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Why the authentic voices of our public moralists deserve to get a fair hearing

John Waters is right to say that our economic implosion followed our cultural collapse,writes John-Paul McCarthy

I started reading John Waters' book Why Ireland Lost the Plot (Transworld) on Bloomsday, and funnily enough, Waters kept reminding me of a stray line from Ulysses.

Joyce has a few characters debate Shakespeare, and someone says that the supreme question about any book is "out of how deep a life does it spring".

Waters' plea for a return to the values of PH Pearse and the generation who reached their meridian between 1919-23 did not convince me.

But all the same, few could fail to be moved by the authenticity of his voice and the unaffected way he argues.

Waters is one of a handful of public moralists in Ireland who write without the safety net of a university position, and to that extent, he cannot afford to write with his peer-group in mind.

This means that he has to pitch his tent every week on that storm-lit plain where insight meets entertainment.

Condescending critics lurk around every hill, waiting to turn his vulnerable honesty against him.

Before offering a few criticisms, let me suggest a few reasons why Waters' book is worth a few days of your life.

Even those of us who dislike his heavy emphasis on what-the-Brits-did-to-us or his celebration of Haughey's populism can agree with his central thesis.

Waters is dead right when he says that our current woes are profoundly intellectual and cultural.

He argues that the economic implosion followed a more subtle form of intellectual collapse, rather than vice versa.

I notice he cites former Czech president Vaclav Havel's books at one point, and in making economics a product of ideas, Waters is true to the old dissident's basic attack on Marxist dogma.

Some may have a giggle at Waters' supposed tendency towards "psychobabble".

That rather threw me because whether he's analysing Brian Cowen's fraught attempt to project reassurance and postponement, or the brittleness of Garret FitzGerald's liberalism, Waters' prose is crisp and clear.

One man's "psychobabble" is another man's search for abstraction, I suppose.

And the historian in me tells me that abstract ideas are much more valuable today than archives.

Waters definitely succeeds in conveying a hunger for what O Faolain called "the vernal breath of a great imaginative idea".

He analyses Irish television via books on crowd psychology, and he has some arresting insights on Bertie Ahern's character which he sees as akin to that of a child who has learned to live with a difficult parent (Haughey).

In being fair and even indulgent to ideological opposites such as Michael D Higgins and FitzGerald, Waters makes good on his heartfelt critique of the ubiquity of ridicule and "irony" in our public life.

And with this regard for polemical fair-play, Waters is proof against parody.

At his best, Waters sounds a bit like the American social critic Myron Magnet, author of a startling book on the mayhem that engulfed American psychiatric hospitals in the Sixties after the American version of the liberal agenda gave anti-psychotic drugs a bad name.

Thinking that "freedom" was better than confinement, many major American hospitals emptied their wards, only to see this kind of liberalism lead to a huge spike in psychiatric homelessness.

Waters may overstate the case against Irish liberalism, but he certainly made me think about the limits of purely legal liberalism.

All in all though, I felt that Waters hit a bit of a brick wall towards the end, especially in his chapter about Pearse called 'Believing Backwards'.

For me, the front side of that brick wall is supported by Tom Garvin's books, and the back flank by Tom Dunne's memoir of post-1945 Catholic Ireland, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798.

Few scholars have done more than Garvin has to show the anti-intellectual element in Irish nationalism. Garvin showed in his book, Preventing the Future (2004), that many of the bad habits Waters connects to our economic collapse were home-grown rather than British imports.

The prime culprit here being an anti-economic brand of Tridentine Catholicism that refused to carry the cross of being human, and that taught us to hate our bodies and our minds for decades.

And Dunne's memoir argued that far from being the solution to cultural despair sketched by Waters, nationalism is part of the problem.

Dunne showed how Waters' brand of nostalgia can fool people into thinking that a sectarian catastrophe like the Battle of Ross in Wexford during 1798 was a Parisian-inspired philosophical joust between goodies and baddies.

And Dunne responds squarely to the challenge raised by Waters and his friend Desmond Fennell when he warned people that nationalism is not synonymous with radicalism or even republicanism.

Rather it tends towards an anti-intellectualism that equates complexity with self-hatred, thereby shutting the door on those twin elixirs of life, irony and paradox.

In other words, Waters' Pearsean solution to the problem of anti-intellectualism only aggravates the basic disability.

Sometimes failure is the fate allotted to the thinker who aspires to something better than mere archival summary.

Waters' book runs up against what Joyce called the "irreparability of the past". And not even an old Titan from Hot Press gets past that.

But at least one reader is better for having watched him try.

Sunday Independent