Tuesday 25 October 2016

Seán Moncrieff's new book examines the utter contradictions in the Irish character and psyche

Non-Fiction: The Irish Paradox: How and Why We are Such a Contradictory People, Seán Moncrieff, Gill and Macmillan, pbk, 256 pages, €22.50

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Contradictions: Sean Moncrieff argues the the Irish are both friendly and guarded
Contradictions: Sean Moncrieff argues the the Irish are both friendly and guarded
The Irish Paradox by Sean Moncrieff

Seán Moncrieff's new book examines an ­enduring phenomenon - the utter contradictions in the Irish ­character and psyche. That we are both friendly and ­guarded, that we are both open and closed, or that we are incredibly ­positive but also historically depressing, and that we have had an ­inferiority complex, or used to, but now seem to have a superiority ­complex. Sure, we're world beaters.

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Of course, in demolishing many myths and generalisations, Moncrieff introduces a few of his own or at least reinforces some undeserved stereotypes. Indeed, at times, he describes an Irishness that feels quite dated, and I sometimes got the feeling I was reading an account written by someone of an older generation

Also, a lot of our myths are valid. The Irish do punch above their weight globally, and certainly in terms of culture, writers, rock music and sport. You only have to go abroad to see this. There is also a magic to Ireland's image and history and culture which compels people: just look at the huge numbers of tourists and the positive feeling we give them.

However, we also have a sense of delusion. Much of this comes from having to shape up in front of a big and powerful neighbour. In reality, we are only a few million people, but we opine on world affairs as if we had some great role and insight. And with our foreign policy, we have an extraordinary paradox, in being militarily neutral but yet very pro-American with the US military using a major landing facility at Shannon.

But Moncrieff delves deeper than this and into the contradictions in how we speak and relate. His account is especially good on the diaspora - our great under-acknowledged hinterland and resource - and on his own personal experience of growing up in 1970s England in an Irish atmosphere before locating back to Ireland to live near Ballinasloe. There are some lovely passages about his family and his parents (his father was Scottish) struggling between the identities of the two islands.

What is extraordinary is how unreflective we are about the huge changes in Irish society, such as the decline in rural Ireland or the dramatic loss of interest in the North and in a united Ireland , the latter once a major topic in Irish life.

There is an unwillingness to reflect on these changes, with a similar disinterest in the complete collapse of the Catholic Church, an amazing change given that we were once one of the most devout people in Europe. Of course, we know that the abuse scandals had a lot to do with this. But there must be more. And why do we now see a visceral angry reaction by some of the Educate Together types against any mention of God anywhere, anytime - as if it such religious activity never happened in Ireland?!

This is very odd, and a real paradox. And what it suggests is that we were not a particularly spiritual country at all, but a conformist one, and we are now reacting against this former conformism. For this is cruel reality of the Irish character - we are a sheep-like people who fear disruption. This is a legacy of our history, and especially of the Great Famine, which Moncrieff correctly identifies as a (deliberately) underrated element in our history and psyche. Having said that, Ireland is still a great place in which to live and the more you go abroad, the more you realise that!

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