The national conversation about 1916 is starting in earnest. What did it mean then; what does it say about us now?
It’s past time, I think, that we had a long talk about us, our identity, and what deceptively simple, but actually extraordinarily complex words such as “Ireland” and “Irish” mean. Amidst all the hullabaloo about what we do, there has been little enough thinking about who we are.
Mostly, we just get on with it. Periodically, we break out in extraordinary anger. Usually, the anger subsides, and little ultimately changes. Is that passivity? I don’t think so. Being laid back is more about our vanity than our make-up. Turn over the carefree in our character and there is selfishness underneath. We give in an abundance of small ways; when it matters on big issues, we are self-interested to a fault. There can be much charm and charity in our society; but precious little of the change that could matter.
That’s the passivity in our culture. It’s the entrenchment of vested interest. It’s the driven fear of being left behind, or of being left out. It is certainly the dread fear of giving anything up. There is a lot left of the peasant in us — depending on the next pot of potatoes to stay alive. Long-term thinking, or big ideas, have seldom had a firm foothold in our national character. Flaithulach when in funds, our deeper instinct is to hold on to what we have.
There is a disconnect between our treatment of power and responsibility. Resentful of authority, we habitually refuse to take responsibility, though we, the people, own that authority. We have always had the governments we deserved. It is not just that we elect them, it is that, apart from broken promises on specific issues, they have governed in accordance with popular demand. An exception was the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition after 2008. Another was the current Government — until this summer.
Now, we are back to normal. We will be given what we want, or, at least, more of it than we can afford. Money will be borrowed to pay for it. It’s about repairing society, you see, not just the economy. But every tax-break for the squeezed middle, and every pay-back to the public service, is further erosion of foundations that have never been rebuilt. But it’s what we want, and it is what we are set to get. I hope we are happy marching on, without the seat in our pants, and our posteriors following behind.
Yet — and here is a paradox — just as we avoid responsibility, we love access to power. It doesn’t matter that it’s petty, or concerned only with trivial things. What matters is that we have an “in”. The insight all successful politicians have about our character is that, however small the issue, it is always important to that person, at that time.
So, like district nurses attending to small ailments with soothing ointments and the balm of attention, they calm our irritations. The symptoms are alleviated, but the underlying causes are not addressed.
If much of the conversation about who we are, and how we must — but won’t — change is political, the most poignant commentary is artistic. We blather on a lot about our writers and artists. We love the idea of them, writing away or making a beautiful dance. They are the guests we want at every party. But our treatment of them is disregarding, bordering on the abusive. It is abusive in the sense of the deepest denigration: We want them as props for our national ego, but we don’t have any serious regard for their vocation. There is an intense, systematic infantilisation of the artist in our society. They are accorded the role of jesters at our celebrations and keeners at our tragedies. Integral to our self-image, we allow them only temporary halting space on the margins of our national life. Then, they must move on.
Amidst all the talk of Orange and Green, Home Rule, and Sinn Féin in 1916, the artist is almost forgotten. We forget, or choose not to remember, that it was a revolution led by poets. Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett were poets and men of letters. Arthur Griffith and James Connolly were important political writers as well as activists. There was a wider hinterland of artistic and intellectual endeavour populated by figures as diverse as WB Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and Eoin MacNeill. Women, like artists briefly prominent, were likewise pushed to the periphery. In that decade, which we commemorate now, there was an identification with the artist that has never recurred. It is not an accident that was the moment we lived most intensely. It is also the reason we live so soullessly now.
This summer, in Heather Humphreys, we have a new arts minister. It is telling that so little is expected of her or of her department. Since its initiation, it has become the ultimate in peripheral portfolios.
What artists want of Humphreys, more than anything, is a politician who can command a place at the centre of the national conversation.
More than any other group, artists have disconcerting things to say, and images to show of ourselves that are far truer, because artists have integrity.
It is no coincidence that the issue that first damaged Humphreys’ predecessor, Jimmy Deenihan, reputationally was the determination that his department would take over the governance of the national cultural institutions. Amidst cuts in modest budgets, it wasn’t money, but the deep disrespect for autonomy and independence that provoked ultimate outrage.
The subsequent shoddy establishment of Limerick as national City of Culture was more of the same disregard; a form of condescension masked by shallow applause. The real use for artists was as entertainment or as advertising.
The misguided plan to bring the governance of the National Library and Museum under departmental control remains extant. Humphreys could follow the example of her colleague, Health Minister Leo Varadkar, and re-announce it as a plan that will not be happening. She could then decide that, for the first time, next year, the capital budget available to her department will be disbursed according to clear criteria, a competitive application process, and adjudged by a reputable panel with expertise. They would be small steps signifying bigger things; the most important of which is respect for artists.
The pot of potatoes, the fear of hunger, the urge to control through petty power, and a simultaneous evasion of responsibility, run deep. We should pause to listen deeply to artists, before they are reduced to bumper stickers for the tourist trade. Before we were a republic of lawyers and bookkeepers, we were once a republic of poets.
We forget, or choose not to remember, that 1916 was a revolution led by poets
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