| 8.4°C Dublin

Kevin Myers: Falsehoods from our past point to bleak future

Dignity. That is what is most striking about the response of both the Japanese and the Norwegian peoples to the recent catastrophes that have befallen them. Stoicism, self-respect, emotional continence, personal discipline in public; and, most of all, no self-pity. These are noble qualities. They are the characteristics of a people with a clear sense of how to make a future. Look at the Japanese, and their astounding recovery from war, and their repeated recoveries from natural disaster. Look at the Norwegians, husbanding their vast oil-earnings from the North Sea, to ensure their pension funds are sound: not a krona squandered on the Ponzi schemes that marked the death of the Celtic Tiger.

One of our problems in Ireland is that we repeatedly tell ourselves the wrong tale. Fiction is now intrinsically bound in the national narrative. And if you can't get what has already happened right, is it surprising that you are unlikely to be right about what hasn't yet happened?

Go to the National Museum at Collins Barracks to the section on the 1916 Rising and the Great War (at least there is now a section on Ireland and 1914-18, which wasn't always the case). There's a caption that illustrates perfectly the national narrative of choice. It runs (and I go from memory) "Many men chose to fight German militarism; others chose to fight oppression at home."

In what way were the people of Ireland oppressed in 1914? Home Rule had been passed. The land was now in the possession of the people who owned it. Indeed, the ownership of the land was the most "democratic" in Europe. For the first time in over a generation, there were more births than emigrants. Yes, the population was actually rising. TB was at the lowest level ever recorded, as was infant mortality, down 8pc in a year. And emigration from Ireland was falling -- just over 20,000 went to the US, 6,000 went to Canada, and only 1,000 went to England.

Yes, just 1,000 to England. Why would anyone go to England? In 1912, the mortality rate in England, at 16.5 per 1,000, was actually higher than it was in Ireland. To be sure, mortality in Dublin was high -- but no higher than in Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle and considerably lower than Ipswich and Workington. But you haven't heard that, have you? You have probably heard that the conditions in Dublin's slums were worse than in Calcutta, and maybe even cherish that utter fiction as a defining truth.

In 1916, there were no British troops in Ireland. The British army garrison in Dublin consisted of only Irish regiments. The Lord Chancellor, the Masters of the Rolls, the two justices of Appeal, the Solicitor General and 10 of the 15 most senior judges in the land were Irish Catholics. And uniquely, of all combatant countries in Europe, Ireland was the only one to be spared conscription. Oppression? What oppression?

What the Norwegians and the Japanese have in common is a passionate relationship with the sea. We do not. The very first concession in the Treaty negotiations 90 years ago was the declaration that we had no interest in maritime matters. Quite so. And what a bizarre state we made. By 1950, the Army had 1,048 officers, 2,426 NCOs and 4,505 privates: that is, for every four soldiers, we had three officers. That same year, the Republic had just 1,600 commercial fishermen: this island nation had over twice as many Army officers as it had fishermen. That is mad.

Just about the first deed of Dublin Corporation after independence was to cut the wages of its 2,000 employees by 33pc. What trade union leader agreed to the cut? James Larkin, back from the USA, where he had fled after embezzling union funds in 1914. Emigration, falling before 1914, rose dramatically again: between 1926-1936, 166,000 people emigrated, despite the slump, and despite the effective closure of the US to Irish migrants, while the number of children in Ireland fell by 6.8pc. Poor people don't eat, which is why between 1931 and 1938, bacon consumption in Ireland fell 31pc, and flour consumption was down 40pc. A final fact: between 1920 and 2000, the population of every European country, including Northern Ireland, rose by around 40pc, despite participation in World War Two. The Republic's rose by only 20pc.

I cite you these statistics because you were certainly never told any of them in either your school textbooks or your family lore, so they form no part of your understanding of Irishness. One of the deepest problems is our narrative: indeed, it might be said to be our foundational problem. For it's not complex; if you tell utter falsehoods about your past, your present is probably going to be disordered, and your future is likely to be chaotic.

I cannot pretend to know what myths go into creating the psyches of the Norwegian and Japanese peoples. But I do know that, just like us, they live on the very edge of the Eurasian landmass, making the most of the land they live on, and of the seas around them. Can that really be said about the people of Ireland?

Irish Independent