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Why Ireland Does Not Exist

By Desmond Traynor

‘I’m Irish, that’s something.’
- Iris Murdoch, while suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease

We are much concerned, on this isle, as if you haven’t noticed, with questions of national identity. Careers get constructed out of throwing in one’s tuppence worth, and keeping one’s contribution topped up, be they in academia, print or broadcast journalism, literature, or popular entertainment. Even advertising has now tapped into this navel-gazing vein, with a cinema ad for a certain credit card, which features a protagonist who, after a disenchanting ramble through the blatant rip-off commercialism of tourist theme park Temple Bar, settles down with a pint to the comfortingly affirmatory voiceover of, ‘Knowing the real meaning of being Irish? Priceless’.

But what if there is no real meaning attached to being born with this chance nationality anymore – if, indeed, there ever was? What if all these boffins and pundits are not only looking in all the wrong places, but are on a wild goose chase right from the get-go? What if the search to define the true essence of Irishness is merely the pigheaded pursuit of fool’s gold, a chimera that does not exist? What if the paper chase quest is solely there to distract us from more serious concerns or, more terrifyingly, from the bleak but honest acknowledgement that nothing is serious anymore?

 

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In the great national identity debate (or debacle, depending on your point of view), while several positions suggest themselves, you can, broadly speaking, be nationalist, or revisionist, or even neo-nationalist (a term which might be employed to cover the singular arguments of the redoubtable John Waters, as adumbrated in the recent 2004 Annual of this magazine). But no one, to the best of my knowledge, has posited any alternative approaches to the knotty problem, least of all that the problem might well be the nature of the question itself, rather than the stock answers. To quote Thomas Pynchon, tipping his hat to Wittgenstein, in his mammoth paranoid WW2 fantasy Gravity’s Rainbow, ‘If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.’

For what are nationalism and revisionism, but mirror symmetrical images of each other? Revisionism is an inverted form of nationalism, or at least a reaction to it, just another swing of the dialectical pendulum in the opposite direction. But if notions of Irish identity are constructed solely in either opposition, or in deference, to our former colonial oppressor, the irony is that this makes ‘Irishness’ nothing more than a direct consequence of colonialism, rather than any kind of challenge to it, much less an autonomous entity. Seems like we needed that ‘other’ all along, that ‘not us’, that ‘old enemy’, to define ourselves against, to find out who and what we were and, perhaps more importantly, were not. Well, I’ve got some news for you: they don’t care. So, where does that leave us? Time to grow up, and take our place among the nations of the world, without gate crashing by grabbing on to the coattails of a near neighbour.

Moreover, viewed from a philosophical perspective, to say nothing of a psychoanalytical one, you are in trouble right from the start on the epistemological level, as well as the ontological one, if you set about constructing and predicating your identity around nationality, or looking to it to confer identity. This amounts to nothing more than a crutch for the insecure, since fatherland – like faith and family, and perhaps even gender and sexuality – is ultimately arbitrary. They are accidents of birth, and it could all have been so different. For this reason, I should cease using the subjective and objective pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ for the rest of this piece, and consign the reflexive pronoun ‘ourselves’ to the rubbish bin. Time to stand on my own two feet, and stop pretending that all of us on this tiny island are all in this thing together, that the fact that most of us were born here somehow gives us a common heritage and shared identity which unifies us.

John Waters is, however, to be congratulated on highlighting the limitations of the cosy, soppy, sloppy, middle class neo-liberal consensus which pervades public discourse here, and throwing down the gauntlet to its purveyors, however misguided and wrongheaded his own diagnosis – never mind his aetiology and prognosis – of the problem may be. He is clearing the ground for some sort of sensible, and potentially fruitful, debate to occur. Trouble is, whenever I hear someone start sounding off about young people only being interested in drinking, drugs, sport, pop music and sex, instead of supposedly more ‘serious’ grown-up type issues like property prices and interest rates and pension plans and child care facilities and golf club membership, I always think it speaks far more unintentionally hilarious volumes about the person doing the complaining than it does about young people. And whenever I hear someone dissing ’60s radicalism – and the admittedly self-seeking, self-serving irresponsible hedonism that often accompanied it – as a mere blip in civilisation, I always wonder what exactly they are comparing it with: the slight glitch that went on from 1914 to 1918, for example, or the minor hiccup that took place between 1939 and 1945?

Rock music and sex are still far more important to this forty-something survivor than politics is or, hopefully, ever will be. Indeed, it is in the presumption by most of the usual suspect commentators on the state of the nation and the issues of the day that power resides only with, and is exercised only by, politicians that they make their greatest mistake, as counter culture figures from Brecht to Orwell, Dylan to Lennon and Geldof to Bono have amply demonstrated. Even younger politician pretenders are aware of the need to appeal to the under 30s, and try to keep this segment of the electorate onside, as evidenced by Tony Blair’s pathetic courtship of the Blur/Oasis Britpop phenomenon as part of the Cool Britannia PR job, culminating in his recent espousal of The Darkness. Tony Blair: the air guitarist of political rhetoric. By way of contrast, his partner in crime, the Forrest Gump-like George ‘I’m not a smart man’ Bush Jr, does not play the saxophone or court the youth vote by professing to dig rock’n’roll, maaan. He prefers the role of publicly acknowledged ex-alcohol abuser who has seen the light through taking the twelve steps of AA, rather than looking for the ambivalent cache that would accrue to a leader who lets it be known that he smoked dope once, but didn’t inhale. In his faux Air Force jacket, the Commander of Forces is perhaps more akin to the worried navy officers recalled by Thomas Pynchon in his introduction to the collection of his early fiction, Slow Learner. Perplexed by the growing popularity of Elvis Presley, these authority figures would stalk the ship on which Pynchon did his national service, approaching anyone among the crew who seemed like they might know – combed their hair like Elvis, for example - and anxiously interrogate, “What’s his message? What does he want?”

It is preposterous to argue that idealism – if this can be equated with broadly left-wing and progressive sympathies – is solely the preserve of the young, and that everyone over forty (or is it thirty?), should be ‘at home watching the news’, as though a Big Chill-style fall from grace and subsequent disillusionment are inevitable. Boredom, dull grey conformity, and a preoccupation with the quotidian may well be the most common features of life after a certain age, for most people, but does that mean that no one should take it upon themselves to rage, rage against the dying of the light? Granted, there are few sights more risible than the oldest swinger in town out on the prowl, but that doesn’t mean there are not workable models available of how to grow older gracefully, with some dignity, while retaining one’s integrity, and some fire in the belly. Dylan isn’t pretending that he’s still twenty-five, after all, unlike another of Blair’s heroes, Mick Jagger OBE, who – despite whatever credibility his long-time partner in the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards, retains – it has been impossible to take seriously as a viable rock star for many years now. Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash played until their hearts exploded, keeping their edge and their vision until the end, while Lou Reed, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Neil Young and Patti Smith continue to produce work that is every bit as well-crafted and as iconoclastic, if not more so, as when they first started. Indeed, there were few Dublin musical experiences more gratifying than seeing three generations enjoying themselves in unison at Young and Crazy Horse’s most recent concert at The Point – the grandparents in their 50s and 60s who remembered him from first time around, the middle aged Moms and Dads who picked up on him subsequently, and the teenage kids who got into him via his collaboration with Pearl Jam, and the Godfather of Grunge mantle accorded him by Nirvana and the Seattle indie scene. The older he gets, the louder he gets. ‘It’s better to burn out, than it is to rust’. The fact is that every generation has had its mentors and father/mother figures from the previous generation, to look up to and learn from. The hippies had the beats, and the punks – although they would have been loath to admit it at the time – always had much more in common with the hippies than they did with any other sector of society, at least with the MC5/13th Floor Elevators/Who/Kinks end of things. The Stones had Robert Johnson, Dylan had Woody Guthrie. The Velvet Underground have influenced everybody in subsequent generations, from Sonic Youth to the Jesus and Mary Chain, from Mazzy Star to Belle and Sebastian. Nor is having still-credible examples from the previous generation confined to popular music alone. In literature, Will Self’s work owes more than a little to that of William Burroughs and B.S. Johnson, while David Forster Wallace’s debt to, and respect for, Pynchon and Don DeLillo is palpable. But, tellingly, as Nick Cave wrote in his Guardian obituary of Johnny Cash, ‘The saddest thing about his death is that I don’t think these old voices are being replaced.’ Cave refused to be drawn when, at one of his Vicar Street shows last year, after doing a cover of Cash’s ‘The Singer’, a heckler shouted, ‘You’re The Man in Black now, Nick.’

It can only be dubbed neo-conservative to fulminate against the young (whoever they are) for having no sense of Ireland as a nation or a community, and to castigate the generation in power (yes, all of them) for their failure to hand on any sense of citizenship or patriotism, or indeed anything that might be regarded as a sense of inherited communality, and also for having no concept of the importance of authority. It is naïve in the extreme to suppose that authority is always wielded in the interests of ‘the good’, or even ‘the common good’. At best, it is used to enforce what one power block thinks is the common good. More usually, it is exercised in favour of one group’s narrow range of self-interests at the expense of other, often larger, groups, and should therefore always be probed and questioned, not only by those who endure it but also, ideally, by those exercising it. However, this is rarely the case, and so should be commended when it does happen. Edward Said’s remarks on the concept of authority in Orientalism remain as pertinent today as they were when the book was first published in 1978: ‘There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analysed.’ The exercise of authority in previous generations on this isle, and praised by neo-conservatives in the current one, was little more than the institutionalisation of a culture of fear, and good riddance to it. Moreover, neo-conservative criticism of what has been called the ‘Peter Pan Generation’ for being intoxicated with its own love of freedom begs several questions, since the abstract concept ‘freedom’ usually remains rather nebulously defined when thrown around in these debates, and means vastly different things to different people. From ‘Operation Freedom Iraq’ to ‘Freedom Fries’, it is more often heard these days in the mouths of the American Christian Right than it is as the province of radicals or revolutionaries. ‘Keep on rockin’ in the Free World’ as the aforesaid Neil Young sneers vitriolically, on a stand out track from his magnificent 1989 album, titled simply Freedom.

What’s with this extolling of the virtues of patriotism and nationalism anyway? Patriotism: wasn’t that the last refuge of the scoundrel? Nationalism: isn’t it a bit dumb to be proud of a place just because you happened to be born there? Furthermore, ‘the young’ aren’t some homogenous, amorphous mass, with no internal shades of difference between them, no more than ‘the generation in power’ are. If you accept the fact that youth should, broadly speaking, be a time of experimenting with parameters, of pushing the boundaries, of – as Nabokov said of his fiction – ‘reality testing’, which will more often than not include phases of recreational drug-taking and casual sex, then the young should be commended for continuing this noble tradition. However, these days they are more likely, especially across the water (in both directions!), to be more worried about getting into college, qualifying, getting out and getting a job, and getting an early foot on that property ladder, and repaying those burdensome student loans. Nor am I being entirely facetious here about the current ruinous state of higher education. No less a great wrier than W. G. Sebald, who earned his living as Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia, opined in an interview given shortly before his accidental death that universities were now producing nothing more than ‘semi-educated consumers’. (Incidentally, Mary Harney happens to agree with him, since she recently told the annual economic summit at Davos, Switzerland that ‘We are all consumers’, and that competition would sort out any problems that consumers might have with shoddy products and services.) And the hero of Disgrace, the Booker Prize winning novel by last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, J. M. Coetzee – who is also a university teacher – is an academic who is forced to start teaching modules in ‘Communications’, when he’d much rather be passing on his love of Romantic poetry. What price the disinterested speculation which has been the touchstone of the humanities since the Renaissance when, between the tyranny of Theory and the pressures of free market economic policies to be socially ‘relevant’ and ‘productive’, we have talented and creative educators who are disillusioned about being professors?

Furthermore, it is blatantly obvious that, as well as the Peter Pan liberals so excoriated by the neo-conservative argument, the ‘generation in power’ in Ireland also includes classic laissez-faire proponents like the abovementioned Mary Harney and her crony Michael McDowell who, while the Progressive Democrats may have started out as ‘the conscience of Fianna Fail’, are now solely interested in imposing strict monetarist economic policies, and the draconian licensing laws that go with them, so that we can all be good little model workers in their free market free-for-all, with no quality of life whatsoever. They’ll give us bread, but no circuses. If you happen to dissent from this capitalist, profit-driven worldview, which makes money the measure of all things, ‘bleeding heart liberal’ is the least pejorative term of abuse that will be thrown at you. More likely, you’ll hear your views dismissed as motivated by nothing more than mere ‘envy’ or, worse still, ‘laziness’. Funny though, that in most continental countries the government trusts the discretion of the punter, or the proprietor, enough to let them make up their own minds about when they’ll go home from the pub. Besides all of which, the majority party in political power still calls itself Fianna Fail, even if they have now lost their divine right to rule single-handedly, and so must have recourse to coalition with fiscal extremists. And, as every schoolboy knows, the Soldiers of Destiny have never been anything more than a catch-all party, happily bereft of any ideas or ideals, save that of some dubiously defined sense of ‘republicanism’ and retaining power by giving as many people as they can whatever they thought they wanted at any given time. Anyway the wind blows, their reed will bend, but not break. But that hardly makes Bertie Ahern or Charlie McCreevy into Peter Pan-figures, now does it?

Why, when you consider it from their perspective, should young Irish people have any sense of Ireland as a nation or as a community, or of an inherited commonality? The world is one, and it is theirs, as it has never been before. They can come and go as they please, enjoying a year of sun, sea and sex in Australia if they want to, while saving some money to backpack around South East Asia. They can work at bringing the wonderful gospel of free market privatisation and competitive individualism to out-of-the-way spots like Mongolia, if it takes their fancy, so we can all take advantage of another opportunity to have ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’, as John Lydon of The Sex Pistols once had it, if that takes our fancy. Less affluent or well-educated young people can always take off and get off their faces for two weeks in Ibiza, while holding on to that handy software sales job at home. Rather than bemoan the fact that young Irish people have no sense of Irishness, the biggest joke is, as it has always been, ‘Why does Ireland think it matters?’, or ‘Why does it think it’s important?’, or ‘Why does it take itself seriously?’ Because of the success of Riverdance and its imitators (a spectacular which did manage, it must be acknowledged, the amazing feat of making what is perhaps the most repressed form of cultural expression on the planet, where the top half of the body endeavours to keep perfectly still while the bottom half goes like the clappers, suddenly sexy)? Because of winning the Eurovision Song Contest so many times (a poisoned chalice, if ever there was one)? Because of doing so well in three World Cups (despite the fact that on each occasion the team could have gone so much further if they’d had more imaginative management and better organisation)? And why is every single achievement by an Irish person celebrated as a triumph for Ireland (Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize win – another victory for Ireland)? For sure, everywhere on earth thinks it’s the centre of the universe (hey, earth once thought it was the center of the universe), but in Ireland this naturally-occurring narcissism has reached epidemic proportions, to the extent that one of the conclusions posterity will surely arrive at is that contemporary Irish social and political discourse was the most inward-looking on the planet, since debate here invariably means debate about Irishness, and any outward reference, any engagement with the world of not-Ireland, must be fed back into the clinging maw of our own self-concern.

But look around you, and listen up, gobshites. On any casual stroll through the heart of the Hibernian metropolis you will see branches of McDonalds’s, Burger King, Haagen-Dazs, Gap, Benetton and Kentucky Fried Chicken on every corner. Look over there, there’s a café called Phoenix Perk, a local spin on the Central Perk of TV comedy series Friends. In a similar vein, there’s a place named Snax and the City, appropriate given how many twenty-something Irish women take their cues about how to run their personal and professional lives from Sex and The City, another instance of life-imitating-art-imitating-life-imitating-art, and this despite the fact that the show is written by a team of gay men, getting a chance to indulge their wish-fulfilment (which often happily coincides with straight men’s wet dreams as well) about ‘what women are really like’. The longest-running shows on RTE come from the States, or from England (Granada’s Coronation Street), and the movies in most of our cinemas from Hollywood. As for homemade productions, Don’t Feed The Gondolas was Not The Nine O’Clock News shorn of the satire, while The View is Late Review with a floating panel, most of whom – with the odd honourable exception – know quite a lot about one area of artistic endeavour, but hardly anything about any others, unlike the stalwarts of the BBC 2 show they are trying to copy, most of whom have a broad, well-rounded, appreciation of the arts. There is a generally-accepted piece of apocrypha abroad that RTE rejected the idea for Father Ted. Not so. For so sure was Dermot Morgan and his associates that the national broadcaster would do just that, they went straight to Channel 4 with their proposal in the first place. As for RTE’s effort at indigenous soap, Fair City, the kindest thing one can do when confronted with its over-the-top, supposedly ‘realistic’ storylines and amateur acting is to pass over it in silence, stopping only to marvel that people will publicly admit to writing it and appearing in it – let alone watching it.

When it comes to print media, The Irish Times is still trying valiantly to keep its tattered tiara as ‘the paper of record’ polished up, while simultaneously mutating into just another lifestyle rag. At least the Indo, whatever its manifold, manifest shortcomings, isn’t pretending to be anything other that what it is, an aspirational, middlebrow, mid-market product. Any discerning music lover is far more likely to reach for Uncut or Mojo from off the shelves, in preference to Hot Press, a self-congratulatory magazine so in bed with the Irish music business that it is impossible to read any objective criticism in it. The most consistently readable cultural review available here on a Sunday is an Oirish edition of an English newspaper, The Sunday Times. The idea for VIP was to keep the same format as Hello, but have Irish people in it. Even the cover of the November issue of this very magazine was a direct steal (dressed up and defended as a homage) of the Annie Leibovich group shots which graced the covers of Vanity Fair, inviting another prestigious identification by aping a recognisable and successful style. (Sorry, Trevor). Harmless enough, you might say, but it does prompt the question: can anything truly original ever come out of Ireland?

Meanwhile, back flaneuring through the notional nation’s nominal capital, in any boutique you can buy Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee jeans, Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, Nike trainers, Calvin Klein underwear and NYC baseball caps. The football jerseys on display in Champion Sports and Marathon Sports are those of English and Italian clubs, which is only right and proper when you consider that most Irish football fans support Premiership sides, and that the entire Irish international soccer squad ply their trade abroad, to the extent that the most outstanding Irish footballer of his generation had few qualms about choosing full commitment to his club over any claims his country may still feel it has on him. In any pub you can drink Bud, Becks, Coors and Miller Lite (‘Democracy’s Drink’). Are the men of 1916 turning in their graves ever since Ann Summers opened a branch of its sex shop opposite the GPO, or have their decomposed corpses got used to it by now, whatever about the unease among their not-so-abiding spirits? Why not trail in and out of Marks & Spencer’s and Debenham’s, or Waterstone’s and Hodges Figgis (both owned by the HMV conglomerate)? You could buy one of those handy compilation CDs M & S thoughtfully keep stacked by the door: Music for Relaxing with Friends, (‘Friends are an important part of our lives’ the sleeve notes tell us), Music for a Quiet Night In, (‘We all need time to ourselves’), Music to Chill To, Music to have a Bath With, Music to Sleep Late By. Why don’t they have a Punk/New Wave compilation, Music to Put 5000 Volts through your Nervous System, (‘We all need youthful rebellion in our lives’)? If you ignore the smaller, specialist, sole traders, all your retail musical requirements can be taken care of by HMV and Tower, where only a small percentage of what’s available for your delectation will have originated on these shores. Not only the centre, but all those malls out there, crisscrossing the country, are full of P.C. World and Dixons, Foko and Habitat, which you can pop into after you’ve finished doing the groceries at Tesco. Face it, you might as well be in Norfolk (be it East Anglia or Virginia). To describe where most people on this island live nowadays is to find yourself talking about everywhere and nowhere: system-built estates, clogged-up motorways, a vastly expanded suburbia, multinational factories, shopping centres such as Liffey Valley where the food court is called South Beach and is decked out with stray bits of Florida, just as any Irish pub from Germany to Japan is decorated with newly-minted, old authentic Irish street signs. Oh, and that favourite ‘local’ you used to frequent will surely have had its second makeover by now, whether or not it changed hands in the process. What you are witnessing as you walk, and living thorough in your life, is apparently a phenomenon known as globalisation, and you did ask for it, suckers. It has made Ireland as atomised as most everywhere else in the so-called developed world. The smaller the world has got, the more isolated people have become from each other. Are you happy now, with all this freedom of choice? How much choice, exactly, do you need?

Of course, if Dublin doesn’t exist, we must ask, by extension, does Ireland? Is it not a presumptively metropolocentric to make the capital representative of the whole country? Brendan Behan, a writer and a Dubliner whose public persona of the lighteningly quick-witted drunk with the Big Personality effectively put pay to any enduring literary reputation he might have accomplished (that, sadly, is your fate if you become that most dreaded of incarnations, ‘A Dublin Character’), once quipped, ‘There are only three places in Ireland: Dublin, the North, and the country’. Under this reductive rubric, what is the average contemporary Dubliner’s view of those other two places, now?

Well, Northerners are funny, and they’re funny because they bring religion into everything, despite the fact that whatever troubles they may have, or have had, are really a sociological problem. Protestants and Catholics: what was that about? No one down here would care to be caught dead admitting it, but the truth is that partition has worked, if what it set out to do was forge different mindsets for what were once called nationalists, on opposite sides of the border. ‘You didn’t help us, you abandoned us,’ they accuse. ‘Hey, sorry pal, but it wasn’t my problem in the first place,’ we reply. Most Southerners (and most Brits too, by the way), take the not unreasonable view that the Republican and the Unionist communities in the North are like two kids fighting in the backyard: your sympathies undoubtedly lie more with your own little horror rather than with your neighbour’s, but really you wish they’d both just grow up, straighten out their own differences, and get on with the business of living. Beyond that, the human rights element of the equation is no more or less significant to most younger Dubliners than it is in Angola or East Timor. There is a little bit of annoyance, though, that what with all the great changes going on down here, the North continues to hijack a disproportionate amount of the international discourse about this island. It wouldn’t do for residual atavistic violence to go spoiling our bright new economic miracle, now would it? But, happily, most Northern Tims with a modicum of sense in their heads, and the available wherewithal, and not a few of the more enlightened Billys too, got out and came down here, or went to London, or Scotland, as fast as their legs could carry them. So that’s all right, then. Plus, we elected a President from up there, just to show good face and salve our consciences a little, if we ever feel we need to. That, in turn, released the former incumbent, so she could go and do a proper job of work, at the United Nations.
As for ‘the country’, well, don’t fool yourself that milking a cow is any more real and authentic than shopping for Prada, or that a scenic mountain or lake view is inherently any more beautiful and uplifting than the panorama of a city skyline. To be sure, what makes Behan’s generalisation funny is its utter wrong-headedness, since one only has to go a few miles down the road in any rural area, never mind into a neighbouring county, to come across vastly different histories and attitudes and landscapes. But, with people commuting to work in Dublin from as far away as Portlaoise, not to mention Dundalk and Wexford and all points in between, could we not more usefully ask: where does suburbia end, and the country begin? Maybe the country’s existence is expiring, hot on the heels of the capital’s. While it is still cheaper to inhabit this dormitory conurbation, especially if one is of an age when being out and about every night is no longer an all-consuming imperative, it is also worth inquiring: how far west do you have to go to get some peace and quiet?

Don’t think for a moment that in any of the foregoing I am ranting sophomorically against ‘foreign influences’. That kind of railing would place me a bit too close for comfort to the same camp as that inhabited by the neo-conservatives, with their misty-eyed nostalgia for the traditional values of the ‘real’ Ireland. But I do say that free market values (some people’s version of ‘freedom’) have been swallowed wholesale, and solely for money. Get with the programme, bud. ‘God bless the child that has its own.’ Can anyone even remember when ‘only in it for the money’ was the grossest insult imaginable? The tragedy is that, sandwiched as it is between two much larger English-speaking landmasses, with two far more robust economies, Ireland was ideally located to pick and choose, to sift and sort, the positive from the negative, the wheat from the chaff, from the experience of its two most influential neighbours and trading partners. The twin pillars of popular culture – music and movies – have, after all, always been the most interesting things to come out of America, or out of Britain, for that matter. Instead, Whore Ireland lay down and took it both ways, without any regard for fusty old concepts like human agency, or national sovereignty, or individual integrity. Independent? We ain’t. No country is an island. But some countries are far more sure of what and who they are and aren’t than this one is, to the extent that they don’t even have to sit around thinking and talking about it all the time. For, what was Cathleen Ni Houlihan doing while she traded her favours? Why, to put the hypocritical icing on the cake of easy virtue, she lay back and thought of Ireland, or so she gave out. But, that’s okay too, since all those multinational factories and retail outlets and leisure centres provide lots of employment for the lower orders, and all the increased prosperity has driven up the price of property, for those lucky enough or solvent enough to buy at the right time, or to have bought long before the mass hysteria got into full swing. But, if she sold her body so easily, what price her soul? Because don’t try to tell me that we didn’t sell our souls. And don’t even try to tell me that we simply sold our souls, and there’s nothing wrong with that, since everybody’s doing it, doing it, doing it. Because maybe we had no souls to sell to begin with. Or, if we did, maybe they weren’t worth very much anyway, and went not even to the highest bidder, but on a first come, first served basis. More likely, as observed earlier, maybe ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’, and all those other inclusive plurals, don’t exist, and this country is made up of some very rich, a lot of averagely-incomed, and some very poor people, who don’t necessarily have anything very much in common, their chance nationality aside. Pretty much like everywhere else, when you think about it. Either way, Ireland as such doesn’t exist, if indeed it ever did. Q.E.D.
What would this entity which, for the sake of convenience, will hereinafter be referred to as Ireland, actually look like, were it ever miraculously to attain corporeality?

Well, there would be more of a genuine sense of shock and outrage, rather than hot air and guff, about incidents like the Taoiseach’s daughter and a member of a boy band selling exclusive rights to photos of their wedding in France to a celebrity magazine, while hospital trolleys groan under the weight of expiring pensioners, and primary schools collapse for want of maintenance. Let us eat cake? Fair enough. It’s no secret that the backdrop for the Celtic Tiger’s Great Leap Forward was a non-existent public health service (a particular hobby-horse of mine, since I have first-hand experience of becoming embroiled in it for an agonisingly lengthy period, due to medical mishap). While this is hardly the forum to rehearse arguments already elucidated with greater rigour in books like After The Ball by Fintan O’Toole and Unhealthy State by Maev Ann Wren (both available from New Island, should you care to cast aside that latest piece of pool-side, page-turning chick lit from Poolbeg that you’re flying through), we can still speculate: why is whatever the local equivalent of The Bastille is not stormed? If Ireland were real, there would be far more vocal and strenuous objections to living in ‘Rip-off Ireland’, and to Dublin vying with Helsinki as the most expensive capital city in Europe. ‘You say you want a revolution?’ Well, well, maybe not. But it is a bit irritating that we constantly hear it paraded as a self-evident truth in the mass-media that ‘Capitalism defeated Communism’, end of story. It was not, after all, some inherent design flaw in Marxism, its negligence in factoring in human ambition and/or greed to its game plan, that ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union, but rather that country’s inability to continue paying the high cost of keeping up the arms race. Also, we tend to pass over blithely the fact that much of the wealth of the United States was built on genocide and slavery. And, whatever you think about the Big Moustache’s (Stalin’s) 20 million dead as against the Little Moustache’s (Hitler’s) measly 6 million, and about the serious abuses of power in the repressive regimes of Eastern Bloc dictatorships, and in Mao’s China, what went on behind the Berlin Wall did underwrite much socialist aspiration in the western world. Finally, if Ireland had truly taken its place among the nations of the world, the domestic television and film industries, and home-based artistic expression in general, would be a lot more vibrant and cutting-edge, rather than hearing every half-arsed, cobbled-together, middle-of-the-road production hailed as the very incarnation of the contemporary national zeitgeist, with its finger firmly to the pulse of what’s really happening.

As I set out, day after day, from the compact and bijou two-up two-down in Harold’s Cross, and head off on the short journey towards the city centre, ‘I feel like a stranger, feel like a stranger in my own home town’. When I hit Leonard’s Corner, whether I continue along Clanbrassil Street, or turn right or left into the South Circular Road, all around me are immigrants of every stripe: Africans, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Bosnians, Romanians, Poles. You name them, we’ve got them. But they are not the reason that I feel displaced. Rather, it is with them that I most closely identify. I have, after all, been an emigrant myself, as were so many ’80s Irish kids. They do all the boring jobs, the grunt work, that the indigenous population won’t do anymore. The blacks in the jacks, indeed. They will also be the first to suffer, should the natives ever chance to find themselves not as flush as they are now sometime in the future. Like many other people born here, I have no more of a stake in this country than they do. I know, as they do, that ‘Life is Elsewhere’, as Kundera had it, via Rimbaud. ‘This land is your land, this land is my land’. I don’t think so. Already the fancy restaurants aren’t as jammers as they were when the Tiger roared at its loudest. The much-vaunted, new-found self-confidence which was supposed to have seen off the shenanigans of the old Banana Republic is beginning to look as though it was paper thin. The cracks are starting to show in the widely-hailed modernity we heard so much about. The real boomtown rats – those multinational execs – have now moved on, to even more favourable investment destinations, where there are people even more willing to lie down and be exploited – to the Pacific Rim – India, China, the Philippines; or maybe not even as far afield – to Warsaw, Prague, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia. What have they left in their wake?

No more than the commentators I am taking issue with here, I have little idea of what exactly the future holds. But I do think that extolling the virtues of the past, when they are made synonymous with the dead hand of the forces of reaction, is not tenable. Nor, for that matter, is pinning your hopes on taking refuge in postmodern irony. Irony is only what we use to keep things from hurting too much, and it’s not like you have to hunt too far for it these days. Just try getting through all your conversations on any given day without encountering someone who employs that tedious habit of flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands to indicate that what they are saying is taking place inside inverted commas, and hearing that mocking, knowing tone enter their voice.

Maybe it is just plain silly to expect anything to be wholly original ever again. Perhaps various forms of pastiche are the only originality left, at least after one has arrived at a certain age. But, in contradistinction to the neo-conservatives, and the neo-liberals, I do believe in a kind of secret history, an alternative tradition, with its own breath of references and range of influences. I also think it has very little to do with whatever shower of cute hoors and conniving buffoons are parking their arses on the government benches of the Dail for any given five year term. For it is bigger than any country, and more powerful than any political administration, and if you appreciate it, or consider yourself part of it, you don’t have to worry so much about the government (unless, that is, you’re Cecilia Ahern or David Kitt). I mean, would you trust a politician? This other tradition, let’s call it culture if you like, is made up of all the great poetry and novels and plays that have ever been written, all the great music ever composed and played, all the great paintings ever painted and great movies ever made. Endless Art. One art. And just maybe, this culture is not some peripheral optional extra, but the heart of the matter.

Robert Bly, a gent who in his glorified self-help manual Iron John advocated that men go back to dancing around fires in forests and thumping their chests in order to rediscover and get in touch with their lost masculinity, is much invoked by those who would hark back to simpler and supposedly better times. Neo-conservatives have taken on board Bly’s notion of ‘the sibling society’, in which he characterises the younger generation as being intent upon destroying its own heritage of what he calls ‘vertical’ culture, in favour of the ‘horizontal’ culture of its peer generation, summarised as including pop music, movies, television and a limited range of books which relate to the other mediums much more than to any literary or artistic heritage, and excluding everything else. But the great tradition I am positing is far richer and more fecund, more all embracing and all inclusive, than anything Bly or his acolytes could ever comprehend, with their simplistic divisions of ‘High’ and ‘Low’ culture. Culture with a capital C includes Pop Culture, after all, and today’s high art, from Shakespeare to Mozart, was yesterday’s popular entertainment. There are thousands of examples of the seamlessness of cultural expression between generations, but one will suffice here: all those parallels with Homer’s Odyssey in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (This, incidentally, isn’t so different from the use James Joyce made of The Odyssey in Ulysses, although he was either ignored or vilified by the Irish establishment during his lifetime, his ‘Irishness’ only claimed and celebrated over the past twenty years or so, when it became both profitable and popular to do so.) As it stands, Bly’s championing of Arnoldian ‘high seriousness’ over what are still dismissed as ephemeral music and movies is no different from that of the schoolmaster recollected by Hanif Kureishi in his essay ‘Eight Arms to Hold You’, who, in 1968, told his students straight-facedly and sanctimoniously that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as lower-middle-class provincial boys without significant musical education, couldn’t possibly have written their own songs (Brian Epstein and George Martin did that!).

Dunno. Maybe I’m a neo-radical, or a neo-revisionist. The ’90s were just the ’80s all over again, with better clothes. Is it too cockeyed to hope that the Noughties might signal some kind of rebirth of ’60s rebellion? It’s no secret that Ireland’s much-vaunted ’90s prosperity came about largely through the injection of E.U. structural funds, and giving generous tax breaks to American multinationals. Unfortunately, one of the Tanaiste’s most oft-quoted gems of wisdom is that Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin in terms of its outlook, a pronouncement so banal in its transparent stating-of-the-bloody-obvious that the only perplexing aspect of it is that she clearly thinks this is A Good Thing.

As Ireland finds itself in the midst of hosting another E.U. Presidency, is it again way too far-fetched to look forward to a time when this country might begin to take its cue from the models of social democracy practiced by the countries who have been at the heart of that organisation from its inception and who (whatever about their own tainted history of exploitative colonialism), through relatively recent painful first-hand experience of the horrors of war, refused to be bullied into an unjustifiable one by extremists within America? Or will Ireland merely continue adopting wholesale the American-style, business-based divided society, which sponsors cut-throat competitiveness and ruthless self-aggrandisement at the expense of mutual tolerance and social cohesion? Me, I’m not just interested in how many U.S. planes refuelled at Shannon on the way out to Iraq; I’d also like to know how many body bags passed through it on the way back.

So, long live youth; for while, as Shaw famously had it, it remains ‘too precious to be wasted on the young’, there is still hope for it if you keep in mind something Kafka wrote in his Diaries: ‘Anyone who retains the ability to see beauty never truly grows old.’ Keats knew that beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ Maybe being young has very little to do with one’s chronological age, and much more to do with attitude. ‘No one’s sailed this sea before,’ said Keith Richards in a recent interview, going on to point out that rock’n’roll is only as old as The Stones are. Rather than sneering at wrinkly rockers and wondering why they don’t pack it in, what’s to stop them going on and still doing it in their 70s and 80s, if they’re physically fit enough, as the old Delta blues men did? For why are The Rolling Stones still touring in their 60’s? Last year’s round the world Licks jaunt may have grossed €80m+, but is that the sole reason any of them did it? Do their pension plans need topping up that much? Or is touring still the best way for them to meet girls? Bassist Bill Wyman had had enough a few years ago, and bowed out then. Has no one ever thought that maybe the ones who are still standing might actually like doing what they do? Dr Hank Wangford, the country singing GP, when asked for his medical opinion on why Richards, an individual who has over-indulged in things that are bad for you enough to last most mere mortals several lifetimes, was still going strong, summarised his diagnosis thus, ‘If you have a lot of money and continue working at something you’re committed to and that satisfies you, then you can go on being a junkie. Keith has a genetic strength and, just as importantly, he has an appetite for life. He wants to be here.’ Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying that the reason he keeps his never-ending tour on the road for over three hundred nights every year is that the only time he feels happy is when he’s on stage. Nor is it the case that rock musicians are incapable of dealing with weighty, fraught subject matter. Lou Reed, who with songs like ‘Venus in Furs’ and ‘Femme Fatale’, wrote so well about sex and love in his youth, is equally adroit at addressing death and bereavement in his mature years, as albums like Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss plainly show. When asked a while back by an interviewer how long it was feasible to go on playing rock’n’roll, Uncle Lou replied, ‘Ask yourself how long you can go on writing novels, or painting pictures. There’s your answer.’

So, what you have to do is find something you are good at and love doing and can live by, as the longevity of the careers of those just mentioned demonstrates. Wilde, in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, argued that there was much tosh talked about the inherent dignity of labour, and that it was impossible for a man to have dignity if he was shovelling snow at a crossroads for twelve hours a day. In a similar vein, poet Michael Longley opined, on giving up his job at the arts council of Northern Ireland to concentrate on his writing, that ‘work is very overrated’. But these are hardly employments designed to lift the heart and sustain the spirit. Work may not be its own reward, but work you believe in and enjoying doing is. For either you love what you do, after a certain age (and, if you are lucky, do who you love), or you die, metaphorically and sometimes literally, often by your own hand. ‘Work And Love’, as Herr Doktor Freud himself had it, as the best chance of living a happy and productive life. That’s why all those grey politicians, who have long since forgotten the meaning of words like truth and beauty, if indeed they ever knew it in the first place, look as sad as they do, and can behave with such callous abandon. They don’t do good work.

'Hey, hey, my, my, Rock’n’Roll will never die’, at least for the people who loved it passionately to begin with, and for whom it was the strongest formative influence in their lives, the soundtrack to which they had all their first-time experiences. One can only have faith that the force of global youth culture, forever renewing and reinventing itself, and indeed of all of culture, is stronger than that of global capitalism, engaged as they are in a complicated, symbiotic face-off, which is a constant battle of wits.

And that’s my take on this identity thing, personal, national and national, for the young, the not so young, and young at heart.

 

Portions from this article appeared in the June 2004 edition of The Dubliner magazine.

Desmond Traynor is a Dublin-born writer and critic. Educated at UCD and Trinity, he has lived and worked in Holland, Italy, Spain, England and the US. His short stories have been widely published and anthologised, and his academic articles, criticism and reviews have appeared in many Irish and international newspapers, magazines and journals. A Hennessy Literary Award winner, his first novel, The Myth of Exile and Return, was published by Silenzio Press last year, and nominated for the Hughes and Hughes/Sunday Independent Novel of the Year Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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