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February 26, 2008

On the back of Roy Foster's portrait of the corruption of the Haughey years, Roy Foster should immediately be commissioned to write an unofficial history of the Blair years, argues David Womersley: Luck and the Irish - Roy Foster

Posted by David Womersley

Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970-2000
by Roy Foster
London: Penguin Books, 2007
Hardback, £20

Not so long ago one went to Dublin for a particular kind of experience: an experience of shabby gentility, occasionally shading into shabbiness pure and simple. It was the capital of a land which modernity had by-passed, and this made it attractive to those tourists who travelled in quest, not of sights, but rather of out-moded or threatened ways of life.

As in certain parts of Eastern Europe, economic immiseration had pickled and preserved what in the eighteenth century would have been called moeurs - a word whose semantic range extended beyond simple manners or customs, the mere outward face of behaviour, and reached in to areas of psychology and ideology.

This enlisting of economic stagnation in the service of moral immobility had been part of the conscious intention of the founders of the Republic of Ireland.

Challenged by a journalist over the likely tendency of an economic policy of self-sufficiency to lower Irish standards of living, De Valera rebuked the assumptions underlying the claim:

You say "lower" when you ought to say a less costly standard of living. I think it quite possible that a less costly standard of living is desirable and that it would prove, in fact, to be a higher standard of living. I am not satisfied that the standard of living and the mode of living in Western Europe is a right or proper one.
Ireland was a wonderful experiment conducted in a spirit of hatred of Enlightenment - a state designed, protected and ruled over by an élite who, if they had ever read Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, had done so in a spirit of wild perversity, and had taken from it the message that almost any amount of economic backwardness was worth it in order to keep the morals and spirituality of the nation pure.

And then, of course, it all changed with an astonishing rapidity - a rapidity paradoxically enhanced at least in some areas by the previous backwardness. In 1949 there were 43,000 exchange telephone lines in the whole of Ireland. In the mid-1970s, Ireland was still lagging way behind the rest of Europe, with 16 telephone lines per 100 population, while in Britain the equivalent figure was 39 and in Sweden 69.

The absence of Irish investment in any of the intervening forms of telephone technology meant, however, that it was able to embrace the arrival of microelectronic telephony with a completeness which led to an explosion in demand and use. In 1997 the Irish network was handling a billion calls a year, and the strategic importance of cheap, reliable telecommunications was well understood by government (pp. 29-30):

Electronic commerce will migrate towards those countries which are to the fore in providing low cost, high quality telecommunications and Internet services, supportive legal and business regimes, and a highly entrepreneurial and technically skilled workforce. Given that neither physical size nor location primarily dictate success, Ireland can, with appropriate strategic positioning, sustain its position and Europe’s premier knowledge economy.
It is not hard to guess what De Valera would have thought of that, as a piece of prose, as a practical political policy, or as a deeper philosophy.

Roy Foster's witty and well-written new book is an essay on the transformation of Wilde's nation of "brilliant failures", who "got lucky and decided to become successful, not before time". Foster is our best historian of Ireland, and he has applied his gifts of knowledge and independence and shrewdness of mind to the mysterious phenomenon of Irish prosperity (pp. 18-19):
The kind of growth rate that would radically reduce unemployment (and dilute confrontational ideology) had not been delivered by the late 1980s, but it appeared, like a miraculous beast materializing in a forest clearing, from 1990, and economists are still not entirely sure why. Nor can sociologists agree whether it has been an entirely good thing. And revisionists are beginning to wonder why the unicorn stayed hidden within the sacred grove for so long, and if its ultimate appearance was really such a miracle after all.
Foster's wry take on the Irish miracle, which he surveys in its economic, religious, political and cultural aspects, puts him outside the camps of both those he calls the Boosters (for whom the Irish miracle is real and a permanent transformation in Irish society and economic muscle) and the Begrudgers (who both doubt and dislike it). Foster's probing of the underlying factors supplies a recurrent pattern to his chapters, in which the apparent miracle is described, but then gradually the wires, ropes, and often all-too earthly human interventions which conspired to create the impression of a miracle are revealed.

It is a book full of persuasive and subtle insights. For example, Chapter Two is a beautifully-written, occasionally mordant, more often amused and tolerant, account of the declining standing and influence of the Catholic Church of Ireland. It ends, however, with some very thought-provoking reflections on the consequences of religious decline in the South on the sectarian politics of the North. It was in part at least the melting away in the South of the attitudes which had bolstered Sinn Fein in the North which led to a willingness to negotiate on the part of the Sinn Fein leadership - that, and the realisation that Dublin probably wanted a united Ireland as little as London.

The best chapter, however, is Chapter Three: a wonderful portrait of Haughey, pitched perfectly between farce and tragedy, and written out of equal measures of scorn and fascination. Foster here reveals himself as a virtuouso historian of corruption and incompetence. Surely some smart publisher should offer him a contract at once to write the (definitely unofficial) history of New Labour.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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It was not like that at all. The old Ireland was healthy, holy and happy as we can see from the European values survey. Then the television signals from England became stronger and everyone was exposed to the blasphemous filth of the BBc and the shameful, shameless greed of ITV. Ireland was corrupted by British values and influence . England's revenge for Irish independance was to undermine moral and pure Ireland through broadcasting . We Irish sold our birthright and landed in English soup. We may be rich but we are no longer Irish. Only in the Gaeltacht is our pure national soul preserved and that is thanks to de Valera, the great patriot who kept us out of the war.

Posted by: James at February 26, 2008 07:02 PM
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It is written: “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.”

I have in my possession the three volumes of Hall’s Ireland, written around 1840. In it, I read the following:

Queen Elizabeth, with a good sense not participated in by her chief minister, although that minister was the great Burleigh, saw that giving that education to the [Irish] people, which she intended when she founded Trinity College, her purpose would be aided through the medium of their spoken language, and suggested the appointment of an Irish professorship. But the idea found no favour with her premier. “What!” said Burleigh, “encourage a language more nearly akin to canine barking than to the articulation human;” and he illustrated his calumnious assertion by pronouncing, as a specimen, the cacophonous alliteration —

Dibh dubh damh obh amh —

pronounced div duv dav ov av, i.e. “a black steer drank a raw egg.” The unhappy phrase lost to the University the intended professorship, and to literature such benefit as might have resulted from it. But against a weapon of this description no language would be invulnerable. The English town [?] itself should be doomed, for giving utterance to such a Pierian gargle as “strange struggling steers struggled in strenuous strife.”

There is in India a plan to desecrate a site sacred to Hindus, a sort of Giant’s Causeway between India and Sri Lanka, destroying the structure in order to clear a wider way for shipping. For an article see:

Can the monkey god save Rama’s underwater bridge?
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article1572638.ece

Here is a reaction to this, the second comment in the following list:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinions/2756095.cms
where a certain Col(ret)Rajendra Aggarwala is stating the view, widespread among Hindu Nationalists, that this is somehow a Christian Plot. The hostile declaration in Congress smacks much more of Richard Dawkins than of the Vatican.

Unfortunately, the Irish are much given to blaming everything on the English. How can one celebrate without misgivings such a hate-filled man as De Valera, who ordered the Dublin Fire Brigade not to go to assist their Belfast colleagues when Belfast was bombed by the Luftwaffe? (They, doubly brave men that they were, disobeyed him). De Valera had been raised in the equivalent of a madrasa, and would have Talebanized the whole of Ireland. David Tennant, in “Who do you think you are?”, failed to realize that that was why his grandfather had to gerrymander the Derry Elections in order to ensure a Protestant majority.

I do agree with James about the filth with which the British media have flooded Ireland, except that it was not with the purpose of corrupting Ireland. If you are stuck behind a pig with diarrhoea, don’t take it personally!

Also, whether willingly or not, it was under pressure from the EU that the Westminster government used the North of Ireland as a guinea-pig for the Sexual Orientation regulations.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 28, 2008 06:41 PM
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Robert what is your source for de Valera orderig the DFB not to go to Belfast? He actually ordered them TO go to Belfast!

Posted by: Jim Mc at March 4, 2008 01:54 PM
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Jim Mc,

Concerning the Dublin Fire Brigade, my source (from some years ago) was oral – but muddled rather than malicious. I have just now been checking up on the web, and all the references I can find concur with what you say. I'm relieved, anyway, because wherever you are in the world there's more than enough black marks in history, and that makes one less.

Here's an anecdote I found: A Belfast family had been buried under rubble by the bombing. As a brick was removed letting in the light, they saw men in a strange uniform. “Who are you?” they enquired. “We are the Dublin fire-brigade” was the reply. “That must have been a mighty bomb – we have been blown all the way from Belfast to Dublin!”

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 4, 2008 07:15 PM
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All this nonsense about the fire brigade is irrelevant. Belfast was bombed because it was an outpost of British imperialism. De Valera's great acheivement was to get the treaty ports back and to deny their use as bases to the Royal Navy thus keeping Ireland out of an imperial war.
His other great acheivement was to cut all links to the Commonwealth, the only former colony other than Burma to do so.
Ireland alone has been truly independant and has discarded all its imperial institutions with contempt . Irish people coming to England and their children and grand-children too have maintained this proud sense of apartness as Ken Livingston has recognized.
Now it is ending not just because of Britain but beause of immigration into Ireland. Once Ireland peopled the world, now the world is coming to people Ireland. Many of the newcomers particularly the Poles ,who as Catholics ought to know better, do not see Ireland from the national-religious-republican-Irish world-view laid down by de Valera. What is more Dev was a great mathematician - he knew precisely what the cost of economic development would be.

Posted by: James at March 7, 2008 08:59 PM
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