Opinion

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Brian Farrell was not as conservative as he looked

The broadcaster's books illuminated many important topics.

Broadcaster Brian Farrell on the set of 'Today Tonight' in 1990.
Broadcaster Brian Farrell on the set of 'Today Tonight' in 1990.

John-Paul McCarthy

Brian Farrell's conservative public demeanour actually masked an intellectual impatience that animated his best books. Even though he exuded an easy authority in the presence of Taoisigh, Supreme Court judges et al, Farrell wrote with deep concern about the quality of our national life.

In The Founding of Dail Eireann (1971), he emphasised the extraordinary arrogance inherent in the claim that Irish life before 1916 was so unbearable that only an armed insurrection could purify it. As he put it icily, the rebels' rhetoric about renewal and emancipation was an attempt to hide the fact that a "developed political culture was already established prior to independence; that there was no revolution involved in the creation of the new State". Every Leaving Cert student is familiar with Farrell's account of the office of Taoiseach, Chairman or Chief? (1971). Here again, the careful prose masked a pointed critique of De Valera's extended premiership. In sharp contrast to Joe Lee's later depiction of the chief as someone who possessed "an indubitable claim to greatness", Farrell saw him as a kind of glorified cabinet referee, a prisoner in many respects of the vigorous advocacy of MacEntee on his right and Lemass on his left.

Farrell came back to Lemass himself then in 1984 for Gill & Macmillan, and here again he offered unexpected insights. Farrell asked his readers here to consider the possibility that Lemass's lack of introversion may have stemmed from the fact that there was not an awful lot to him other than what Farrell called a "fervent nationalism, rarely expressed", one that nourished a "commitment to an ideal for Ireland that was far removed from the ways of the poets or romantic patriots." (The distinction here between an ideal "for" rather than "of" Ireland remains highly pertinent).

Farrell returned to De Valera in 1987 when he edited a series of Thomas Davis lectures about Bunreacht na hEireann called De Valera's Constitution and Ours. In keeping with the mood of that perished, defensive decade, this collection tried to show that De Valera was really a social progressive and a relatively liberal Catholic. This depiction could only really be sustained by comparing him to the most fanatical faction in the Catholic clergy, and by emphasising his refusal to inscribe their worst prejudices in his new constitution. For all of his disagreements with John Charles McQuaid though, De Valera conceded all his major demands, including a commitment to legislate for Catholic morality via the criminal law, state funding for clerically controlled schooling and a formal reference to the Trinity in the text. Farrell himself wrote specifically on constitutional matters in 1987 for Duke University Press as part of his classic series of publications on Irish elections, Ireland at the Polls. He despaired at one point here about the way our constitution mixed a British executive with a continental-style system of proportional representation. The result of this cocktail was the financial mayhem of the Haughey-FitzGerald era. Dr. Merkel's Fiscal Compact was a good twenty-odd years down the line alas.

When his writings are considered wholescale, we sense a couple of things that made Prof Farrell so special. For one thing, he had no time for that dim and uncomprehending fixation with archives that has deformed so much of our intellectual life. He read widely in political theory and political science, and used these ideas to light up his topics. Having better things to do than fret about the supposedly corrupting influence of contemporary moral concerns in historical writing, Farrell also largely avoided the debate about "revisionism", one that magnetised so many conservative traditionalists and their small-drawn hearts. And unlike the other political scientist to whom he might be compared, James Hogan, Farrell's writings were not encumbered by a paranoid anti-communism or recurring concerns about the ultimate viability of mass democracy. And it was that democratic urge that consumed most of Farrell's intellectual energy. His book on the Dail was in many ways a modern recasting of the question that vexed William Carleton and James Connolly most of all, namely: why were the Irish so passive for so long? Farrell emphasised our "acceptance of the ballot as a source of legitimate authority; an expectation of incremental rather than radical change or improvement; a consciousness that leadership must be representative as well as efficient." Reading him here is to entertain the idea that we have Victorian Britain to thank for immunising us against both fascism and communism after independence. So his readers have much to be grateful for. And as a great UCD man himself, one imagines that at the end Prof Farrell might have echoed the final words of Patrick Kavanagh's famous Belfield lectures in 1956: I thank you and say how proud/That I have been by fate allowed/To stand here having the joyful chance/To claim my inheritance/For most have died the day before/The opening of that holy door.

Sunday Independent

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