Generation Shame. How some Irish people view their own Irishness
One of the great puzzles of modern Ireland, and certainly an endless source of fascination for foreign observers of our island nation, is the great shame – embarrassment even – felt by some members of an older generation of Irish people when it comes to their own Irishness. Like some bizarre mark of Cain numerous men and women in their late forties and upwards seem to squirm and shy away from any sign of actually being Irish. Our language, our culture, our history causes them so much mental angst that they must, perforce, look elsewhere – anywhere – for some ersatz identity of their own. I’ve talked before about post-colonial theory, a national Stockholm Syndrome and even Malcolm X’s much quoted speech on “House Negros” and “Field Negros”. All are applicable. Yet the inferiority complex of some Irish people goes far beyond the bounds of rational analyses. It is a form of ideology – political, social and cultural – that they adhere to with the blind fanaticism of true believers. Can we really call such types “Neo-Unionists”? The Scientologists of Irish politics? Reading this opinion piece by David Quinn in the Irish Independent newspaper, filled with historical inaccuracies and utterly fallacious arguments, you have to wonder. Are these people quite sane?
“Every country that wanted to gain its independence from Britain has gained that independence. Sometimes it was won only after a fight. Scotland might well vote for full independence later this year. No bloodshed needed.
Most countries when they gain their independence from Britain go through a period of intense anti-British feeling. In our case, it lasted for decades. Nothing good could be said about Britain until fairly recently.
Relations between Britain and Ireland simply could not be normalised until the IRA stopped fighting and a peace agreement was arrived at.
If the IRA had not taken up the gun again during the Troubles and had instead gone down the same peaceful path as the SDLP we might have been able to spare ourselves another blood-stained chapter in the history of these two islands and relations could possibly have been normalised years ago.
In fact, watching Scotland get ready for its referendum on whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom or not, you wonder again whether 1916 was worth it. Home Rule, which had been promised and was interrupted by World War I, would have come.
In time, if we wanted it, we could have got full independence. Peacefully. There would have been no War of Independence, probably no Civil War and violent republicanism might have spiked its guns much sooner than it did.
Partition would have happened but it probably would have happened in a way that would have avoided a civil war south of the border.
There probably would not have been a debilitating trade war with Britain. Our economy would have been much stronger as a result.
Without the War of Independence, anti-British feeling would not have become as strong as it did.
If we had opted for Home Rule, bit by bit we would have been ceded more autonomy and probably we’d have gained full independence sometime after World War II. By then, Britain wouldn’t have been in the mood to fight us.
Can we imagine any circumstances under which we could find ourselves in a union again with Britain?
But if the euro were to collapse and if the EU were to fall to pieces and we found ourselves looking for the nearest thing to a safe haven in such a chaotic world, an economic union of some kind with Britain would become very imaginable. History is full of such strange and unexpected twists and turns.”
And so are the minds of the modern day Neo-Unionists. Strange and twisted thoughts fill their worldview, thoughts quite beyond the comprehension of most rational folk. No one argues that being Irish is any more meaningful or virtuous than being French or German or British. There is nothing inherently superior about it nor is there anything inherently inferior. It is merely an accident of birth, a happenstance to be acknowledged or not as one pleases. No manifest destiny or god’s chosen people here. Yet there are those who act as if being Irish rendered one, by virtue of one’s nationality, language and culture, a lesser kind of human. They see their own Irishness through someone else’s historic prism and think the image true. There is more of this delusional existentialism on display from another member of Generation Shame, this time in the Caledonian Mercury:
“The first state visit to Britain by an Irish president this week has caused me to wonder what all the fuss and suffering over the “Irish Question” was all about. And I say this reluctantly, as a former Irishman myself.
Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s, with all those proud tri-colours flying from every flagpole, was a wonderfully revolutionary experience. There was something exciting and daring about being against the British ruling class, about being different. We had a culture of our own, Irish football, hurling (I still have the scars), the Irish language taught in every school, the poetry of WB Yeats, the plays of Bernard Shaw.
But actually, all of this could have been achieved under Home Rule. What I am fondly remembering is culture not politics. And, looking back on the last 100 years, I can’t help feeling it’s the politics that has let us down. If Gladstone’s policy of “home rule all round” had been adopted in the British Isles back in the 1880s, we would all have been better off.
Instead we had a rebellion in Dublin in 1916, just what we didn’t want in the middle of the First World War. We had a civil war in Ireland which cost over 3,000 lives and left a legacy we are still dealing with. The two main political parties to this day, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are derived from the two opposing sides in the civil war and their leaders and individual members can trace their families back to the tribal divisions of those dark days.
Then in the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, we had what we call “The Troubles” – a typically Irish euphemism for marches, demonstrations, knee-cappings, bombings and shootings which left another 3,000 dead and thousands wounded. And there is still an uneasy truce and power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
And yet it could have been so different if Ireland had remained a united nation, within the union of the four nations on the British Isles. The visit of President Higgins ( his name sounds a little less Shavian in Gaelic, Michael O’huiginn) is a gesture which says “Let bygones be bygones.” His father fought for Irish independence but now has he himself put it: “We all wholehearted welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality – the mutual respect, friendship and co-operation which exists between our two countries.” Three years ago the Queen went to Dublin to say much the same thing.
Both sides have much to apologise for. The kings of England (and Scotland for that matter) regularly trampled across Ireland in their quest for power. They imposed a class of uncaring landlords. Westminster used Ireland as a useful “rotten burgh” to swell majorities in parliament. The Black and Tans did some pretty nasty things during the 1920s. On the other hand, the Irish leaders twice deserted their neighbours in their hours of need – in the First World War and the Second.
But for all that, we are part of the same British-Isles culture. We share the same language (Gaelic is spoken by just 90,000 Irish people). We share much the same music, from pop to folk. Whole swathes of people have gone back and forward across the Irish Channel. Humble farmers like my forebears moved from Scotland to County Antrim. The Anglo-Irish elite like the Churchills ( Winston spent his early childhood in Dublin) have left their mark in the form of grand houses and estates. And coming the other way, we’ve had everybody from navies to broadcasters flocking to seek their fortune on mainland Britain.
That’s why I find it bizaare that Michael Higgins should be singled out for a full blown state visit – as if he were the president of Peru. This small elderly academic looks more like the Mayor of Galway (which in fact he was). And like most Irish folk, he’s no stranger to mainland Britain. He’s a graduate of Manchester University after all and has been here 13 times since he was elected president in 2011.
In short, Ireland is no more different from England than Wales is or Scotland. I’ve got to ask: was the political turmoil of the last 100 years worth it ? The honest answer is No.”
Rather than going forward those who espouse such anachronistic views wish to pull us back, back to a past that in truth never existed except in the minds of a self-deluding few, the Vichy Irish as it were. Ireland under British rule was a nation oppressed, impoverished and exploited. Freedom was what others enjoyed. When one ponders the manner in which our island nation, a sovereign and independent state, was effectively sold to the highest bidders by its own political establishment views like the above suddenly speak of a far deeper split in Irish society. For those who promulgate them are of the same generation as many of those who sit around the cabinet table in Government Buildings and in the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are truly prisoners of our past – but not in the way they would have you believe.