Is Ireland a country or a state of mind?—An extract from Malachi O’Doherty’s Can Ireland Be One? (Merrion Press)
by Malachi O’Doherty
Most countries probably have notions of their own exceptional character and these tropes have all probably also got darker versions.
Fintan O’Toole has ascribed the rise of English nationalism and the Brexit vote to a sense of English exceptionalism. The US declares itself openly to be the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’. But perhaps modern difficulties for both countries arise from the need to defend self-regard when its plausibility withers.
In which case, we might ask how Ireland, too, is to cope with the erosion of its foundation myths. Is Ireland a country or a state of mind? Perhaps it is natural for the people of a mass diaspora like Ireland’s to look for characteristics in themselves that they can think of as distinctly Irish. They find a liking for poetry and declare they have Irish souls.
What does Joe Biden mean when he says he is Irish? He means, at least, that he will take some responsibility for the old country’s welfare because that is where his forebears lived. But he also seems to imply that there is something of the old country’s ways in his character and his thinking.
The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has a word for Irish character. It is ‘ethical’. I think the more likely word in my grannie’s time in Plymouth and much later still would have been ‘Catholic’.
Higgins, I suspect, wants to get away from the Catholic designation but to retain the tradition that says we are innately good people.
Éamon de Valera had wanted to fashion an Ireland that was ‘not only Catholic but Gaelic as well’. Higgins’ use of the word ‘ethical’ marks the end of a time in which Ireland was defined by Church allegiance but retains within it the sense that we are a better people than others. In his inaugural speech in 2011, he said, ‘Now is time to turn to an older wisdom that … many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured by monetary success.’
Higgins was aware that the age of the Celtic Tiger had passed and had nearly resulted in economic ruin. It was time now to close a chapter on that which has failed, that which was not the best version of ourselves as a people, and open a new chapter based on a different version of our Irishness that will require a change in our political thinking, in our view of the public world, in our institutions, and, most difficult of all, in our consciousness.
We had lost our way, but we could find it again. The Irish character was spiritual and unmaterialistic. This was close to the version of Irishness favoured by de Valera: self-sufficient and practical, but only in order to be freed for higher reflections, beyond the reach of the rising filthy modern tide.
But we had just come through the bursting of an economic bubble; the rogues had had their way, pursuing wealth built on chimeric foundations.
Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1839, had a similar prescription for our improvement but framed it within an acerbic rebuke: ‘Immethodic, headlong, violent, mendacious: what can you make of the wretched Irishman? … Such a people circulates not order but disorder through every vein of it; – and the cure, if it is to be a cure, must begin at the heart; not in his condition only but in himself must the Patient be all changed. Poor Ireland.’ (Quoted in Deane, 2021, p. 104.)
Unlike Carlyle, Higgins says that the cure is at hand. Irishness comes in different expressions. One of them is avaricious and soul-destroying, but there are other expressions that can be reawakened in our consciousness, apparently with reference to ancient wisdom. There is something in us as a people that the world acknowledges and admires:
“Our successes, after all, in the eyes of the world have been in the cultural and spiritual area – in our humanitarian, peace building and human rights work, in our literature, art, drama and song, and in how that drama and song have helped us cope with adversity, soothed the very pain they describe so well, and opened the space for new possibilities.“
It is an old idea that we are distinctly moral and spiritual. Daniel O’Connell, in a speech at Mullaghmast in September 1843, voiced better than anyone that Irish faith in their exceptional merit:
“Yes, among the nations of the earth, Ireland stands number one in the physical strength of her sons and in the beauty and purity of her daughters. Ireland, land of my forefathers, how my mind expands, and my spirit walks abroad in something of majesty, when I contemplate the high qualities, inestimable virtues, and true purity and piety and religious fidelity of the inhabitants of your green fields and productive mountains.”
The nineteenth-century Irish nationalist John Mitchel was very clear about his sense of the Irish being a superior people. ‘Can you picture in your mind a race of white men reduced to this condition? White men! Yes of the highest and purest blood and breed of men. The very region I have described to you [Northwest Donegal] was once – before the British civilisation overtook us – the abode of the strongest and richest clans in Ireland.’