“Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries” -W.B. Yeats
Burke and the 20th Century:
The Irish 20th century left many casualties in its wake. As the century drew to a close it would appear that despite the ideological battle to define Ireland from Carson’s unionism, Pearse’s republicanism and Larkin’s socialism, the nation finished up as a partitioned liberal state never idealised by anyone.
Among these casualties was easily Ireland’s greatest contributor to political philosophy Edmund Burke, the moral touchstone for modern conservatism and the namesake of this publication. While at one time he was bedside reading for Ireland’s leadership caste from Daniel O’Connell onward, Burke’s very Irishness today is almost forgotten.
In short his legacy in Ireland was crippled by the simple fact of being on the wrong side of history in the his alignment with unionism and constitutional nationalism over republicanism, as well as being tied to the departing British regime. There is no coincidence that the only real public commemoration to the man lies in his statue at Trinity College, the former bastion of the deposed Anglo-Irish order.
Ironically as it played out, the Sinn Féin regime on both sides of Treaty divide which ascended to power was more conservative than the preceding British state. Nevertheless Burke was naturally tainted by a form of ‘guilt by association’ as the new state charted its own course with Burke becoming the preserve of small anglophile sects and scholars.
By its very nature it is impossible to wed Edmund Burke with the events of the Irish revolutionary period and perhaps both are made worse by that fact. Irish people normally proud of her sons who make a name for themselves are guilty of the sin of neglect when it comes to the father of conservatism.
What Relevance is Burke today?
If we are to be frank the greatest break on Burke’s popularity is the fact that long winded cerebral essays on philosophy do not lend themselves to influencing public discourse. Regardless, his timeless parables on political order, the excesses of the state as well as aesthetics remain as valid in the 21st century as they did in the 18th.
As the SJW phenomenon runs riot across the West at a political and cultural level Burke provides a welcome defence against the shallowness of revolutionary ideas and the cruelty of mobs. Even in his homeland, consumed by short-term casino capitalism on one hand and caustic social liberalisation on the other, the Irish are repeating the philosophical mistakes spotted by Burke following the fall of the Bastille.
In Ireland where conservatism was so heavily defined by Catholicism and which was dealt a serious blow following the unravelling of Church power, Burke and the Burkean tradition could easily have provided a readymade conservative philosophical tradition untainted by abuse scandals or recent history.
Even Irish republicanism, an ideology so tangled up in enlightenment thinking caught between militarism on one hand and Marxism on the other, could have used Burke as a philosophical anchor. Burke by his definition could never agree with physical force republicanism but if properly nurtured he could potentially have acted as a counterbalance to revolutionary excess.
In a state defined by its dysfunction and myopia, Burke’s humble doctrines while on the face of it abstract theorising, would go a long way in changing the general outlook in the direction of efficiency. Burke is not without his flaws. While he wrote so lovingly about the need to protect order and tradition he offers no real course of action what to do when the revolutionaries are in power.
We live in an era where revolutionary forces be they of the market, social sphere, or political, have already seized control and reshaped society in their image. Burke offers very little to fight back against this despite his exaltation of tradition.
Regardless, as evidenced in his own day Burke does the job of outlining the basic reactionary critique of modernity and the endemic flaws of ideologies which outwardly preach secular enlightenment but gradually collapse into themselves.
The Case for an Edmund Burke Street:
If as Burke said, “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors,” then the Irish nation and Irish discourse is making a grave error by not marking the genius of one her greatest and most historically validated sons.
To the best of my knowledge, while one of his disciples Daniel O’Connell has a street in most counties, Burke is without even a humble side alley in his honour. A suggestion would be the renaming of Arran Quay his birthplace to Burke Quay as a gesture of making up for the century of neglect he has experienced.
20th century Irish history was indeed tragic as much as it was heroic, but regardless it gives us no real reason why Burke should not be honoured in his city and country of birth – taking his rightful place among the Irish intellectual canon.