Sunday, November 15, 2015

The passion of the Irish national consciousness.

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart. - Yeats, 1933.

The Easter Rising was a watershed moment in the Irish struggle for independence. The Rising began on Easter Monday 1916 with the reading of the proclamation, Poblacht na h-Eireann by Pádraig Pearse and steered Ireland towards a violent war against English colonial rule. Our national attitude to these events is strangely ambiguous. Some claim the Rising was conducted by romantics lacking a popular mandate who plunged the country into violent chaos when a peaceful and orderly path to independence was possible. Others view Pearse as a national martyr whose selfless sacrifice woke a slumbering Irish national consciousness to overthrow the chains of colonial oppression. You will struggle to find another country where the historical formation of their state is viewed with such ambiguity.

The facts however are clear. Independence resulted in the partitioning of the country, dominance of the fledgling state by the roman catholic church, generations of poverty, rampant emigration, a largely corrupt political establishment which, in the case of Charles Haughty, openly plundered the national treasury for personal gain and, more recently, national bankruptcy and loss of sovereignty to IMF/ECB oversight. The phase 'what is for this?' which refers to the Rising is now a common national joke.

Our record is hardly impressive but nor is it a cause for shame. Irish citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. Our country is stable with a relatively low violent crime rates and Irish culture is known through the world. We did not start with much but we did the best we could.

Foreign commentators frequently refer to Irish people as stoical due to our muted response to austerity. I disagree because what strikes me is the passion with which Irish people embrace causes. St. Patrick recorded how eagerly the Irish embraced Christianity, and Irish Christianity is noted for its unusual level of ascetism and puritanism. Following the Rising the country embraced a revolutionary nationalism so passionate that one of the largest empires the world has ever witnessed soon found the country ungovernable. By the mid 90's our love affair with Roman Catholicism ended and we embraced the mistress of liberal secularism to become (allegedly) one of the most anti-catholic countries in Western Europe.

Our current passion is undoubtedly the umbrella of loosely connected American social politics arising from the civil rights struggles from the 60's. Where once we spoke of original sin, we now speak of  inherited structural gender biases and unconscious racism. Where once we looked towards priests to guide and banish our demons, we now look to guardians of our culture to call out and banish our white male privilege through the power of twitter, facebook and newspapers so we may one day live in the kingdom of equality.

Take for example the recent case of Fiach Mac Conghail the director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin who ran afoul of feminists by commissioning just one play by a female playwright for the 2016 schedule. An online consciousness rising campaign called Waking The Feminists (unfortunately abbreviated to WTF) was swiftly organized and Conghail was summoned to a struggle session at the Abbey Theatre. There he was quickly evangelised by the congregation. His subsequent groveling apology stated he "was not thinking about gender equality" and that he fully regrets "failing to check his privilege". I fully expect 2017 to feature at least one heart breaking play set in a Catholic school about a gay trans womens valiant struggle against outdated gender norms to wear the gender specific clothing society assigns to "girls". When we convert to a new belief system, we convert with zeal.

Over the short history of our State the Irish national consciousness swung from violent revolution and puritanical Catholicism to liberal secularism and identity politics with equal passion believing them at different times both just and true. Some would argue this is evidence of progress while others point to the cyclical nature of moral fashions. It's noteworthy however that these belief systems were carried to this island by missionaries or through digital media. I wonder if Ireland had embraced our own language and culture would we be more insulated against the fashions of our neighbors? Once we looked east to England, now we stare west to America. Where next I wonder?
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