One of the country’s most plenteous philosophical careers came to an end last Friday with the passing of the preeminent Desmond Fennell.
An intellectual jack of all trades, Fennell, who died at his Malahide residence last week, blazed a trail throughout the 20th century with a career spent in the various fields of journalism, punditry, as well as Irish language activism.
Eschewing both the political right and left with his inherent eclecticism, Fennell nevertheless came to be seen as something of a talisman for a type of Catholic nationalism our elites had hoped to put out to pasture over his lifetime. A true critic of the nation’s choreographed waltz into political liberalism, as well as those who set the tune, his fingerprints are to be found on innumerable intellectual enterprises the past half century.
Born to a family of northern Catholics in 1929, Fennell got his break in journalism, following a well rounded education at UCD, with Comhar and the Irish Times, before becoming an English language presenter with the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Spending the best part of a decade pursuing journalistic and professional odd jobs, including a year exploring the Far East, an inflection point came upon his interaction with the shortcomings of Swedish social democracy in the 1960s.
“My image of the world collapsed in Sweden, and I had to build a new one I could believe in… I lost faith in the general Western liberal capitalist way of understanding the world. I had assumed it to be valid until then.”
A half century before Captain Sweden memes, Fennell was bursting the bubble on the post-war Swedish social democratic experiment with his 1960 work ‘The Turning Point-My Swedish Year’. Diagnosing the ailments of the secular social engineering long underway in the Scandanavian country, his experiences coloured his future career and life project of buttressing his own native land against the colonising forces of international liberalism.
At the core of the Fennell project was the attainment of the basic prerequisites for national normality in the economic, cultural and political spheres. In short an Ireland that was Gaelic, sovereign and self-sustaining. To many a crankish rehash of an older De Valerian vision of Ireland it was a task he pursued with utmost vigour and fresh philosophical gusto.
Domestically, Fennell was central to a generation of Irish language activists who championed the Revival against a neglectful State and the harsh realities of economic decay. It was here operating within Gaeltacht communities that Fennell was to cultivate his yen for decentralisation which he would carry with him into his meditations on the Northern conflict. His most radical proposal on the language question was the formation of a type of Gaelic kibbutz system governed by a decentralised council.
While in his final essays he lamented the future of the language, Fennell distinguished himself in his analysis of the plight of Pobal Gaeilge putting the emphasis on the revival of local communities rather than mere alms given by a central government.
Battling heartily against historical revisionism which sought to delegitimize the founding events of the State, Fennell crossed swords with some of the arch-revisionists of his era. Condemning revisionists as sometimes acting as mere legitimising agents for the influx of Anglo-American capital and the comprador class profiting from it, he earned a reputation as a ’Gaelic firster’ of the old school by some of his ideological foes.
On the Troubles while he kept court with a variety of republicans dissident or otherwise, even influencing the famous Éire Nua document of 1979, Fennell again strayed from the pack with his embrace of the Two-Nations theory. Positing recognition of the nationality of Ulster Protestants, this basic appraisal of the ethnic identity of Loyalists put him at odds with mainstream republicanism which saw this acceptance as contra the fraternalism of Tone and Connolly.
As an anecdote to Partition, Fennell postulated the reconstruction of a decentralised model of the provincial system helping to balance out the tensions between the Orange and the Green. Shot down by the Adams leadership the document has found life to this day through a variety of republican and Catholic distributist groups.
In the cultural arena the late philosopher made a distinct habit of stepping on the toes and egos of the great and the good of Irish liberal opinion. The author Terry Prone recalled an incident where a frustrated Gay Byrne tore up a statement on air of Fennell’s following a no show on the Late Late Show.
His most famous clash came with the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and a 1991 pamphlet calling into question the poet’s relative silence on the plight of northern Catholics and overall artistic merit. This in turn elicited a stinging response from Heaney himself and the cavalcade of the Irish literary scene. So biting was Fennell’s accusation that they apparently provoked sly mention in Heaney’s Stockholm address referencing Fennell with the lines.
‘the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristitia”
To Fennell, a substantial roadblock in the way of national development came in the form of a ruling cultural elite he christened the D4 set. Not the first or last polemicist to make use of the geographical synecdoche, it was a phrase de facto coined by Fennell to aptly describe the Anglo-American aligned cultural elite of the State.
In later years, Fennell voiced openly his concerns about mass immigration as just another social bludgeon against an already enfeebled Irish population. In a remarkably blunt 2008 article, syndicated in the Irish Times no less, he outlines in overtly racial terms the threat facing the ‘White Race’ as the demographic sands shift. Not particularly well known was Fennell’s loose involvement with nativist causes in the last few decades of his life.
For the contemporary dissident, Fennell bequeaths a formidable canon to those hoping to dust down the traditions of Irish nationality. If nothing else Fennell’s passing marks one of the last individuals rightly earning the sobriquet of public intellectual outside the handful of State-sanctioned talking heads controlling the airwaves today.
While many on the dissident right go running to foreign luminaries like Alain De Benoist or Dugin, scant few are aware of a home grown intellectual like Fennell and his life’s work. Readers initially expect a second coming of DP Moran but instead receive a type of Gaelic Chomsky.
The Irish language activist who drew on Mao when assisting Gaeltacht communities but who also harboured a rather humble belief in Irish nationhood and Catholic Faith. The cultural theorist who forged a distinct brand of decentralised humanism yet penned essays against the fall of the White Race and contraception, there simply is no placing Fennell on the political spectrum bar having been against the grain of Irish life.
From personal experience reading Fennell is like a philosophical shot from the blue, allowing one to come to terms with the trance-like state this country has entered upon. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann and the public arena is much poorer. We bear daily witness to the recolonisation of Ireland by the tidal force of globalism waging war on all hallmarks of Irish nationality. Against these forces let us use the insight handed down to us by the man who may very well have been Gaeldom’s last and most formidable intellectual.