosaic. It is advertising prose and Muzak”. Buckley was saying in effect that Ireland had lost its national identity: the fact of being a nation distinguished from other nations by a combination of language, history, culture and values, and the knowledge of being that. Since 1985, the collective condition that Buckley depicted – that of being together nothing in particular – has intensified.
At the centre of Ireland’s capital city a tall monument, designed in London, has been erected which honours and signifies literally nothing. (A joke says ‘The Spire’ was meant to be delivered to the other Blackpool – Duibhlinn means “black pool” – the seaside resort across the Irish Sea.) Ireland’s distinctive religious culture – women blessing themselves as they pass a church; traffic jams at city churches on Sunday mornings; fasting during Lent; May and Corpus Christi processsions; the family rosary; the TV newsreader finishing the evening news with “God bless you” – has withered almost to vanishing point; and with it a set of moral values, forceful because they pointed towards a happy eternal life and gave security against punishment there. With the study of Irish history made unnecessary for the Leaving Cert, and all forms of mass media blind to that history beyond the Famine, knowledge of Irish history by most Irish university graduates reaches no further back, with the post-revolutionary missionary movement into Africa, Asia and South America bringing Christianity, hospitals, schools and anti-imperialist sentiment omitted as a ‘merely religious matter’; not to mention, earlier, the repeated resistance to conquest or those dark times before Europe began when Irish monks and monasteries brought Christianity, literacy, art and learning to Britain and the Continent as far as Germany, Austria and Italy.
Meanwhile, with the nation speaking the same language as the much larger nation beside it, its journalists, instead of writing or saying ‘in Ireland’ or ‘in the Republic’ commonly make do with ‘here’ or ‘in this state’. Irishmen use the word ‘Irishness’ derisively; politicians avoid uttering ‘Ireland’ or ‘the Irish’ with pride or in exhortation; the media treat English football and politics including ‘the Royal Family’ as part of the Irish scene. The only still habitual demonstrations of Irish nationhood, far from being everyday are occasional: everyone cheering for Ireland when an Irish football team is playing a foreign team, or people drinking together on St Patrick’s Day.
In short, with regard to distinctive identity, Ireland, as an offsore island of Britain, is close to becoming a larger version of the Isle of Wight.
A nation can lack a national identity for either of two reasons. It can, like Ireland, have lost the national identity which it previously had. (Ireland had a well-known, distinct identity from the sixth century to the eighteenth when it began to fade to the shadow of itself it still was in 1916.)
Or it can, like say Zambia, never have had one. Formerly Northern Rhodesia and named after the river Zambezi, it was created in 1964. With English as the official language, Zambians belong to about 70 ethnic groups, speak a similar number of languages, and adhere to many religions.
It is widely believed that a national identity is an important thing for a nation to have – that it favours national wellbeing; creates, when needed, a national collective effort; generally urges the nation towards success and buttresses it in bad times. If one googles “national identity” one finds at least 25 pages – I gave up counting – filled with items dealing with it. (Denmark, a small country like Ireland, seems to be particularly interested in the matter.)
It is, of course, entirely possible to get along without a national identity, as Ireland and Zambia have been doing; living from day to day. Even with the consequent absence of collective zest, it is not catastrophic. But when after the Breivik massacres in Norway a few years ago, the Norwegian Prime Minister told his people: “This must strengthen our resolve to make our Norwegian values prevail”, some old-fashioned Irishman might have felt a pang of regret that no Irish Taoiseach could speak of “our Irish values”, because no such things exist. national values indicate that at least Something is there rather than nothing. They suggest that in that nation aspiring minds are at work.
The present cultural condition of Ireland is the result of successful cultural colonisation by two forces: first, by the Protestant british from the sixteenth century onwards, second from the 1960s onwards by American neoliberalism working through its Irish converts.
The process by which cultural colonisation works was well illustrated by an incident in which the present writer participated in the 1970s. A Dubliner, I was living for some years in a still Irish-speaking part of South Connemara. Talking one day in Irish to a local 16-year-old boy who was telling me about a Frenchman he had met on a nearby strand, I asked him did the Frenchman ask about the language he heard spoken around him. The boy answered in Irish “Yes, I told him”– followed by two words in the English he had been speaking to the Frenchman: “Irish, bad”. “Bad” is what colonisation teaches a people about everything that characterises and distinguishes themselves until, persuaded, they have abandoned every mark of their collective selfhood and conformed to the collective self of the colonisers, foreign or native.
As I said, this is not catastrophic for them. They can still get by in their borrowed self; some of them even can live long and grow rich in it. But their nation will not be remarkable for anything except the degree to which it has accepted that the self it was born and grew up with was “bad”, and consequently abandoned it. And this beside a nation that cultivates and aunts its national history and identity assiduously!
Certainly, it is not catastrophic. It is simply a pity that, with the West’s European civilisation ending, we did not seize our opportunity while we had it.
Dr Fennell’s autobiography ‘About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances’ (Somerville Press) was published earlier this year.