Plus is in the change, monsieur

We have nothing to feel guilty about as a people who have hope for the future and aspiration to achieve, says Carol Hunt

Published 29/08/2010 | 05:00

Word has it that the latest 'novel' by French en-fant terrible Michel Houellebecq -- La Carte et Le Territoire, to be published in France next month -- is set in Ireland, where he lived for some time (he's now in Spain).

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I've put the word 'novel' in inverted commas because, according to French newspaper Le Parisien, the book's central character is "a foul-smelling, alcoholic, badly dressed writer called Michel Houellebecq" . . . who lives in a tumbledown house near the River Shannon which has the "worst-kept lawn in Ireland".

And that's grand. If Michel wants to denigrate himself in print, there'll probably be an awful lot of people he's previously offended -- feminists, Muslims, homosexuals, his mammy, socialists and Guardian readers everywhere -- standing by to cheer him on. But we all know that Houellebecq, crazy genius that he is, loves Ireland.

In his bestseller, Atomised, the 'hero' -- strangely also called Michel -- ends up returning to Ireland because, as his friend Walcott tells him: "There's something very special about this country," where "many witnesses attest to his [Michel's] fascination with this distant edge of the Western world, constantly bathed in a soft, shifting light, where he had come so often, where, as he wrote in one of his last notes, 'the sky, the sea, the light converge'."

It all sounds suspiciously like a Bord Failte advertisement: too good to be true. And, of course, it is.

Word is out that Michel Houellebecq's fascination with our misty, romantic land of saints and scholars has soured somewhat and he now feels decidedly misled by our depiction of ourselves as imaginative, rebellious free spirits who live only for poetry and literature -- never for anything as superficial as monetary gain.

Seemingly a disillusioned Houellebecq now thinks we're just a crowd of materialistic hypocrites -- which is not likely to go down well in the Emerald Isle. I've already read one comment in print accusing him of hypocrisy by availing of our writers' tax-break laws and then daring to say that we're materialistic. Touche.

But, really, why should we be bothered by what a troubled, and troublesome, French writer who spent a few years living in the west of Ireland thinks of us? Is it because we actually suspect he may be right?

There's been an awful lot of guff spoken and written over the past year or so about how "we all lost the run" of ourselves during the boom years: how we forgot our Irish culture and heritage and instead sold our Celtic souls to the God of Mammon -- buying up cars, houses, holiday homes and small countries with profligate abandon, to the despair of cultural icons like Houellebecq who loved us in our desperate poverty for our deep, dark Celtic souls.

It's all bollocks, of course. We're no more or less materialistic than the Germans, French or Americans -- it's just that we never had a chance to splash any cash before.

Yes, we had appalling political, economic and financial leadership that has led us into our present chaos, but the essence of the nation has certainly not changed for the worse.

Our children are far more liberal, educated and more confident than their parents were; we don't kow-tow to the Catholic Church as we used to, and we realised that -- contrary to myth -- we actually relish success.

None of these are bad things, not at all. On the contrary, they are essential if we are ever to become a mature society.

A challenge that, less than a century after gaining nationhood, we still aspire to.

But we seem to be worried that -- as I keep repeatedly hearing people wail -- "we lost something", so we supposedly became a less caring society, an Ireland that was increasingly unrecognisable to the swarms of tourists who head to our shores for the 'craic', the Guinness, the wit and the culture.

Oh, cop on! As if in 'the old days' we were all swanning around by the shores of Lough Corrib, starving while we searched for a few unblighted praties, but happy at the same time in our poverty as we blessed ourselves, sang a few rebel songs, recited Joyce and greeted the visiting Americans with a: "Top of the morning, we may not have much in material wealth, but shure, you're welcome to share whatever we have."

Well, we weren't. Anyone who could left the country as quickly as possible, and those who remained were downright miserable, broke and oppressed.

Remember when you couldn't buy contraceptives here? Remember when it was illegal to travel to England for an abortion? Remember when kids regularly died of TB? Remember when the bishops ruled the country with a crosier of steel? (All the better to wallop your pretty arse with, my dear!)

We -- and Monsieur Houellebecq -- are mourning an Ireland that never really existed in the first place.

The whole Celtic 'dancing at the crossroads' (he never actually said that), moody, broody, romantic, fighting Irish thing was a myth. A myth that we created.

Facts: There was no 'Celtic' invasion; King Billy was heavily funded by the Pope; good Presbyterians were Republicans until after the Act of Union; and there was feck-all public support for the 1916 Rising. Which would have been grand if we'd admitted that and then settled down to getting on with living with our neighbours as equals in the modern world.

But for years we've been either looking over our shoulders at the English to see if they notice how well we're doing without them, or at the Americans to see if they approve of their little Irish cousins, or over at Europe to get a pat on the head (and a bag of cash) for being such good Europeans, yet then -- like attention-seeking adolescents -- buggering up their sensible plans for further unification with the most ridiculous excuses. (Neutrality anybody? Since when did that become a deal-breaker? And as for the 'rights of the unborn child'? This, coming from a country with our record of child abuse?)

Becoming more materialistic is not our problem; liking nice homes and cars (as long as we can pay for them) and foreign holidays is what the French and Germans, not to mention the Amer- icans, have been doing for years -- it's called being com- fortable or being successful.

Poverty does not necessarily equal Godliness. But where we do seem to have a problem is with hypocrisy. Or is that the right word? To be kind, I could say that we are conflicted; to be honest, I would say we are duplicitous.

We want the riches and modernity, yet we still feel the need to hang on to some outdated myth of nationalist romanticism with a heady dollop of Catholic fervour and oppressed 'stand-alone' plucky little Eire thrown into the mix.

Why do we do this? Because that's what tourists expect when they arrive on our shores clutching a copy of the collected works of WB Yeats and a poster of the Proclamation?

Or because we're not able to separate the myth of Ireland from the reality?

Freud famously said that the Irish were unique in being the only race of people immune to psychoanalysis. What he probably meant was that we're just far too successful at lying to ourselves.

This, despite the fact that we spend so much time navel-gazing and then worrying what others think of us. We are not the wittiest, most cultured, imaginative or friendliest people on the planet.

And not everybody loves the Irish. And, really, why should we care?

What we need to do is concentrate on being honest with ourselves about who we are and where we want to go -- what sort of society we'd like to live in and have our kids grow up in safely and happily.

And if this involves wanting a bit of cash to throw around on cars and nice homes and a few foreign holidays to broaden our minds, well, better that than years of pseudo-republican warfare and suffocating Catholic oppression.

Who cares what eccentric French writers such as Houellebecq think of us? It's what we think of ourselves that really matters.

Sunday Independent

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