The Damnable Question
Some months ago Conor Cruise O’Brien, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Irish government, addressed the students of University College, Dublin, on a text from Yeats’s poem “September 1913”:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
The burden of Dr. O’Brien’s speech was that Romantic Ireland is not dead and gone, alas. The ideology of Romantic Ireland is still active: and life in Ireland cannot be peaceful until that ideology is abandoned. According to his argument, we have been schooled to revere as heroes only the men of violence and blood: our saints are martyrs, our demonology English, our modern history is supposed to have begun in 1169 when Dermot MacMurrough called upon Henry II of England to help him recover the province of Leinster. From that day to this we have had only one theme, the hated presence of England in Ireland. One theme, and a corresponding rhetoric: the true story of Ireland is recited as a sequence of revolutions, glorious in feeling, heroic in failure. Our educational system, as practiced for instance by the Irish Christian Brothers, is obsessed with this vision of Romantic Ireland. Yeats, great poet as he was, put his genius at the disposal of a cause which has again brought Ireland to the brink of civil war.
Dr. O’Brien’s speech embodies the policy of his government, and of many people who do not support the government in any other respect. “They have gone about the world like wind,” Yeats wrote of the fame of Ireland’s revolutionary heroes, but in Ireland today it is increasingly common to say that this wind brought good to nobody. Or at least it is common among the bourgeoisie and the intellectuals, who now regard the men of Easter Week 1916 as self-deluded fanatics, driven by lust of sacrifice and blood, including most particularly their own.
What the plain people of Ireland think, feel, and believe is harder to discover. They did not protest when Reverend Francis Shaw published in the Jesuit quarterly Studies an essay demonstrating that Padraic Pearse, archetype of Irish revolutionary feeling, sought his own death in 1916 so that, perfect in his kind, he would transcend that kind and become for every Irishman an immortal symbol, a type, an indestructible idea. But the plain people of Ireland do not read quarterlies. They are sick of violence, presumably, and vaguely aware of some connection between a bombed Belfast and an island already in a desperate economic mess. But I see no evidence that they are ready to go to school again to learn a more congenial version of Irish history. They probably feel that the story of Romantic Ireland is essentially true, and that Dr. O’Brien is practicing an “economy of truth” in his skepticism.
The real problem is that the Irish have had, indeed, only one continuous theme in modern history, and only two distinct traditions in modern politics. Their historical experience is limited in its kind…
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