Many years ago, I tried to read Clive Barker’s gargantuan fantasy novel Weaveworld, which centres around a magical world hidden in a carpet. I didn’t make it even half-way through its six hundred pages, and I only have a very dim recollection of what I read. But one passage did make a lasting impression on me. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it was one single line.
In the relevant passage, one of the novel’s characters opens an old book of nursery rhymes (or was it fairy tales?) and finds this handwritten inscription: That which is imagined need never be lost. This captivated me.
It’s a line which often comes to mind when I hear debates about Irish national identity. As we move towards St. Patrick’s Day, we will doubtless hear much discussion on that much-vexed topic; what does it mean to be Irish, and how should we represent ourselves? There will be complaints about “plastic Paddy” syndrome, and much assertion of the need to reflect a pluralist, diverse, forward-looking image of Ireland.
All my life, I’ve heard such arguments made, and they were being made long before I was born. In the middle of the twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh launched a campaign against “bucklepping”, his withering term for the romanticization of Irish rural life and the Irish national character. His savage satirical poem “The Paddiad” takes a swing at Irish writers who trade on such conventions:
“In the corner of a Dublin pub
This party opens—blub-a-blub—
Paddy Whiskey, Rum and Gin,
Paddy Three Sheets in the Wind.
Paddy of the Celtic Mist,
Paddy Connemara West,
Chestertonian Paddy Frog
Croaking nightly in the bog.”
His contemporary and friend Flann O’Brien was equally scathing, writing the hilarious An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) to satirize the Irish Revivalists’ infatuation with the idea of a primordial, rugged Irishness surviving in remote Gaeltacht areas. In his Irish Times column, he hilariously lampooned the Irish Literary Revival thus:
“Playing up to the foreigner, putting up the witty celtic act, doing the erratic but lovable playboy, pretending to be morose and obsessed and thoughtful—all that is wearing so thin that we must put it aside soon in shame as one puts aside a threadbare suit. The trouble probably began with Lever and Lover [Irish novelists of the nineteenth century]. But I always think that in Synge we have the virus isolated and recognisable. Here is stuff that anybody who knows the Ireland referred to simply will not have… And now the curse has come upon us, because I have personally met in the street of Ireland persons who are clearly out of Synge’s plays. They talk and dress like that, and damn the drink they’ll swally but the mug of porter in the long nights after Samhain.”
Many years later, Irish writers are still losing their temper over “stage Irishness”. Reviewing the rather fluffy romantic comedy Leap Year (2010), which features an American woman taking a trip to Ireland, Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke was moved to rage: “Does she encounter top software engineers, talented travel writers, acclaimed architects and celebrated electronic composers? She does not. Is she diverted by the increasingly multicultural nature of the new Ireland? Not a bit of it. She gets stuck behind cows. She listens to endless superstitious gibberings from elderly cretins leaning on dry stone walls. She hooks up with a bizarrely accented publican… and allows him to work through all the most pungent clichés concerning the loveable Irish rogue. The film is offensive, reactionary, patronising filth.” Whoa there, Donald!
I propose that it is time to stop fighting the ghost of the Irish Literary Revival, the Gaelic Revival, Irish romantic nationalism, and the various other cultural currents that converged to create the ideal of Irishness which has proved so enduring. I suggest that we should not only make peace with this ideal, but actually revive it. Let us drink the mug of porter in the long nights after Samhain with renewed gusto.
Time for a little background. Romantic nationalism was a force all throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. In Ireland, Douglas Hyde’s 1892 lecture The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland is often seen as the catalyst for the Irish Ireland movement (although the lyrics of Thomas Moore and the ballads of Thomas Davis had already been invoking ideals of Ireland’s pre-Conquest past).
Hyde made his case very bluntly: “In a word, we must strive to cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish, because in spite of the little admixture of Saxon blood in the north-east corner, this island is and will ever remain Celtic at the core, far more Celtic than most people imagine…”
The “Irish Ireland” movement which Hyde helped to animate sought to revive Gaelic culture across a broad range of fronts—the Irish language, Irish traditional music and dance, Irish folklore, Irish sport, and so forth. It was an enormously popular and sustained movement.
But how we shudder, today, to encounter words such as “Gaelic” or “Celtic”! Long gone are the times when they could be invoked so naively. “There’s No Such Thing as a Celt—That’s Why We Had to Invent Them” is the title of an article by Erica Wagner in the New Statesman for September 25, 2015. Such claims have become common. As for “Gaelic”, weren’t the Gaels just one of the many cultures that have gone to make up Ireland? What about the Normans, the Vikings, the Scots-Ulster settlers, and all the myriad nationalities which are now described as “the new Irish”? If these archaic ethnic categories even mean anything (and in an era where “male” and “female” are controversial categories, who would make such a bold claim?), isn’t it restrictive to base our ideals of Irishness upon them?
And then there is Christianity. Oh boy! Eamon De Valera’s notorious invocation of the dream of an Irish Ireland, broadcast on St. Patrick’s Day 1943, is unabashedly Christian in its outlook: “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit… the home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.”
In an Ireland where the transmission of the Angelus bells on RTE is a subject of controversy, and in which religious practice has declined dramatically, who would dare defend Christianity as a central component of Irish identity?
Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien were complaining about “bucklepping” in the middle of the twentieth century. Although romantic nationalism was popular with serious Irish writers (such as James Clarence Mangan, W.B. Yeats and Patrick Pearse) up to the early years of the Irish state, it had already long gone out of intellectual fashion by the time I was born, in 1977. However, the imagery and iconography of Irish nationalism lingered in everyday life; in advertising, in calendars and jewellery, in copy-books and shop signs: Celtic crosses, Celtic knot-work, Irish wolfhounds, round towers, harps, thatched cottages, the imagery of the Book of Kells, the spirals from the passage grave at Newgrange, and so forth.
The big question is this: have we come up with any distinctively Irish national ideals or culture, since the ideals and culture of the Irish Revival?
Donald Clarke, in his denunciation of Leap Year, put forward multiculturalism and electronic composers as typical of the new Ireland. Is there anything distinctively Irish about these? Is Irish secularism interesting, picturesque, full of possibilities in the way Irish Catholicism always was? Is Irish progressivism and liberalism any different to the same currents in Seattle or London? And if there are differences, aren’t they rooted in the traditional cultures that those currents undermine? Is a character in a Roddy Doyle novel, who lives in a mental world of English soccer and international pop culture, more interesting than a peasant in a Yeats poem or a Synge play? And when we seek symbols that are all-inclusive, don’t we end up with something as drab and meaningless as the Millennium Spire?
The reply may come: let us simply have reality! And yet…what is “reality”? Bear in mind that we live in a society where superhero movies hit the multiplexes every week, and critics review them as serious works of art. We have all become familiar with postmodernism and magical realism, and we are all increasingly “digital natives” of a virtual universe. The notion that identities are “constructed” is a positive truism in the social sciences today. And yet, when anything that smacks of Irish romantic nationalism, the Irish Revival, or “paddywhackery” is involved, the reaction seems to reflect a commitment to a Soviet-style ideal of social realism.
I suggest we should embrace the wisdom contained in Clive Barker’s aphorism: “That which is imagined need never be lost”. Perhaps the Ireland of the Irish Revival was only a dream, after all, like Yeats’s fisherman—a construction cobbled together from myth, history, and wishful thinking. But if so, well, so what? Does Panti Bliss represent the “real Ireland”? Do U2 represent the “real Ireland?” How can an imaginative ideal ever be “unreal”, anyway?
In the epic poem “Idylls of the King” by Lord Alfred Tennyson, Merlin explains to a new visitor the enchanted nature of Camelot, which has been built to his magical music:
“The city is built to music
And so not built at all
And therefore built forever.”
I suggest that the Irish people, and especially Irish conservatives, can do no better than seek to recapture what I might call “the Gaelic sublime.” If the Ireland of De Valera, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Davis, and so many other visionaries was a land of the imagination, why need it ever be lost? Have we ever found anything nearly as rich?
Let us be unafraid to embrace the Celtic cross, the Celtic mist, the thatched cottage, the folk proverb, the street ballad, the banshee, the dolmen, Tír na nÓg, and all the other trappings of Irish romantic nationalism. Let artists, musicians, advertisers, and writers, make full use of these tropes once again—like all artistic conventions, they are capable of infinite variation and adaptation. Call it whatever you want, but let us revive the Irish Revival.