GERARD HOWLIN: Obsession with honouring the past is drowning out our future

We are in a national debate premised on the view that nature is like a bucket of coal to be burnt. Water is not a resource, a utility to be used — much less a so-called human ‘right’.

Our use of language is telling about our disconnection from the nature on which we are entirely dependent. Along with a lack of consideration of water as an essential part of the ecosystem is a lack of debate about the obligations attendant on our imagined rights over water. It is a tragi-comic reprise of King Canute’s command to hold back the waves.

We know this is a true mirror of our outlook. It is barely two years since people in the countryside were up-in-arms to defend their right to allow their uninspected septic tanks pollute the watercourse. Yesterday, Armistice Day, ceremonies of commemoration were held for the dead of two world wars. Eerily, as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising, the foundational act of our Republic, the national discourse is increasingly preoccupied with endless remembrance, but the future is hardly spoken of at all. The Easter Rising was, if anything, the ultimate futuristic event in modern Irish history. Now, it is being made lifeless, in administrative aspic.

Yesterday’s armistice events were significant because they redressed an enforced amnesia that had erased an important past. A mere eight years ago, in 2006, when the long-abandoned 1916 commemoration ceremony was reinstated, it was in conjunction with the decision to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. The State would mark both 90th anniversaries; for a purpose. That purpose was not primarily about the past, it was for the still uncertain future of the peace process.

Apparently entirely unconnected, the comparison between the sudden, feverish embrace of the past and the concurrent disowning of our future is stark. Once, Ireland was averse to its past, except if it was ancient, Gaelic and preferably mythological.

In parallel with a fetishising of its Gaelic history was the mass abandonment of a language which was, in fact, the unique living treasure worth preserving. The mass emigration and the mass abandonment of the Irish language, in the second half of the 19th century, coincided, bizarrely, with a middle class-led Gaelic Revival. The starving in their mud cabins did what they thought they must to survive, but a certain sort of ‘lace curtain Irish’ could now attempt to reinvest the language with a pseudo respectability. That respectability, which mutated after independence into the dead hand of an unimaginative and profoundly anti-cultural state, was the final nail in the coffin of the language.

The Gaelic Revival, or a strand of it, was the precursor to the rising. The extent to which it was a cultural project in the broadest sense, as much as a political one, remains unexplored. That lack of exploration is set to continue. In a decision that betrays an appalling mindset, €4m was found for commemorating 1916, but not an additional cent, after years of savage cuts, was found for investment in the living arts and culture of today. We have a department and a minister for the arts trapped by such limited vision that they cannot see a living, vibrant future as the legacy that could be created anew to commemorate a revolution led by poets.

The conversation about water, the refusal to pay, and the utterly preposterous assertion of rights, where none exist, is all a continuum of interlinked disconnections.

We commemorate the past most intensely at precisely the moment we effectively abandon responsibility for the future. Water-metering was a futuristic project. It was, potentially, a great exercise in social and civic responsibility. A user charge is unquestionably correct. However, the problem is now two-fold.

Firstly, the implementation has been a shambles. But that is as much a symptom as a cause. The cause is more fundamental. Nearly a hundred years on from the Rising, with all the appalling flaws bequeathed to us by it, we are now again a society without a shared narrative or shared beliefs. Everyone is a cynic, nobody wants to pay, and the only bottom line left is the kicking of the can down the road as scorn for tomorrow.

The recent economic collapse was arguably the greatest moment of trauma since the Rising. Anyone with eyes to see could understand that it was as much about how we did things, how we perniciously off-loaded responsibility, as much from the bottom up as from the top down. It could not continue, we agreed; things had to change. But, fundamentally, nothing has changed. A tide of credibility did briefly come in, but has now ebbed away again. We are left stranded, looking ridiculous, protesting and cantankerous atop the driftwood that is Irish Water.

To understand the problem of Irish Water, and the unbelievable, but unchanged, discourse of which it is part, we might usefully revisit the first-ever water meter. The nilometer is just north of what is now the Aswan Dam, on Elephantine Island in the Nile. The description, by the ancient Greek geographer, Strabo, is still accurate. “The Nilometer”, he wrote “is of importance to the peasants for the management of the water, the embankments, the canals and so on, and also to the officials for the purpose of taxation; for the higher the rise of the water the higher are the taxes.” So there you have it, or some of it.

The nilometers were all controlled by priests, who had a vested interest in publicising higher water levels. These flowed, via the peasants’ taxes, into the royal treasury and were recycled as power and prestige for the priestly class. Recurring features of ancient Egyptian temples are multiple side-chapels where the offerings of the faithful could be stored.

Water-metering was big business from the beginning. It was a very successful business, because it worked and it was based on a widely shared belief system. That belief system was one in which the natural cycle, and human nature, including its vices, worked in tandem.

That original nilometer still served its purpose at the end of the 19th century.

But it was an Irishman, a Kerryman, to be precise, who put paid to it. In building the first Aswan Dam, Lord Kitchener permanently abrupted the flow of the mighty river.

But if, ostensibly, all changed, perhaps less has. There is lively business in Aswan today in greasing the palm of the man — they are all men — who reads your water meter. Offerings are still made. That’s the problem with Irish Water; it is shaking us down.

The sense of a great civic project, or public good, is lost. Commemoration, if it is useful, is about shaping the future.

What this debacle signifies most deeply is a society losing its use of the future tense.


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