It sets the pace in determining who we are. Whether our sales brochures reflect our identity, or our lives imitate our brochures, is a good question, but it is not a question that will be asked this St Patrick’s Day.
The diaspora of official Ireland has begun. On Friday, the Taoiseach will prove our potency to the world by visiting the White House, in the US. In truth, there is worth to these visits. They provide access to people, such as US President Barack Obama, and places, who make decisions that affect us. The problem is not the process, but that in selling ourselves we have largely lost sight of who we are.
St Patrick’s Day is a universal celebration of Irishness and shallowness. With a national identity translated universally, we are left with little meaning except marketing. Irishness is now a connotation abroad, hollowed of content at home.
It was, until recently, very different. To be Irish was to be Gaelic and Catholic. These intertwined identities of religion and race set recognisable, if highly restrictive, boundaries to the nation. There was, of course, another interloping nation and identity on the island. But it was fundamentally foreign. The injustice of plantation was underscored by the apostasy of reformation. Even fundamentals change; but what is astonishing is how quickly ours have been forgotten, as well.
The Irish language and the Catholic faith were abandoned with alacrity. It is hard to think of comparable voluntary cultural evacuations, on such a scale, in such rapid succession, in another European country. For something as defining and identifiable as Irishness, it has proved to be extraordinarily disposable.
America, where we most intensely seek the reflection of our own identity, was the largest abattoir of the language. Yiddish, Polish, and Italian survived there for two and three generations. But Irish was almost universally discarded immediately. Skills first acquired in a rudimentary acquaintance with parliamentary politics at home were, in contrast, applied intensely. In big cities across America, and in the Irish Party at Westminster, a peasantry salvaging respectability in religion built some of the most successful political machines ever created in a functioning democracy.
At home, a rump population turned towards a faux cultural nationalism. Ironically, Dubliners like Wilde, Shaw and Joyce and others, including Yeats writing in English, created a competing — and ultimately far more successful — Irish identity. The union of Gaelic culture and Irish nationalism was a failure for both.
The independent Irish state was itself the rump expression of the rump population, remaining un-emigrated in the southern part of the island. The identity it sought to express always exceeded its territorial boundaries. Hemmed in at home, it had a wider expression abroad through its emigrants, but, more intensely, through the universality of the Church to which it cleaved. The embassy at the Vatican actually mattered. The object of our affirmation has changed, but as coming days in Washington will show, our need for foreign, universal affirmation has not.
The ultimate point of history is not to learn about the past; it is to map the future. It has largely escaped public attention that the defining imagery and narrative of who we are, today, is a diluted version of an identity that is, in fact, extinct. Ireland needed a national ideology to come into being, but cannot now promote as a foundation for shared identity across complex cultural and geographical boundaries on this island.
The territorial boundaries that once humiliated us as we sang anthems like A Nation Once Again and Faith of our Fathers have been replaced by new boundaries with which we are equally ill at ease.
In a con-federal Europe, in an age when the nation-state is diminished, our borders are delineated in the chasm between the pretension and reality of the authority of our Central Bank and the ECB, between our elected government and mainly unelected institutions in Brussels.
In a decade of commemoration, perhaps the most notable event, and one we will least regard, is the anniversary of the Reformation. Long after Protestantism largely lost its moral force, we are now locked into an essentially Calvinist model of government by committee. What counts most is our membership of the governing committee in Europe. The constant seeking of agreement and consensus has replaced any real expression of national will.
One constant criterion for our own success is international attention. St Patrick’s Day is a triumph of marketing. The hugely disproportionate attention we have received through a decades-old peace process, economic boom, bust and tentative comeback is external validation abroad of an identity un-replenished and parched at home. This is a country with an identity crisis so acute we are largely unaware of it. Life goes on, but out national conversation has essentially stopped and stultified.
Nobody really believes in politics anymore. Economically, we have globalised, but the reach of our elected institutions is puny. We are sometimes effective in insinuating ourselves where it matters aboard, but our State — always a disappointment — is further diminishing in relevance.
THERE is an eerie replay between the case made today for punching above our weight in Brussels and Washington and that made by Edwardian unionists for the union, in opposition to Home Rule, a century ago. In critical aspects, of course, the powers we enjoy now are more limited than those envisaged for us under Home Rule.
Technology is consuming people, especially those under a certain age, into the vortex of their own private gizmo, and finally delivering the threat promised by television in my childhood. Conservation, especially public conversation, is withering. The cacophony of chatter online is isolating and narcissistic. The main product of the electronic ether, in any event, is pornography, and much online conversation is tonally its extension.
The one group that could, and occasionally does, allow us mediate a sense of our changed selves is that of artists. Fifty years ago, Sean Lemass’s government, bent on modernity, was anxious lest the Easter Rising be commemorated by the plays of Seán O’Casey at the Abbey. The untreated grit of our identity wasn’t part of the sales pitch, but in 2014 the most meaningful, authentic element of our identity is culture.
Successive governments, including this one, embraced the attitude of colonial administrations towards a suspect, subversive national culture. Like Brian Friel’s play Translations, the naming and control of things, especially small things, matters intensely. Artists mediate and map out dark spaces, which is why authority is so intent on controlling them. But if Irish identity is now meaningless, we must begin again. History is the promise we give to the future; it is about being really alive and not simply animated cartoon characters in a plastic-Paddy theme park.