The Irish Free Variable

A trip through Ireland in the sixties showed a country full of contradictions - which still blight the landscape today

Dingle Harbour, County Kerry, Ireland

In 1967, having finished my final exams, I set off for an unashamed drinking expedition to Ireland with two friends in a VW Beetle. After reaching Dingle on the far side of the country and ordering a pint in my English accent, I was informed by the man on the end of the bar that I was unwelcome in a country which had freed itself “from the oppression of the likes of me.” The barmaid castigated the speaker (his name was Jeremiah O’Connell – I kid you not) and assured me that I should take no notice of him, since nobody else ever did. But he was not to be ignored: he engaged us in conversation, asking us if we had ever heard of Winston Churchill. To two educated Englishmen and an even more educated American, all born in the 1940s, this question was a bit insulting but we chose to ignore it. Churchill, Jeremiah said, was the greatest man who ever lived and spitfire pilots were the greatest type of men who ever lived. He added that he himself had done his level best to help the war effort, despite the neutrality of the Irish Free State, by working in a canning factory in Lincolnshire. We stayed in the pub until the sun came up, managing to get a brief sleep at the home of one of the regulars, undoubtedly helping to protect him from a tongue-lashing from his wife. The whole thing was almost too good to be true and an excellent lesson in Irish ambivalence.

 I have always liked the Irish and enjoyed being in Ireland. Putting aside all the sentimental hype about the “craic”, the people are genuinely friendly and outgoing, willing to attempt wit, often with considerable success. As a Northern Englishman, I always find them easier to understand than the Southern English, often offering a kind of disarming honesty of which the latter are incapable. Recently we nearly drove off the road when we heard a Labour minister explaining why the party had abandoned all their promises to the electorate in joining the Fine Gael led austerity coalition. “That was because we wanted to be in government”, he said. At one particular university I learned that the recently appointed principal from the South of England had inadvertently created a kind of Kremlinology around himself – because nobody could tell whether he liked them or their ideas.

We started in Stroke City, as the wits call it, or Derry/Londonderry. The current over-sensitivity about the city’s name is an understandable part of the peace process, but it is also slightly ridiculous. As Richard Doherty points out in his 2008 film, The Siege of Derry 1689, during that period it was called both names by both the Jacobites and the Williamites. Though Doherty also suggests that there is serious doubt about whether there really ever was a siege of Derry, since the supposed Jacobite besiegers lacked everything they needed – knowledge, equipment and manpower – to take a defended, walled city. The inhabitants weren’t up to much militarily-wise either, and, of course, very nearly “surrendered”. If allowing your legitimate head of state, who has promised complete religious toleration, into the city can be called surrendering. It was the apprentice boys who declared “No Surrender” and locked the gates of the city.

The amazing thing about Stroke City is that a whole historical tableau can be seen there, making for a unique tourist experience. Up in the cathedral in the citadel you are told tales of plucky apprentice boys and benevolent bishops; down below the walls, the Bogside bristles with republican murals, flags and monuments. The city is fundamentally divided and so were we. My Roman Catholic wife, of wholly Irish origins, brusquely turned down the opportunity to view the locks with which the lads had secured the city gates, muttering something about history’s leading troublemakers, whereas I began to rage with contempt the minute I entered the Bogside. What annoyed me was the victimised pomposity which allows you to attribute to yourself a sugar-sweet collection of virtues. The Bogside presents itself as the heroic locus of a struggle for liberty, civil rights and democracy with no mention of the murder of those who dissented. It is the pathetic innocence of those who never held proper authority or had to make legitimate decisions. There is a mural which shows Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa alongside more local leaders. Most annoying of all, there is a memorial to those who fought against Franco. Everyone in the city should be made to read Judith Keene’s Fighting for Franco (2007) which shows that the Irish made up the largest group of non-Spanish who supported the Caudillo and the republic was the state most active in recruiting for him. “And what would you have done if you’d have won?” I ask those who haven’t done enormously wicked things only because they haven’t had the power and recall Thom Gunn:

 ”I praise the overdog from Alexander

To those who would not play with Stephen Spender . . .”

The Ireland of Éamon de Valera’s has all but gone, I don’t think will ever return. “Dev” combined a sentimental totalitarian outlook with a canny survivor’s political instinct and his Ireland was one of heavy censorship, catholic orthodoxy, brutal education and bans on divorce and contraception. Prosperity was sacrificed to economic independence. This was an age when many governments aimed at autarky including the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. But the Irish Free State? Dev wanted Ireland to be content with its “frugality” and “asceticism” and his vision speech on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 is now regarded as definitively risible:

 ”The Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who . . . were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to things of the spirit . . . whose fields and villages would be joyous with the . . . the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens . . .”

Political theorists call it “Rousseauesque” and his vision is not without a certain appeal to me, but most people prefer BMWs. A Dublin taxi driver put it more brutally: “This country used to be ruled by the f**king Taliban.” Half the population voted with their feet and left, one of them was my father-in-law.

Dev’s Ireland has been replaced by that of Garret Fitzgerald, who had the enviable achievement of writing a book about what ought to be done and then getting to do it. (Lenin and Hitler did similarly but they weren’t democrats.) The book was Towards a New Ireland (1972) and Fitzgerald was Taoiseach for most of the 1980s. I met Fitzgerald and he was more Anglophile in private than he could ever be in public, given the Troubles. The new Ireland is more prosperous, more permissive, more secular and more internationalist than the old, and less obsessed with historical oppression. In the 21st century it morphed into the Celtic Tiger and for a short time had a GDP per capita well above that of the United States. But the pieces of the broken tiger are now being picked up: a 46 per cent fall in house prices and bankruptcies everywhere. Tony O’Reilly, rugby hero, mega businessman and believed to be as rich as Croesus, brought down, it would seem, by devotion to all things Irish – including an independent press and Waterford Crystal. Mostly, people take it as it comes: “I spent all me money on whiskey and beer”, as The Pogues’ song goes. It has been interesting to see how much better Ireland has handled austerity than has, say, Greece.

Booms come and go, but the permanent and negative legacy of the Celtic Tiger can be seen in its littered landscape. There was rash of building unaffected by any notion of planning or of a proper demarcation between town and country. In England we had the 1935 Restriction of Ribbon Development Act to stop farmers selling the country land next to the road to developers. In Ireland there are “Modernised vernacular dwellings” everywhere: naff bungalows, in other words. Right opposite Yeats Lake Isle of Innisfree: bungalows. On the slopes of Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain (which I climbed – a tough one): bungalows. At the end of the Dingle Peninsula where the Atlantic breakers meet the land, which should be a wild place: bungalows. Bungalows from which nobody could possibly commute, or shop, or do anything much except at extreme cost to the planet’s resources. Bungalows with no pattern to them, like gigantic litter.

My own aesthetic preferences aside, it is interesting to theorise about why this happened. When you talk to people about it the conversation always turns to corruption and the “brown paper bags” full of euros which apparently changed hands. But there is more to it than this, a relative lack of will to resist development – so prevalent in England – and a sympathy with the property owner. Perhaps, too, a French-style perception of development as the palliative for backwardness, also absent in England. However, whereas in France what goes on in the countryside is largely the restoration of buildings, in Ireland the old crofts weren’t worth renovating – my father-in-law’s in Longford among them. Sometimes the old ruin merely remains as a garden feature. Finally, there is a cultural memory of a well-populated Ireland. After all, despite a 30 per cent increase in population in the last quarter century and an increased immigrant population (to 15 per cent of the total population), the whole island still only has three quarters of the eight million people it had in the 1841 census. Just as some Scottish intellectuals resent the emptiness of the Highlands and see not the conveniently emptied quasi-wilderness which I see, but the the injustice of the Clearances, there may be an element of thought that bungalows are restoring the old Ireland, especially in the West. But the consequence is that Northern Ireland is much better preserved than the Republic.

We swung round the country, from Derry to Sligo to Limerick and Killarney. Then out to Dingle and back across to the more familiar theatres, universities and dinner parties of Dublin. All the way round I semi-consciously recorded the level of Bogside Syndrome because, though I believe De Valera’s asceticism, religiosity and frugality are gone forever, his nationalism and the identity of an oppressed nation are still very much there. There is little acknowledgement, for example, of the consequences of having a republic of four million people sitting next to a larger country which contains sixteen million who regard themselves as at least partly Irish. So, whereas it is absurd that there is an international border between Donegal and Derry (though not much of one: apart from the bungalows you only notice that the speed limits are in kilometres) it is also absurd that the Republic does not acknowledge how uniquely connected it is, historically and demographically, to its larger neighbour. If the Gaelic Athletic Association represents the successful wing of the old fundamentalist nationalism – though it now co-exists with English sports rather than trying to ban them – the language is the costly failure: you hear far more Polish and German in Ireland than you do Gaelic. There are now Gaelic-medium schools, known to some of the more civic, less ethnic, nationalists as “inbred schools” because for some they have a certain appeal of racial purity, like Afrikaans-medium schools in South Africa. From one point of view this is keeping an ancient culture alive; from another it is an opting out of cosmopolitanism, from the same 19th century origins, as the Nazi and Zionist opt-outs.

To begin to understand Ireland you have to try to understand the Irish Free Variable. For any significant X, Ireland is both X and not X. It is both friendly and unfriendly. (Why no Union Jacks with the German and American flags outside the hotels in the Republic?) It is both British and not-British, cosmopolitan and not cosmopolitan, prosperous and not prosperous. No wonder it produced Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw.

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