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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, by 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 only in the historical events which are familiar to most of us, but in his own and his family’s interaction with these events. His grandfather was a member of Parnell’s Irish Party in the House of Commons, but took sides against Parnell after the divorce case which split the party and which eventually led to Parnell’s downfall—the event that was for O’Brien “the great primal and puzzling event” in Irish history. In O’Brien’s eyes, the party’s revolt against Parnell was “the decision that discredited constitutional democratic politics, and began the revival of enthusiasm among the young for the idea of armed revolution.”

His book, therefore, is a double indictment—an indictment of the Catholic and nationalist conservatism which ultimately rejected Parnell, and an indictment of the physical force movement which owes its longevity, at least in part, to the bitter frustration of the years after the split. In this sense O’Brien, although he stands firmly with the Catholic and nationalist tradition, rejects many aspects of it, including some held dear by members of his own family.

This has made him, superficially at least, a very isolated and apparently “unrepresentative” Irishman. He mocks the Irish gods—the idea that unity is the solution to all our problems, and the idea that James Connolly, the socialist 1916 leader, was some sort of first cousin to the Messiah (it is instructive to pause and think how few contemporary British socialists lard their speeches with references to Keir Hardie, at a time when Irish socialists are still quoting Connolly like holy writ). The problem is, as O’Brien discovered soon after his entry into Irish politics in 1969, that in a country torn between opposing myths, a refusal to endorse one particular myth is taken as automatic proof of support for its opposite. Thus, O’Brien’s measured “unity, but not yet” position is read as support for the worst excesses of Ulster Unionism. His identification of Connolly’s occasional lapses into sectarian assumptions is taken as a wholesale betrayal of socialism.

As an exposure of the sins of the Catholic nationalist tradition, States of Ireland has no equal. The ferocity with which its general thesis has been greeted by more traditional Irish politicians is, moreover, related not so much to the intrinsic content of O’Brien’s arguments as to a belief that he has broken rank at a time when “national” (i.e., Catholic and Republican) solidarity is essential. When O’Brien wrote this book there was a substantial measure of agreement among many politicians in Ireland, from John Hume in the North to Jack Lynch in the South, that the best and perhaps only way to solve the “Northern problem” was to twist Britain’s arm to the point where Mr. Heath would deliver the North, together with a million or so hapless Protestants, into the Republic on a plate. The common denominator of this attitude is the belief that Northern Protestants can be dealt with satisfactorily by conciliation, absorption, extinction, expulsion—or simply by being ignored (where you take your stand in this spectrum depends on your degree of support for coercion, and whether you opt for political coercion or the physical kind).

O’Brien, who has already made his position clear on the unacceptability of physical coercion, has also come out against political coercion. This is one of the things that has made him most unpopular: if England can do our dirty work for us, the politicians cry, England will be forced to do it. The difficulty about this attitude, as O’Brien points out to the point of exhaustion, is that it refuses to take the Ulster Protestant/Unionist seriously—hardly an auspicious omen for successful reunification. The difficulty about O’Brien’s attitude, on the other hand, is that it is hard to find an alternative strategy that has the simplicity and appeal of the one he is attacking, with the result that his critique can be made to appear a simple defense of the status quo, North and South, if only by default. This is a gap in his thicket fence of analysis and argument that needs to be mended.

Ironically, it can also be argued that Dr. O’Brien is by no means as isolated as his political opponents would like to portray him. The results of the recent general election suggest, in fact, that the nationalist myth which Dr. O’Brien is busy dismantling has in fact only marginal support within the Irish Republic, and that it has been little more than a vehicle for politicians too lazy or too dishonest to discover whether it corresponded with any social or political reality.

Mr. Lynch’s newly-elected successor, Mr. Liam Cosgrave, has an uncomplicated and rather old-fashioned attitude to the Northern Ireland problem, compounded of a strong “kith and kin” feeling for the minority there and deep convictions about the importance of law and order. He might be described as an archetypal example of O’Brien’s “Catholic nation,” his already conservative nationalism reinforced by several decades of embourgeoisement. One of the reasons for his electoral success, it is clear, is that he reflected, with more accuracy and credibility than Mr. Lynch, the desire of Southern Catholics to be kept at a safe distance from the war, while maintaining a discreet interest in its outcome.

Nevertheless, his agreement to the appointment of Dr. O’Brien to ministerial rank in the new coalition government is a valuable sign that Northern Protestants will be taken more seriously in future. As Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Dr. O’Brien will have responsibility for the country’s broadcasting services, and, although he will presumably stand by his earlier statements about the need to give maximum freedom of expression to the service and the people who work in it, the general atmosphere engendered by his appointment will help to create much more realistic and healthy broadcasting. (He combines a total opposition to the IRA, for example, with a belief that to exclude them arbitrarily from the media is wrong.)

There are times, certainly, when Dr. O’Brien’s single-minded dedication to the task of proclaiming the nudity of the Catholic king affects his vision of the total situation. His attitude to Britain, for example, seems incomplete. He has consistently (with the partial exception of the brief period after Bloody Sunday, honestly described in this book) urged that British troops can have an important role in the protection of the Catholic minority, and has supported most of the British government’s reforms as they have been announced. On the other hand, he tends to see Britain’s military presence, and her political initiatives, as more peripheral than they really are.

England is not just a benevolent outsider whose minions sometimes behave badly: like all nations, she is chauvinistic, devious, and aggressive. While it is true that she neither knows nor cares very much about Northern Ireland, it does not follow that her role in the construction of a solution is merely to hold the opposing parties apart by the scruffs of their necks until they have ceased to make threatening gestures at each other. One could argue that Dr. O’Brien underrates the nature and extent of British involvement in, and responsibility for, the Irish problem without accepting his opponents’ contention that the problem should be solved by British initiatives alone.

Church-state relationships in the South, too, need a more refined analysis than Dr. O’Brien provides. He seems to accept the Catholic bishops’ appeals for peace at their face value, but these appeals can also be seen as part of an over-all pattern of activity designed to maintain the status quo. The logic beneath Cardinal Conway’s repeated assertions that contraception and divorce should not be allowed in the Republic, but that the question could be reconsidered in the context of a united Ireland, is that partition is a blessed thing. What church leader, after all, would willingly exchange substantial influence within a small political unit for greatly weakened influence in an enlarged political unit? If acceptance of divorce and contraception is the price of Irish unity, many Irish Catholics, laity as well as clerics, will not be prepared to pay it.

O’Brien is too dismissive of some of the economic and class factors in contemporary Protestant-Catholic relationships, although he is good on their historical origins. The situation in the Republic is particularly rewarding for this kind of study. Here, one of the main factors making for Protestant acquiescence in the Catholic state has been the powerful economic position of the minority in the commercial life of the country. Protestant businessmen, in effect, form a minority within a minority—the minority of people who own or control commercial wealth—and their acceptance of the social and economic status quo, if only for the reason that they have done just as well out of it as their Catholic fellow-businessmen, has set the tone for Protestantism in the Republic for half a century. They have been economically able to ignore, or buy their way out of, the disabilities to which the Catholic state would otherwise expect them to submit, and this has helped to shape their role as probably the most quiescent political minority in Europe.

In its treatment of the North, O’Brien’s book would be enhanced by a more detailed study of the Protestant working class and of the struggles (not always unsuccessful) of the Northern Ireland Labour Party to forge some sort of working-class unity on social and economic issues like housing, education, and social services. Dr. O’Brien is right in reacting sharply against left-wing romanticism, as he is right in reacting against right-wing nationalism, but whereas right-wing nationalism is nothing more than a recipe for further chaos, left-wing romanticism at least contains the germ of a solution.

On the other hand, Dr. O’Brien has some welcome and original insights into the inconsistencies in Protestant attitudes, particularly toward the Catholic Church and its bishops. (Protestants who demand that Catholic bishops take action against their recalcitrant flocks cannot logically accuse them of crozier-wielding when they do so.)

Finally, I think more attention should have been paid to the reasons for the change from proportional representation to the direct vote in Northern Ireland in the 1920s. Proportional representation favored the Catholics, of course, but an equally potent reason for its abolition was that it also favored other opposition groups such as the nascent Northern Ireland Labour Party and moderate Unionists who preferred to stand as independent candidates rather than accept a party line whose basic premise was the need for permanent Protestant domination. Dr. O’Brien, while he is correct in pointing to the inescapable and oppressive character of the conflict between the two great monoliths, possibly underrates the fissiparous tendency in both.

The answer to sectarian conflict is not in finding a frame which will allow sectarian coexistence but in identifying and promoting the genuine issues that will split the monoliths. This requires considerable delicacy as well as an unusual degree of honesty, and Dr. O’Brien makes some telling criticisms of Northern Marxists whose campaigns have underwritten the sectarian aspect of the conflict rather than defused it. The fundamental problem here is that any solution which takes the fact of sectarian tension as its starting point risks institutionalizing the sectarianism it is attempting to eliminate. This happened in the South in 1922, when the new state, desperately anxious to assure Protestants that they were wanted and honored, virtually guaranteed them a generous allocation of public positions. One can have sectarianism without discrimination, as is the case in the Republic at the moment. A similar solution for Northern Ireland, such as Dr. O’Brien seems to envisage at times, would have the merit of removing overt conflict, but would only be a very small step on the road toward a more healthy type of politics—the politics of housing, of jobs, of educational opportunities, and of social justice.

Dr. O’Brien recognizes that the nationalist myth is a major factor preventing the emergence of this kind of politics and so, quite logically, he attacks it. The danger is that by attacking it he reinforces it, just as the all-pervading presence of the nationalist myth itself has reinforced Ulster Unionism at key points in its checkered history. The tactical question is whether you attack the obstructionism of the myth or promote the alternatives to the myth or do both simultaneously—and if so, in what proportions. Dr. O’Brien’s hefty ashplant is aimed at the myth: perhaps, in the not too distant future, he will give us a fuller exposition of the social and political issues which he would like to substitute for a conflict at present being carried on only in mythological terms.

These, however, are basically questions of detail and emphasis. Dr. O’Brien’s great contribution to the Irish situation can be easily and quickly stated: he has forced people to face up to the fact that the tradition of the majority of people living in Ireland is a sectarian and a nationalist one, and that the link between its sectarian and its nationalist aspects will not be dissolved simply by wishful thinking. He has also forced people to face up to some, at least, of the realities of Northern Ireland which have been ignored or obscured up to now, especially in the Republic.

In order to concentrate on these truthful unpopularities, however, he has had to shelve, at least temporarily, the aspect of reality which he describes as “the existence of the hope and the threat of the unity of Ireland.” He is not against unity, but his rejection of unity as the essential and immediate solution led him, in 1971, to reach “a position of total rejection of both Sinn Féin and both I.R.A.s” (author’s italics). The problem is that the hope for unity will not go away, and that it can adequately be dealt with only by confrontation and encounter, rather than rejection. Dr. O’Brien is right in concluding that an ounce or two of revolutionary socialism is not detergent enough for a basinful of unpleasant and sectarian myths and traditions—but the very ruthlessness of his analysis acts also to exclude the men and women who are trapped by these myths and traditions.

In another context, he quotes Yeats’s quatrain:

But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb.
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

I now seemed to be committed,” he comments, “to the use of logic against the bony thumb.” But logic, unfortunately, is a technique rather than a policy, and it tends to exclude as much as it includes. Rational beings, too, have emotions, and are shaped by the past of their own community just as much as they shape its future. New molds are built with the debris of the old ones. It is ridiculous to suggest, of course, that Dr. O’Brien has locked up his emotions, or his sense of history: they have simply coalesced into a white-hot desire for peace, leading in turn to a convincing challenge to many of those nationalist myths which stand, like Easter Island gods, in the way of peace. On the other hand, there is just a possibility that, if he considers it carefully, Dr. O’Brien will look more compassionately at the emotion generated in the hearts of people who are inspired by these myths, as he already sympathizes with those who feel threatened by them. All such emotions are cousin to his own.

After the intensity of the pilgrimage which forms the core of States of Ireland, The Story of Ireland may come as an anticlimax, but in many valuable ways the two are complementary. It is, in effect, a brief (too brief, if anything), authoritative, and fair-minded popular history of Ireland. On the face of it, Maire Mac Entee has contributed at least as much to the venture as Dr. O’Brien, which should give her a cause of action against the male chauvinist cover designer who all but obliterated her name in favor of her husband’s.

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