Books: Casting a contra-iconic and anti-heroic cold eye on our national narrative
At the height of the Troubles in Belfast, a group of activists engaged in cross-community dialogue were decrying their mutual victimhood, moaning about the intolerable conditions in which they lived, oppression, discrimination, paramilitary and security-force violence, their unparalleled suffering and the hopelessness of their position.
An elderly Czech lady resident in Belfast, Helen Lewis - a survivor after five years in Auschwitz having endured a death march and the turmoil of resettlement in post-war Europe, her entire extended family wiped out in the Holocaust - could take no more. Cutting through the welter of self-pity, she cried out in her guttural Mittel-European accent: "And you think you got troubles!" It could well serve as a subtitle for the present volume.
Unhappy the Land is economic historian Liam Kennedy's attempt to bring some sense of proportion to the self-imposed national stereotype of Ireland as "the most distressful country" in the world, the self-sustaining belief of having suffered more, for longer, than any other nation on earth from war and famine, from occupation and colonial oppression and religious persecution, glorying too in the length and intractability of our own sectarian conflict.
In doing so, he slaughters almost every sacred cow in sight, from the Famine to the Rising, the Ulster Covenant and the Proclamation of the Republic, the Troubles (however labelled retrospectively) and the Civil War. Subjecting each to clinical dissection, setting it in historical context and drawing on international and intercultural parallels, he casts a cold eye, contra-iconic and anti-heroic, on the most deeply revered parts of the national narrative, and particularly those which are the basis of the so-called decade of commemoration and celebration.
However, the book is more than a simple refutation of grievances - even if points well made are reiterated to the edge of fatigue and the ordinary reader needs a degree of fortitude to stick with it. Although some of the essays date a few years, it is still a timely antidote to the flood of romanticised guff about the Rising issuing from all quarters from commemoration through celebration to near idolatry in a process which seems doomed to obscure the real significance of what was a complex and multi-faceted sequence of events.
In doing so, Kennedy will annoy more readers than he reassures (not, it seems, that that will bother him) but the skeleton at the feast is never assured of a welcome, especially one in which so much public effort and emotion has been invested and for which the liturgy has yet to be worked out.
The language generally will offend republicans, and the dismissal of the Proclamation as a sufficient foundation document for a modern state, while unionists will resent being told that it was the Covenant which introduced treason and the threat of violence into the Irish political equation. Nor will this newspaper be particularly chuffed to be reminded that the leading article on the day after the execution of Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh declared that the leaders of the Rising "deserve little consideration or compassion".
The most useful and rewarding group of essays form a close textual analysis and deconstruction of the Covenant and the Proclamation, each of which is eviscerated even-handedly as being replete with contradictions, evasions and silences, the one, succinct, an appeal to reason, the other, prolix, more poetry than argument, both threatening political violence, and each addressing its own audience on closed-circuit. Between them, they make Partition certain, and the Proclamation provided the text for republican dissidence and violence down to the present.
However, there is a role for the iconoclast when the image becomes the reality and fact, however insecurely established, becomes obscured by uncritical acceptance of romanticised (and sanitised) myth. These essays are an important contribution to an ongoing debate. There is an essential role in society for the little boy who protests that the Emperor has no clothes. Liam Kennedy is almost typecast for the part.
Unhappy the Land
Merrion Press, pbk, 272 pages, €24.99