Tuesday, 15 May 2018

In Ireland the past is not dead, it is not even past

My grandfather's grandfather (or great grandfather) came to England from County Cork in Ireland in around 1860. My father always wanted to trace our family history but never did and nor have I nor probably ever will. 

I therefore do not know where exactly we (meaning my paternal line) came from. But I do know where we left from, or at least I think I do. 

Though they might have embarked for England from Kingstown, now DĂșn Laoghaire, the port of Dublin, my granddad's grandparents probably left from Queenstown (Cobh), the port of Cork where I spent a happy twelve hours at the weekend. 

It was from Queenstown that millions of Irishmen and women left their island for England, Canada or the USA, after the terrible famine that killed so many while the British Whig government, pursuing free market economic theories, did little.

John Dominic Crossan, the Irish-born American New Testament scholar and heresiarch, said the wisest thing about Irish history and probably about history in general.
I still hold two truths with equal and fundamental certainty. One: the British did terrible things to the Irish. Two: the Irish, had they the power, would have done equally terrible things to the British. And so also for any other paired
adversaries I can imagine. The difficulty is to hold on to both truths with equal intensity, not let either one negate the other, and know when to emphasize one without forgetting the other. Our humanity is probably lost and gained in the necessary tension between them both. I hope, by the way, that I do not sound anti-British. It is impossible not to admire a people who gave up India and held on to Northern Ireland. That shows a truly Celtic sense of humor.

The same idea holds for all colonial history. The Africans, had they been able to conquer Europe, would have dealt with Europeans with horrible brutality. It is fortunate that more advanced countries are usually much stronger than less civilised ones.

Unfortunately, there are some exceptions. The Russians were more advanced than the Central Asians whom they conquered in the late nineteenth century. In some ways and up to a point even the Bolsheviks could be said to be more progressive than the brutal Emirs of Bokhara and Khiva. However, they were less civilised than the Poles, Germans and Hungarians whom they ruled after 1945 and less civilised than the Romanians.

I met an entertaining man today in the Irish Georgian Society in Dublin who told me that historians make a mistake when they portray eighteenth century Ireland as backward and oppressed. Over what he called 'the long eighteenth century, 1680 to 1840', the population of Ireland grew much faster than the population of any other North European country, proof that living standards were high. 

We agreed that historians should not moralise and denounce oppression rather than look for the truth. 

Unfortunately, far too many historians want to change the world as well as study it.

Yesterday the Irish friend with whom I am staying took me to an astonishingly beautiful place, Glendalough, where a brave young man called Kevin founded a monastery in the early sixth century.  He chose one of the most picturesque sites in Ireland, close to a lake and a waterfall with fresh water, but it was a forbidding and dangerous place and his religion was a rigorous and severely ascetic one. 

The place he chose became the site of monastic complex and a cathedral, all now in ruins. They were sacked more than once by marauding pagan Vikings and finally abandoned.

The monastery's 100 foot high Round Tower stands like a finger pointing to heaven. Its entrance was built high enough to be safe from spears and was accessible only by a tall ladder. 

Many hundreds of people have been buried in a churchyard beside the ruins over centuries.

Image may contain: mountain, outdoor, nature and water

Glendalough today attracts a few pilgrims, I suppose, but mostly tourists. It has some well laid out walks, some on walkways made of wooden planks. It also has a hotel with a reasonable restaurant and after five miles walking, part of it up a steep hill, we were hungry.

Over lunch we talked politics.

My friend years ago told me that the British were free to leave the EU if we want.
After all you've paid for it.
But now he is much less philosophical, is very upset that we are leaving and blames Britain's unscrupulous politicians, who did not persuade my countrymen of the beauty and utility of foreign rule. 

I argued the case for Brexit strongly and he argued his case well. Then the Eastern European waitress, as she presented the bill, said that she had been listening and wondered if she could say something. This is the sort of thing that happens in Ireland but never in England.

The Waitress's Tale

I am an Estonian. I remember the Soviet Union. The EU reminds me of the Soviet Union. Before we joined the EU we had 6% economic growth. Now that has gone. People say we are free to travel but in fact it was always easy to find work in Europe before we joined the EU.
She made other points. I don't recall them all. When she had finished I judged it best not to add anything and left it there. 

I wish all political arguments ended like this one.

St Kevin in modern Dublin

St Kevin was not only very brave but as counter cultural as it is possible to imagine, in his own day. In ours he would make people very  furious. His views on the evils of the flesh would earn widespread condemnation in the quality papers, as would his aggressive opposition to non-Christian religions and to heresy. His celibacy would be mocked, he would be called a misogynist, a homophobe, a fundamentalist, alt-right. 

Though it is said that he had a great rapport with birds and beasts, which would be well received.

He was a long way from priests who wish Muslims a happy Ramadan.

Today in Dublin posters are festooned everywhere, because Ireland is about to vote on whether or not to legalise abortion. It seems recently to me that the Irish legalised divorce, something I thought sad. Now the Irish have legalised homosexual marriage and have a practising homosexual Prime Minister. 

I lunched on the club table of the dear old Stephen's Green Club (no longer the shabby genteel place I remember from 1982 but business minded and unisex). I was told by two charming men of about sixty, one a godless Catholic and the other a godless Anglican, that the vote on abortion could go either way. 

And that the majority of Irish people no longer tell pollsters that they are Catholic. 

The economy is doing very well in Ireland at present but everyone is scared about (and, I suspect, angry about) Brexit.

The Southern Ireland of Eamonn De Valera seemed to many outsiders a shining city on a hill but possibly was more attractive from a distance than to live in. Good or bad or probably both in parts, it is almost dead. 

Many young women approached me in the street on behalf of the Yes [to abortion] campaign. Finally one approached me for No and pinned a NIL badge on my lapel. She turned out to be English.

A very nice girl, slightly cross-eyed, she told me that in England it is regarded as extreme right to oppose abortion. About one person in twenty does and if you express opposition to abortion in discussions people turn away from you. 

Opposing homosexual marriage, she told me, is considered much worse, even though it came into law only recently. 

And now, she said, we have transgender rights.

She was perhaps a sort of missionary, a soulmate of St. Kevin and of St. Patrick too, the Briton who converted Ireland to Christ and Catholicism. He in recent years has shrunk from a religious to a mere national symbol. 

The Irish Prime Minister and his boyfriend marched side by side in the New York St Patrick's Day parade and no-one in New York or Dublin asked what the saint would have said.


  1. i do not wish to nitpick, but the Round Tower is 100 feet tall, not 1,000.

  2. David in Belgrade17 May 2018 at 09:04

    1000 or 100 feet what does size matter? ;)

    I enjoyed reading the piece.

    Another entertaining and informative read combining travel review, personal experience, historical anecdote and political and social comment.

  3. "The more atheists think on these things, the more we may have to accept that the concept of the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive Judeo-Christian civilisation. Those who do not believe in God and who stare over that cliff — which as Theo Hobson points out, very few atheists actually do — may realise that only three options remain open to us.

    The first option is to fall into the furnace. Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual. If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not."


  4. Cork - an old Irish town and aland of tough men. "Irish" and "British" is a rather arbitrary distinction - for example was Saint Patrick a "British colonialist" trying to spread an "alien culture" on the Pagan Irish? And if the real meaning is "Celt" versus "Anglo Saxon" then most of the Protestants of the North are most certainly Celtic - a lot more so than many of the "Post Catholics" in the South, who can be of Norman stock (like my own grandfather's family - "Power" is a Norman name), or even Indian (for example the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic).Ulster tends to be more socially conservative place - perhaps because the Protestant Churches have not yet totally collapsed (although they are much weaker than they used to be). It would be wrong to think of Ulster as a "post Christian" place as mainland Britain now is - whether the Republic of Ireland is "Post Christian" will be seen in a few days, when the results of the referendum on abortion come in.

  5. The decline of Christianity (not just in Ireland - but everywhere) is often claimed to be because of the "rise of science" but I do not think that is true. I think that Christianity declined because most Churches stopped arguing for it - and became glorified social workers obsessed with poverty instead (ironically the more they TALKED about poverty they LESS help they gave the poor with their own hands). the Roman Catholic Church is a good example - I would argue that it was a strong as ever as late 1958, then it started to decline. Not because of some new scientific discovery after 1958, but because it became bashful about its own doctrines - and gradually stopped arguing for them. The intellectual justifications for the doctrines (and they do have intellectual justifications) were gradually forgotten - for example the present Pope is unable to argue against Islam (he does not even see the need to present a case against it and a case for his own religion), by the late 1960s (when he was trained - in Germany, not Argentina) traditional intellectual training was being replaced by emotional mush.

  6. Myko Clelland (@DapperHistorian):
    Once back 7 generations each of our ancestors represents less than 1% of of what makes us who we are. After 10 generations, it's less than 0.1%. Each one of us truly stands on the shoulders of thousands! https://t.co/J6gXvfstQe