This is the second part of a series of articles in which I intend to look at various aspects of Irish cultural and social life through the eyes of a foreign onlooker. It is intended to be a cultural autobiography of sorts, a journey of belonging and adaptation for a person not born here.
Where I grew up was a large town in Yorkshire, with a heritage strongly associated with the coal mining industry, ended largely by the denationalisation brought about by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.
A cloud hangs over that town, and many other towns heavily associated with the Miners’ Strike of 1984 and 1985. There is a strong parallel in some of these places to the “Civil War politics’ ‘ which has long echoed in Ireland between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
A sort of small-scale civil war, this conflict was between striking miners and trade unions represented by Arthur Scargill against the government of Thatcher, government police lines and the “scabs” (those who worked during the strike). The loss of the striking miners is seen as something of a heroic last stand, to preserve the strength of a profession that had held together the strength of close-knit working class communities.
If you replaced “anti-Treaty IRA” in the Irish Civil War or 1922-23 with something tantamount to James Connolly’s militant pro-worker stance and placed it into the paradigm of the UK Miners’ Strike 1984-85, you may find a similar ideological fit; one that is brazenly pro-trade union, pro-nationalization and economically hard left, but with cultural values that are socially, morally and culturally quite conservative.
Before coming to Ireland permanently I had an extremely vague view of what the struggle for Irish independence was, and what it meant. Though I perfectly understood that Ireland and Irishness was culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct from its neighbouring territories, I had very little familiarity with any of the history or nuance of how her subjugation came to be, and why the strife ought to have taken place.
An early memory of recognizing “otherness” was a trip to Kilkenny in the early 1990’s, when I saw “BRITS OUT” written on a wall. As a child I felt mildly terrified seeing it, as I felt that the “Brit” equated to me. I could not discern how this might refer to a wider force, or a former occupying regime. As an infant I was incapable of making sense of “The Troubles” beyond discerning the accent of Gerry Adams, rendered ominous by the context of how the likes of the BBC covered such affairs.
As trashy as it may sound, as a child my first memory of becoming more fully aware of this history was viewing the 1996 Neil Jordan biopic of Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson as the IRA Chief Of Staff as a child. As saccharine and compromised by Hollywood as the movie was, the film did illustrate the narrative and the timeline of the Irish War Of Independence with a certain degree of accuracy.
Through the negative portrayal of Eamonn De Valera’s character as a cunning Machiavellian by Alan Rickman, opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty we also have a depiction of the bifurcation that is later to openly manifest in the Irish Civil War. This set the tone of decades of rivalry between the pro-Treaty, pro-Free State Fine Gael, and the anti-Treaty, Republican Fianna Fáil.
I would dare to say that the not-so impartial, Dick Dastardly casting of Rickman in this role was likely inspired by his role as German terrorist Hans Gruber in the 1988 action thriller Die Hard. In a notable scene, having hijacked the skyscraper of the Nakatomi plaza, Rickman and his entourage demand amnesty for “the seven members of the New Provo Front”. Such is the implicit leakage of global affairs into the Hollywood blockbuster.
If we are to go back to Ireland, and go beyond big-screen dramatization, it is very clear that events such as these created ripples that generated unease and distrust between people based on their sympathies and affiliations. Hence the idea of the “Fianna Fail family” and the “Fine Gael family”. My Irish family had a history of being solidly pro-Fine Gael. They never harboured any hostility towards Britain or England.
Indeed, there seemed to be quite common displays of cultural Anglophilia on my Irish side of my family. Rugby was a popular male pastime often talked about; something that I have come to associate with either the public school educated “Castle Catholic” or liberal leaning Anglicans. Their view of Ireland in the world is merely as an extension of the Commonwealth, not as a uniquely sovereign entity.
I must also say that coming across such fondness for bourgeoise Anglicisms in Ireland was quite a bizarre shock to myself. Growing up in the post-coal environment of working class Northern England, such uppity aspirations were a very distant and often widely disliked thing. The closest experience in my neck of the woods people had of such LARP-tier Anglophilia was watching Hyacinth Bouquet on Keeping Up Appearances.
Back where I grew up, flashing the cash and showing what an aggressive social climber you were was often viewed as a symbol of materialist elitism, and to an extent it still is. In Ireland I have often heard this referred to as having “notions”. That being said, I was in for a rude awakening in that Ireland was rapidly morphing into the “Celtic Tiger”.
A once impoverished and seemingly frugal population was becoming lavish in its spending habits, yet also quite pompous and decadent. It’s the sort of hubristic pride that leads towards a heavy fall, and one that embodies the insipid selfishness of Paddy Boomer to this very day. For want of a powerful historic metaphor, I think that Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon is a perfect comparison.
The protagonist (played by Ryan O’Neale) aspires to become part of the European aristocracy, cynically charming and marrying his way into money, only to burden himself with alcohol and gambling addictions once he has fulfilled what he set out to do, as well as various other misfortunes. Similarly, Paddy Boomer will bring great misfortune to himself and those around him, by thinking that material wealth makes him better and bigger than anyone else.
Growing up where I did in Yorkshire you would never come across these people. Similarly on my Irish side, I recall one of my uncles cringing with disgust after witnessing a few seconds of the British game show Bullseye presented by Jim Bowen. How could people live like this? How could people like this? This clearly wasn’t the England of Downtown Abbey or Brideshead Revisited, for it to be otherwise was vulgar and disgusting. This coming from an Irishman, no less!!!
And yet in Ireland, this fondness for England had several manifestations; the West Brit, the D4 “pint of Heino” rugger bugger class, as well as the tier of monied and social climber tier types who may or may not have had been past alumni at the likes of Clongowes, Newbridge and Wesley. Their idea of “conservatism” or “tradition” was deeply Anglocentric, and had absolutely no connection to an Irish civilisation that had kept the flame of Classical civilisation alive at a time when Rome burned and chaos reigned amidst barbarian conquests.
This was all deeply saddening to me. Why would certain people, in the name of “conserving” what was “theirs”, conserve something that they were ultimately not, and were merely mimicking? Why mimic the tropes and traits of a mercantile civilization that annihilated and uprooted the indigenous tradition of the ancestral land? Why would these “conservatives” cringe at the very question? I asked myself why this could and ought to be, since my great-grandfather from the North had been involved in the War Of Independence in support of the Republican/Nationalist side. What generational turn of events could cause such an ideological u-turn?
Saying that, the Irish side of my family, being from Kilkenny, would have little escape when it came to liking or paying at least mild lip service to hurling, of which the county is unanimously associated. Yet still, an uncle of mine told me that were he or his siblings to go out and associate with kids from a particular housing estate, or a “Fianna Fáil family” growing up, this had the potential to cross a red line.
Additionally, when helping said uncle in his shop one day in the late 2000’s, I recall a Sinn Féin march taking place down the street in Kilkenny, in memory of a fallen Republican. I was asked to refrain from standing near the front of the shop window, perhaps out of not wanting to be associated, or out of fear of being openly identified.
This “Sinn Féin” was far from the pariah that the movement had long been before. It was far from publicly being the woke, globo-liberal, socio-democratic Sinn Féin that brazenly manifests itself now, at least in its appearance. The very impressions from this short interaction was that these marchers were still still a movement that posed a certain threat and danger, at least in the minds of “respectable” onlookers.
As we speak, the two forces of “civil war politics”, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are now in a coalition government. Both are as equally globalist as one another, and their faux-symbolic “truce” is merely a means to prevent Sinn Féin from taking a majority government. This is additionally ironic, as these parties have their political genesis in the Sinn Féin movement. Indeed, FF and FG are partnered with the Greens, who seem to act globally as kingmakers for whichever movement wins the largest parliamentary majority. Parties such as Labour, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit are merely different icings of the same cake.
As we now speak, all of these parties and movements manifest no formal opposition to the oligarchic global order which manifests itself in Ireland on various political, medical, social, economic and demographic levels. All that differentiates them right now is how they oppose one another in imposing this order on the population of Ireland.