Monday 9 December 2019

Kevin Myers: Communal self-harm is a regular practice in Irish life and falls into predictable cycles

Kevin Myers

YESTERDAY, I was writing about the lethal dangers of irrational pessimism. Today's offering is an attempt to show how our recent self-inflicted woes are not in themselves unprecedented. Indeed, communal self-harm is and has been a regular practice in Irish life and almost falls into predictable cycles.

Central to these destructive cycles is a reverence for heroes who have embodied the principles of social self-harm. The archetype of these is Wolfe Tone, who far from uniting all Irishmen, set Irishman against one another in bloody warfare and ended his great political ambitions with a botched suicide.

Those who make Wolfe Tone the template for a national hero seek neither success, nor intellectual consistency. Which is probably why he is revered by the parties who have repeatedly visited ruin upon this county: the extended Fenian constituency of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. Yes, I have said this kind of thing before: but I am not making an anti-nationalist harangue here. I am talking about cycles of destructiveness that are perpetuated, either consciously or sub-consciously. While we remain in ignorance of their power, they are certain to return.

For in 1911, what is now the Republic of Ireland was one of the dozen most affluent countries in the world, richer than all of Scandinavia, with the highest percentage of landowners of any country in Europe. The high Irish birth rate tended to conceal the country's underlying prosperity. But by 1959, independent Ireland was about the 70th-richest country in the world. And by the end of the 20th century, the population of every country in mainland Europe, notwithstanding the Second World War, had risen by 40pc. But in neutral Ireland, despite having the highest birth rate of all, the population had risen by only 20pc.

The armed Fenians of our history are the conscious perpetrators of the destructiveness that repeatedly visits Ireland. And Fianna Fail are the subconscious ones. Historically, the former were only a powerful element when linked to European upsurges of violence, as in 1798 and 1916. Otherwise, throughout the 19th century, they merely managed a couple of domestic brawls in a cabbage patch, which were then retrospectively termed "uprisings".

Even the misnamed "Anglo-Irish War" turns out be much less "Anglo", and far more "Irish" than nationalist history allows. In 1930, Charlie Dalton, one of Michael Collins' Squad, described to the Bureau of Military Archives how he had spontaneously opened fire on a British army roadblock in Drumcondra, Dublin.

"Brigadier (Dick) McKee sent for me and asked me what was in my mind in firing on the soldiers. As far as I know, this was the first occasion on which the British military had been fired on since the (1916) Insurrection."

This was October 1920, after nearly two years of the so-called "Anglo-Irish war" and though Dalton's memory was at fault here -- Kevin Barry's unit had shot dead three soldiers a couple of weeks before -- the fact remains that British soldiers were not targets for the IRA. Moreover, within 18 months, the violence was about to become purely Irish, as the conjoined traditions of Fenianism -- one violent and conspiratorial, the other cultural and tribal -- united in opposition to the new Free State.

It is the Fianna Fail cycle of self-destructiveness which is most worrying of all, because it seems to be an expression of group subconsciousness, operating well below the radar of ordinary thought.

For when the tribo-cultural Fenianism came to political power in the 1930s, it began an economic war with the largest trading empire in the world -- pretty much our only trading partner -- resulting in the virtual ruination of Ireland's capital-owning rural classes.

This was a purely voluntary act of suicide, yet so culturally powerful was Fianna Fail that even when coalition governments replaced it, the agenda remained essentially Fianna Fail's.

So the wasteland of the 1950s was democratically and consensually created. The greatest Irishman of the 20th century, Ken Whittaker, (who, naturally, didn't make it to RTE's final 20 of important Irish figures) devised the economic policies that rescued us. Yet within a decade, Fianna Fail had created the Provisional IRA, yoking once again the conspiracies of armed Fenianism with the tribo-cultural traditions of Fianna Fail. It was as if the latter simply could not be content with peace and prosperity.

After another quarter of a century of war, Ireland seemed set to enter a new era. But no: fresh Fenian-type conspiracies were hatched, now involving the banks and senior civil servants, that were both secret and thoroughly irrational. And so, of course, as in the true Wolfe Tone tradition, they were doomed from the outset.

This is the family legacy: the drunken uncle ranting in the attic, the alcoholism in our DNA. For while we are locked into an addictive cycle of counter-intellectual and fantastical conspiracies, we are inevitably going to return to sup at the toxic pool of failure. And if we endlessly opt for Fenian cabalism over modern transparency, then we must know what it is, as a state and as a society, that we are assuredly and inevitably bequeathing to the next generations: ruination, again and again and again.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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