Mocking the Irish Gods

States of Ireland

by Conor Cruise O'Brien
Pantheon, 336 pp., $7.95

The Story of Ireland

by Conor Cruise O'Brien and Maire Mac Entee O'Brien
Viking, 192 pp., $12.95

The idea that Britain is responsible for all Ireland’s wrongs, from the price of beef to the partition of Ulster, is one that dies hard in the breasts of nationalist and Catholic Irishmen. Most Irishmen of this species, in fact, manage to combine a belief in the invincibility of their own race with the conviction that Britain has permanently shackled them to her chariot wheels. It is not so long ago that I witnessed, in the senate of the Irish Republic, a debate on Ireland’s decision to join the European Common Market which was characterized chiefly by a stream of vilification of the Ancient Enemy, who (or so it appeared) had tricked and misled us at every turn of the economic road.

Ireland must be one of the few countries in the world in which a politician’s credibility increases in direct proportion to the frenzy with which he confesses his own incompetence. Not the least of the attractions of this particular kind of rhetoric is that it magnifies the stature of the speaker by borrowing something of the stature and the presumed malevolence of his opponent. Latter-day McCarthyites who draw their support and their raison d’être from the specter of international communism are using similar tactics. So, sometimes, are card-board Marxists who make the much more real specter of international capitalism the excuse for inaction, adopting instead an attitude of ossified defiance.

Conor Cruise O’Brien has just been re-elected as a Labour Party member of the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, and what he says there as well as in States of Ireland is a courageous slap in the face to this venerable tradition. He is not prepared to accept that partition is entirely Britain’s fault, or that Britain has the sole responsibility in solving it. Worse still, he insists that the religious issue is still highly relevant, if only because “the distinct communities indicated by the terms Catholic and Protestant are the prime realities of the situation.” His thesis is that the Irish race or nation, if such an entity can be said to exist, is composed primarily of “people of native Irish stock, descended from Gaelic speakers, professing the Catholic religion, and holding some form of the general political opinions held by most people of this origin and religion” and only secondarily of “people of settler stock in Ireland, and Protestant religion: to the extent that these cast in their lot with people in the first category, culturally or politically, or preferably both.”

Dr. O’Brien sees recent Irish history as a conflict between these two communities, from the point of view of a man who is firmly located in one of them (the first), but who rejects the racialist and irredentist aspects of its philosophy. Of all the books written recently about Ireland, none is as personal as this. It is an argumentative and colorful examination of a complex historical situation; and it is autobiography as well. Dr. O’Brien traces the lineaments of the Irish nationalist tradition not…

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