Colum Kenny

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Monuments to our national lack of self-respect litter the country

From heritage sites to our capital's streets, the sense of self-loathing and decay speaks volumes, writes Colum Kenny

Colum Kenny

Published 04/08/2013|04:00

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FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY: The inscription on a stone at Ballylee, above, once home to WB Yeats, below, which will reopen after four years but will close again the next day
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY: The inscription on a stone at Ballylee, above, once home to WB Yeats, below, which will reopen after four years but will close again the next day

YEATS' tower in Co Galway is deserted and the area overgrown. I felt like I had stepped outside time when I visited Ballylee last weekend.

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A broken sign points to the locked-up medieval castle and thatched cottage that housed Ireland's greatest poet during the civil war. The following year, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For an hour, I had to myself what in some countries would be a carefully maintained and thronged heritage site. Even the picnic area was sealed off and neglected. On a glorious day in mid-summer, one car passed. But you do not have to travel down a remote boreen near Gort to get a sense of decay and self-loathing. Just walk along our capital's main street, named in honour of a great Irishman, and around to Parnell Square, named in honour of another. Their condition speaks volumes about our self-respect.

This may be the year of The Gathering but what do we think that visitors see?

We try to make money from the legacy of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. And cod ourselves that they reflect a national genius, some kind of secular island of saints and scholars. But Joyce and Beckett fled the place. It drove Yeats to distraction.

As a senator in the Twenties, Yeats was chairman of a committee that adopted wonderful animal imagery on Irish coins that remained a distinctive badge of Ireland for many decades. His Seanad was, arguably, the best there has been. The sterile exchanges that now pass for Oireachtas reform are just one reminder of how far we have sunk from the ideals and ideas of this State's founders.

Do we want to forget? Is that why history has been so degraded on the school curriculum, and why so few school children now study it to Leaving Cert?

Is it simply too painful to see how the ideals of our political and religious past, so much part of our identity, have been violated not by Britain or Rome or the EU, but by our own leaders and so, in a way, by ourselves?

Last week again, the lack of clear consequences when it comes to actions that damage this State seemed all too striking. People found by a tribunal to have made corrupt payments had their legal costs paid by the public. It is hard to believe.

And the State seems unable to find ways to convict people involved in certain kinds of planning and financial crimes.

Yeats wrote of "The craven man in his seat, The insolent unreproved, And no knave brought to book Who has won a drunken cheer."

Sound familiar?

Ballylee is a magical place. They used to say there was a

cure for every evil between its old mill wheels, and walking in the woods by the tower, it is easy to imagine why. A stream runs under a bridge, partly blown up by "the lads" during the civil war for no obvious reason other than malice.

I was there because I am writing a book about a local family that fled famine and made significant contributions to American life. Now that emigration is forcing many young abroad again, to uncertain futures, the haunted fields of Kiltartan on which Yeats gazed are a reproach to those who have failed to reform faster.

The public is aghast at the antics of our leaders. A dysfunctional debate about the future of the Seanad has both sides calling for a vote on the basis of proposals for reform that will only emerge clearly, if ever, after the referendum.

We have poured billions into banks and so impoverished a swathe of health, welfare, cultural and other national services. But there is still no clear explanation as to where the billions went that we replaced, and no serious parliamentary inquiry into how it happened.

The gormlessness of the Gael is gruesome. You see it, from this Government's botched referendum that might have allowed the Oireachtas to hold a meaningful bank inquiry, to the endless bluster and blow and expense that surrounds proposed reforms. It was a flood in 2009, four years ago, that shut Yeats' Tower. How long can it take to reopen it?

A church that might provide moral and inspirational leadership has descended under the weight of its own privilege after independence to the point where it has imploded and cannot even speak to the modern mind. The bishops last week announced that Cardinal Sean Brady would dedicate Ireland at Knock to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Is this 1932?

When you walk up O'Connell Street, and see it through the eyes of a foreigner, you wonder how we see ourselves. Shoddy, broken, cheap, dirty and exploited are just some of the words that come to mind. The Spire, more appropriate to a place like the IFSC or Dublin docks, points aimlessly at the sky, a symbol of our lack of direction and indecision.

Last weekend too I stopped at the little museum in the old national school at Kiltartan Cross. It includes items of Lady Gregory and a reconstructed old classroom. Again, while I was there, nobody else visited. It was being tended by Sister Mary de Lourdes Fahy, historian and one of the volunteers who keep this fine project going. But we cannot depend on a few local volunteers to protect our heritage. We need to insist that State and local authorities also provide imaginative management, and at a modest cost.

There is a danger, given the coarseness of public life in Ireland, that people simply engage in a kind of greedy or unthinking approach to heritage. History is not a Disney movie, and historical sites should not be overdeveloped to maximise tourist revenue. Some critics fear that the world heritage site at Newgrange, Co Meath, is now too elaborate.

Twice within the past few years I have written to Kilkenny County Council to express concern about what they were doing or not doing in respect to particular heritage sites in that leading heritage county.

In one case, they built a "viewing point" on the road between The Rower and Graiguenamanagh above the pilgrim and Norman remains of St Mullins. Personally, I find it a crude eyesore. The council did not even acknowledge my letters. I wonder what they spent on it.

These things matter. They are not as pressing as "jobs" or money for those who have too little to live on. But they are giveaways about how we see ourselves as individuals and as a people.

Without principles, without respect for our heritage as something more than a tourist cash-cow, we remain exposed to another round of manipulation. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. As George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are forced to repeat it."

The Yeats' Tower will open again next month, but only for Culture Night on September 20. One night of culture, and then it will be closed again. Beckett would have laughed. Joyce, who set Ulysses on a single day, could have got a book out of it.

Sunday Independent

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