Generation Shame. How some Irish people view their own Irishness
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.

22 comments on “Generation Shame

  1. What if history is brilliant. Yes, it is true that if things had worked out as set out there would have been no need for the war of independence but they didn’t work out like that. There is no mention of the UVF – those thousands of trained and armed loyalist up in the north spoiling for a fight and who, in its turn, spurned on the creation of the volunteers. No mention of the suspension of Home Rule for the duration of the war, which was seen as nothing more than a shelving of the issue all together as most people expected the Conservatives to be back in power by then and to repeal it all together, which would have put Ireland back in the same state it was in previously so there wouldn’t have been any piecemeal devolution but rather direct rule and no further movement.

    It also blames the IRA for the lack of normalisation of relations between the two states but that forgets the UK role in enforcing the crippling repayments of loans taken out by the peasantry to buy land which was stolen of them in first place – those repayments could have been written off but Britain didn’t want to do so as it needed a stronger economic lever over Ireland and taking those payments gave it that. Those payments were the real cause of the economic war between Britain and Ireland and not Irish nationalism.

    Ireland may be no more different from England that Wales is (and I live in Wales and can say clearly that Wales is very different from England) but that lack of difference isn’t natural. It is the product of years of subservient aping of the betters across the sea and a distinct lack of vision by the Irish state, which, when all is said and done was in fact a continuation of the English state in Ireland. The Irish Freestate which developed into the republic is not a continuation (in law) of the Irish Republic and when the Freestate was established it inherited lock stock and barrel the civil service, including judiciary, of the previous English state in Ireland, of course it was going to develop to be similar, they are both children of the same parent.

    In many ways, Ireland’s problem was that the revolution wasn’t really a revolution at all, it just changed one set of administrators for another set of administrators who were cut from the same cloth.


  2. Graham Ennis

    How extraordinary that Ireland could produce a collaborationist class of “Vichy Irish”, who are akin to the Quislings that sucked up to the German occupiers in Norway. Franz Fanon wrote eloquently of the “Assimilated ones” who occupied all the lower strata of the French Colonial occupation Government in Algeria. Now, they are gone with the wind. In Ireland, was Walter Mackin said, there was another wind, the “Scorching Wind” of his classic book of the time. These “Anglo-Irish” are now almost an extinct social class. But here again, appear the ones who want to be “Assimilated”, to “Re-integrate” and to undo the history of the last 100 years.God help us, for many of these are now embedded in the Government and administration of the Republic, a dangerous “Enemy Within” who for their own comfort and wealth, would give it all up. Added to the corruption, selfishness and greed of the most part of the Irish political class, who would sell even their own spawn for gold, and I have little hope for Ireland. Perhaps, in 2016, it is time to reflect, deeply, on what has become, and what should have been….and what has been lost. Ireland’s long tragedy is not yet over. it is merely the beginning of yet another chapter.


  3. The anti-Irish Irish. Sadly the country is plagued by the spineless self-hating creatures.


  4. Sharon Duglas

    Wait….what” A ”former” Irishman? How does something like that even come out of his mouth?


  5. setondene

    When it came to independence from England, Ireland led the way. Of course people regret violence but I wonder if Irish independence, and the example it provided to other nations, would have happened without the Easter Rising. It’s easy for journalists and the like to be saintly with hindsight, but Ireland should be proud of its traditions and the fine modern state that has come about because of them.

    Oh, and in Scotland we have something called the ‘Scottish Cringe’ which looks rather like the self hatred on display in your quoted pieces. Its all to do with England’s insistence on being dominant and domineering. Despite this, Scots generally like English people and get on well with them. Pretty soon, I hope we’ll be able to adequately deal with the racist cretins who have poisoned our relations with the Irish. Good blog by the way.


    • NMunsterman

      Setondene :

      Thank you for your nice post.


    • Setondene, my personal belief is that there would have been no independent Ireland without an armed revolution of some sort. Irish history is a testament to that fact. Unfortunately the “Cringers” cannot come to terms with that fact.

      The vast majority of Irish people have no animosity towards the English, like the Scots. One of my favourite writers was an English nationalist, JRR Tolkien. Some of my favourite writers, artists, actors, movie makers, musicians are English. Being “for” something does not imply that one must be “against” something 😉

      Thanks for the good words. Feedback from readers, regular or new, much appreciated.


  6. The Civil War was a completely idiotic conflict – I still do not understand why it was necessary.
    What did it achieve?


    • The civil war in Ireland was “helped along” by the British who armed the pro treaty side to the teeth,in their own interest.They still do the same in other countries around the world to still day.


    • It played right into the worst British stereotype of the Irish. “All they want to do is fight, and if there’s no one else to fight they’ll fight one another”. Seriously, I don’t understand it either. No one can understand the Irish, I suspect they don’t even understand themselves 🙂

      A Shionnaich chòir, help us poor ignorant foreigners …


      • People who fought together against the brits just months ago – suddenly became mortal enemies and started to summarily execute each other – that was just pure madness.
        Why didn’t they try a peaceful solution?


        • Jānis, because of old political rivalries hidden or suppressed during the war against the British but then given renewed impetuous when stirred up by the British. The Irish civil war was a counter-revolution of sorts.


    • Jānis, the Civil War was far from idiotic but was far from inevitable either. Unfortunately the seeds for it lay in the rivalry between Nationalists and Republicans in Ireland. Those rivalries dated back to the early 19th century. If you think of the civil war in Finland it comes close in terms of the issues involved and the motivations on all sides. Of course the greatest driver of the civil war was the British. But it was the Free State regime who were complicit in acting as the tools of British policy in Ireland.


  7. “The lower people in that unhappy country, are in a most wretched situation, thro’ the restraints on their trade and manufactures. Their Houses are dirty hovels of mud and straw; their clothing rags, and their food little beside potatoes. Perhaps three fourths of the Inhabitants are in this situation.” The consequence of British rule in Ireland as observed by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. This in an Ireland that during the medieval had a highly advanced and egalitarian legal system (Brehon Law). And as a consequence of conquest had an economic system imposed on it (capitalism) that is probably going to lead all humanity to an environmental calamity. There really is very little to celebrate in our relationship with Britain unfortunately.


    • Martín, I agree. Celebrating British rule in Ireland for supposedly positive reasons X, Y and Z is like celebrating the existence of the Third Reich because it finally brought about the state of Israel. I’m sure six millions human lives were more valuable than any chunk of land.

      People talk about the “positive” effects of British rule because they refuse to imagine the alternative. An Ireland where the British never imposed themselves. It is a lack of imagination. It is the failure of intellect. Such is the nature of the Irish intelligentsia.


  8. I wonder has David Quinn ever read this piece from the pen of the first President of Ireland! It should be compulsory reading for every journalist before commenting on Irishness!


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