This Sceptic Isle: By Alan Titley

By Alan Titley

Ah yes, we are the worst country in the world, we are a failed state, everything is miserable and delapidated and dead and deadening, and oh my Gawd, we should hang our heads in shame, and we would have been better off staying with the United Queendumb, wouldn’t we just…?

There is much evidence, buckets of it to refute this there sentiment above, but what has evidence ever to do with people whose minds are closed and who exist in a kind of historical and geographical autism? We spend millions and trillions and zillions on education, and yet, despite the evidence (‘What did evidence ever do for me?’) many of our brightest and best think this country is a crock of crap.

When I was young and I was in my day, friends of my father would toddle in and gabble, as people do. Having waxless ears words would waft by, most of them without any purchase, others which burred. Sly sentiments passed on, some but not that many which asked, ‘What was it all for?’ This was a question asked by John McGahern’s Moran in that novel of his in which nothing happens. It was a question he asked himself in an essay which he wrote on the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising: ‘I think that the 1916 Rising was not considered to be of any importance in the country I grew up in. In fact, it was felt secretly to have been a mistake. “What was it all for?” was a puzzlement as widespread as the Rosary.’

It was actually about a hell of a lot.

The query is often economic. It is as if we were just economic digits. We are if that is what we think we are. The end of life is to eat more and to guzzle more. To consume more, but only to consume more than we have again, to consume and burst because that is the true end of life. We have reached the limits of our imaginations. If this being the case all small little gutty states such be happy to be swallowed up by their better Leviathans. But then a small voice whispered in my ear that when the hairy Celtic Tiger was roaring those them Unionists weren’t exactly screaming to join the rich fatted cows of the Republic of Ireland. It isn’t about the economy, you stupids!

What I am trying to say quite simply and humbly is that I wasn’t reared all that badly, really, like. I didn’t have anything to compare my upbringing with, of course, not then, not until it was impressed on me like Kipling, that what does he of Ireland know who only Ireland knows? I think it was much the same for my peers and pards. Nobody came to school hungry nor did they live in a scruffy hovel. We used to snigger and laugh when our parents or our teachers threatened us to gulp up our gruel and our porridge as the children of China were starving. Our sniggering was the sons and daughters of thickness.  We never realized nor knew that we were blessed in being the most lucky people in the most lucky generation during the most lucky time in the most lucky period of the most lucky chance that every happened in the luckiest country of all in the entire universe for the lucky chance of more than thirteen billion years or whatever.

If you don’t believe me, start thinking!

I fully realise that this is a dangerous and subversive statement. I fully realise that many people choke at the idea of comparisons, that any comparison is inimical to their intelligence. But the only way we have of weighing anything is to weigh it against something else. Are we comparing ourselves to some kind of Utopia? To somewhere over the rainbow?  I know full well that Irish political discourse and much of Irish moaning literature mark us out as the most awful oppressed church-ridden know-nothing tight-arsed country in the entire universe. To which the only answer is that they should get out more. They should learn a bit about the world.

The idea of being oppressed by a State of ingrowing toenail thought and constrained by a corset of conservative thinking never dawned on me until I was told it was so. Many friends of mine, still friends of mine I hope, never knew they were oppressed by the Church until The Irish Times told them so. I never felt it. When the Church said anything stupid I laughed and went my way, as any bright intelligent independent person should do. Those friends of my youth if born ten or twenty years previously would have been the greatest stalwarts of that same church. Such is the power of Fashionism. Heil Fashionism! because it is all that people believe in.

I was always attracted to heresies, for the heretic at least thinks for himself. We constantly hear of the Leaving Certificate, and the need for critical thinking. Do you actually think that if somebody writes that John Redmond was a war-monger, and that Yeats had Fascist sympathies, and that Ó Conaire’s stories were largely maudlin mush, and that Stalin was the reason that England does not speak German and that Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is psychologically flawed from the outset, do you actually think that your ideas will not be given short or even long shrift in any examination regime? Whatever the Fashionism of the moment is, you better stick to it. Most people are Fashionists down to their nether regions.

I never knew what it was what pricked me to think for myself, as I like to think.

I have to admit that it didn’t deliver the goods. I remember resisting Thomism in college, even though it meant that my marks were rightly slashed, and I excoriated essentialism not that it helped me either. As for the Fashionism of the moment, I had the good fortune not to have enough zlotys or shekels to buy a slurp or even a swig of that absinthe that did not make my heart grow fonder in The Two Maggots. Nor neither did I do that well in politics as my anarchy didn’t accord with those answers that landed on all four paws. I barely passed English, maybe not surprisingly, as I cogently argued then that Jane Austen’s style was the most classridden pornographic in all of English writing, and it is an idea I still hold dear.

I was lucky not to be made to walk on the main highway. I suppose I could have done so if I had been cursed with a midget mind. I was given a path with many byways out and behind and beyond. That is what education does. The road to salvation was broad and wide and tempting and lead to a good job and a safe pension and nothing wrong with any of that. Even the wandering paths lead you to wherever the wondering paths did not lead, and you must follow them all. As Yogi Berri said, ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

I was lucky to be given the opportunity to work in Africa during a savage war when I was just twenty years of age. For what does anyone know of Ireland that only Europe knows? I was fortunate to escape the narrow peninsular introverted self-regarding  navel fluffstuff  that passes for broadmindedness here. I was lucky to get to read African literature before I had to read the existentialist angst of the privileged rich. I saw bombs, and prisons, and executions and read the fat lies from the fat newspapers and magazines, but knew I would be back in Ireland. I escaped from the narrow peninsular preoccupations of Europe.

It wasn’t the same Ireland to which I returned, although still pizzling through much of the same dribble as it always had with a dash of the outside world thrown in. The copycat revolutionists copycatted their way into the news on the backs and on the bodies of real student revolutionists in other countries, particularly in France, although it is true that students had been mown down in the US also. Some small book dumbed it ‘The Gentle Revolution’, and although it went softly and gently it was never approaching even the lip of a pale excuse of a rebellion. Some of the more inglourious revulsionaries of that time were the somme-time Irish Times now-forgotten journalist Kevin Myers, and the worst minister for Education we have ever had despite great competition, Ruairi Quinn, who not only managed to banish history as a central subject on the curriculum in case it might contaminate young minds, but who also presided over the utter and barbaric destruction of thought and of the arts in teacher education. Check it out.

Maybe we have no choice other than to be who we are. I was always a bit dubious about the wings of freewill. I really had no choice but to be born in Ireland, and to be a male person being, at a certain time and in a certain place. I couldn’t have been an Arab or a Tierra del Fuegan even if the sands or the fires of time had moved; and chance also decided that I wasn’t to be a Neanderthal boiling bones no more than I am going to be around in the year 3000 a.d. all going very well. You have no option but to deal with the hand you have been dealt whether you like it or not.

Thus, I have no idea why I liked or disliked certain authors who passed my way in my youth and childhood, wherein I might have done something good. Dickens was always great, while Thackerey was stodge. I could hear Frank O’Connor’s voice in the street and understood his gentle irony; O’Faolain was always a bit forced and when he had a symbol he stuck it out a mile in case it didn’t clobber you. Shakespeare spoke the mad creative language of the yard and you couldn’t not get him. On the other hand there were boring essays by Lamb and by Addison which could only be digested with huge gobfuls of donkey’s gudge, a kind of black cake which was the staple food of the shop next door to the school. On the other other hand our school essays always offered amusement. When I wanted a laugh or even a broad chuckle I went straight for Burke’s description of when he first saw Marie Antoinnette: ‘It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision.’ I still crack up in wild abundance of mirth when I read those unintentionally hilarious words.

Bit by bit and row by row everybody makes their own anthology. You gather up the strands and the wisps, what is there in the middle, what has fallen by the wayside, the cockle and the chips and you make your own Ireland out of them all. Nothing explains one’s own soul more than that anthology, the bits that light your fire. Tell me which writers you revere, and I will tell you who you are. You have to kiss many ugly toadish writer people until you get your prince, even if you are a Cromwellian republican.

The main epiphany being that I never recognized the country I knew in much and in most of what I had read. Charles J. Kickham was surely one of the worst novelists ever to  scratch a pen in 19th century Ireland, and more saliently to have crawled out of the ridings of Tipperary north and south. I frankly couldn’t give a damn if Matt the Thrasher was mashed in a combine harvester. I always supposed that Lever and Lover were some manner of detergent, preferably to clean out our mouths. Despite Yeats’s beautiful words and elegant diction his fairy faith and widening gyres always left me a bit dubious. Synge had great energy and great fun, but maybe if Christy Mahon had really murthered his father there were times we would be happier if he kept his gob shut about it. When a cow committed bovicide over a cliff in one of Liam O’Flaherty’s stories I was more interested in the rump steak.

There are reasons why there are writers whom we never ‘get’. I much preferred Edna O’Brien’s later work than the classics she wrote first, because maybe just a city youngfella’s world was so different from a country girl’s. John McGahern certainly captured some of the doom of a certain kind of youth, but the gloomy grey skies of Leitrim often screamed out for just a glimpse of that ‘tent of blue which prisoners call the sky.’ Why was it that so much of our writers thought that life was shitty? There were days when I began to understand Stalin, why not celebrate and wonder at this patch of land our feet have been plonked upon for a little while? (This is a joke, for people without irony).

Maybe writers are a moany and groany lot because we fall so short of any ideal we might seek. Maybe the writer is more sensitive than the normal person, although I doubt it. Maybe the writer and artist have insights into life that escape the mere mortal, something which Francis Stuart never ceased telling us, although he singularly failed to tell us what exactly they were.

Of course, and undoubtedly, and ipso facto a writer must write what a writer has experienced, or even felt. If Frank McCourt had a lousy Irish childhood, he had a lousy Irish childhood, even factoring Limerick in as a large part of that. It would be crass to aver that Irish writers hated Ireland as John Sutherland surmised in The Guardian two years ago. There is no one unorthodoxy, the country and its writings are still as catholic as ever, protesting all the way to the ink. On the other hand, if one was to put together a course in modern/contemporary Anglo-Irish literature it is far more likely that those who were worsted in the game and had a good turn of quirky paddy phrase would be included before, let us say, Hugh Leonard or Bernard Farrell or the classy historical novels of John Banville, the purveyors of the more ordinary wonderful. Time cannot wither nor custom stale our indulgence in ourselves as victims, and as being born in a horrible place. Are we to be forever locked thus forever in an unburstable bubble of self-regard?

There is ample reason to rage and rage against the wasting of the light every morning that greets you. And so you should: the sheer greed of those at the top, the crooked unrepentant banks, the rickety health service, the charity scandals, the appalling level of homelessness, the destruction of public housing, the crass stupidity of pocket pump politicians, the acceptance of gross inequality, the address snobbery, the class bias of the media, the ownership of what we know, the arse-licking of the European Union, the incorrectibility of the legal system, the popularity of awful country and Irish music, our linguistic ignorance, our drooling self-congratulations when we win an international match, economists who haven’t a clue (although we are not alone in this), free passage for American torture flights,  a partitionist mentality, stupid letters to the paper, the barbaric destruction of teacher education by the removal of the need to know anything from the curriculum of the colleges…one could go on, I could go on, but I won’t go on, not just now. The most hirsute and hairy of us should be baldy and shiny by the pulling of the hair by now.

But what actually did you expect? Some kind of Utopia? Magh Meall? The Promised Land of Youth and Buttermilk and Honey? Whoever promised us a rose garden without the pricks?

In this centenary year of the 1916 Rising which instigated our war of liberation, no sooner had the sun risen on the first day of the first month of the year but we were treated to a barrage of opinion dissing and mocking and pissing on the parade. Of course, it is perfectly right that a foundling act should be interrogated down to the bung of it. If you couldn’t take Dublin Castle it wasn’t much of a revolution.

But it wasn’t this what bugged the anti-brigade: Patsy McGarry, and Ruth Deadly Edwards, and ex-first minister Bruton, and Sur Bobby Geldof, and Kevin Myarse, and Weasly Boyd, and some dicey theologians who still tried to ring some small change from the just war theology, long discredited or ignored. It wasn’t the success or lack of it which exercised their wrath, but the violence! Now, while you draw your breath, just pause and even think. There should be no problem objecting, and objecting with savage indignation to the illegal and antidemocratic 1916 rebellion if you are a pacifist. But to the best and the worst of my knowledge I think that none of the above are pacifists; and if they are, it would have been music to all of our ears to hear them explode in horror at the thought of imagining to consider that we should acknowledge the carnage at the Somme without excoriation and condemnation and the necessary added bits that we would never again conjoin with imperialist forces to bomb and clobber the lesser breeds without the law. Poor old Willie McBride and all the fine young men along with waltzing Matilda might have to do it again and again and again for all that they might say.

For that alone, it has been an interesting year, because ‘What was it all for?’ as McGahern and Moran so plaintively asked.

There is an answer to it, and it is plain enough.

The Irish Free State/ Saorstát Éireann, latterly Ireland or The Republic of Ireland is one of the great success stories of the 20th century.

Och, I’m sorry, mea culpa, I shouldn’t have said this, but unfortunately the auld evidence jumps up to bite me.

I was cursed with an education that required evidence, while being fully aware that facts are normally useless in what is basically a culture war.

We are one of the richest and best off countries in the entire universe right now! Oh fuck it, I have just said that we live longer, have better education, more disposable income, more houses per skull, and so on and so on through all those economic ladders which the people up there count. This does not mean that things are not crap for many….I am talking about comparisons.

And comparisons should be the stuff of the writer and of the artist. We imagine other worlds and other possibilities. We always ask: ‘What If?’

And ‘What If’ is the greatest unasked question in Ireland, as I was almost about to say, the elephant in the zoo. What if we were to start imagining, let us say, outside the penalty area? What if we were to start to imagine the other worlds that are, the worlds that could have been, the worlds in which we might have been captured? Isn’t this the greatest work of the artist, the alternative worlds of our imaginations?

The only alternative world to an Irish free state/republic was one that was still part of the United Kingkongqueendumb. There was no other choice, no other possibility the other side of science fiction. It is a question rarely asked, and never answered.

Emigration is the single greatest failing of the Irish political project. But hang on…Given that the greatest emigration of any European country in terms of the slashing of of its population by a quarter within a decade happened when we were part of that UKrania, we can’t seriously say that it would have stopped in the 20s, 30s etc, can we? And given that emigration from the UK itself was rampant in those same years, we can’t imagine that we would have been different, can we? And travel through the north of Scotland some time, and see the deserted villages of the abandoned desert of UQ places and so on…

But the Irish difficulty with the economics was not just that, as is obvious. But if that is the only ground on which you stand, apart from being more stupid than you think, there are the simple crude going-forward inside the box temporal facty things that you might want to notice if you live in the real world. Like that in just about every international measurement that is made comparing country with country in purely material things, Ireland comes out away ahead of the UQ. Sorry, again, oh my Gawd, some ugly facts to scrub the ingrown prejudice: check it out, the United Nations Human Development Index, and all the other bitty ones around it. Not only do we come out ahead of the UQ, we come out motorways and autobahns ahead of them. Ah, but fuck it, they’re only facts. You have your prejudice, and you’re sticking to it.

My own prejudice is moral, not so much economic, even though we have won that one hands down. I don’t like any moral crow as I don’t believe we are in any way better or superior than anyone else. But I do think, in fact I know by the incontrovertible evidence, that we have done more good and less evil to our fellow beings of humanity by not being part of the UQ than if we had. This may not be of any value to you, but it is to me.

There is the tiny weeny business of that if we had been part of the continuing UQ we would have been partners in some of the most unjustifiable and barbaric wars raged by man upon women and children in the 20th century – we would have been a militarized colonizing force – the most recent being those attacks on countries in the middle east which have released the demons of the ages. But we don’t want to go there now. Suffice to say if we had been there we would have been complicit in the dead of the countless. Don’t know about you, but this is important to me.

If we attacked any other country in the morning or in the evening in the act of conquest of occupation, I would hand in my passport and abandon my Irish citizenship.

We are in this Free State Republic one of the longest unbroken democratic one woman one man countries in the world; we are in this Free State Republic more or less the peacefullest place in the universe. If you don’t believe me, lift up your eyes, cast them forth, and behold!

So when the moaners and the groaners and the whingers and the begrudgers start moaning and groaning and whinging and begrudging I ask the simple not very difficult straightforward question, would you have preferred to be born in, and lived in, and be raised in, and let us not be too complete in this, say, like Morocco or Bolivia or Bangla Desh or the Philippines or Bulgaria or China or Mexico or Greece or Mongolia or Portugal or Argentina or Egypt or Sudan or South Sudan or Panama or Vietnam or Uzbekistan or India or Somalia or Easter Island, or Romania or Nigeria or Tanzania, or Burma or Belarus or Bhutan, or Azerbeijan or Armenia or Angola, or Kosovo or Mexico or Togo, or Uganda or Vanuatu or Tuvalu, or Malawi, or Djibouti or Burundi ….? I can add more if you don’t get the picture by now.

And of those that score higher than us in this football league of luck and prosperity, would you really prefer to live in Norway where it rains 465 days a year, or in Canada where Sam Magee or his like couldn’t be cremated quickly enough, or Australia living on the recent genocide and destruction of lovely decent human people whose only crime was to be born and to live in their own place? It mightn’t matter to you, but it does to me.

Of course, much of our good fortune has nothing to do with us. We were lucky to be in this particular peninsula of Gaia in this time riding on the slavery of yesteryear and the domesticable animals who roamed through EurAsia. Insofar as we fucked up, we fucked up small. This is not a bad success.

It is something, I think, that we writers and scribblers should at least acknowledge. You would never think so given the most celebrated of our internationally famous authors. If you own what are called assets amounting to about 500,000 Euro, house and car and dog and TV and Iphone and tablet and all, you are in the top one per cent of the richest people in the world. The richest who ever lived, ever. Ever. Is this not something? Actually, is not this something unbelievably fantastic and wondrous miraculous? If you have about 12,000 Euro worth of possession, say an old banger of a car, you are in the top quarter of the most wealthy people in this orbish earth. Apart from the banger, that’s probably just about everybody in the country, apart from the truly unfortunate. Not bad either.

I always had this weird belief that literature should celebrate the fact that we are alive and not dead, that we should look to the greater world, and not just to ourselves.

As for me myself, I feel privileged to have a small muted and muffled wee voice in one of the great literatures of the world, a literature which can celebrate life and existence just as much as it finds it miserable when it is. It makes no sense to say you are ‘proud’ to be Irish. I never understood this any more than I understood the need for ‘roots’. Roots are things that vegetables have, like parsnips. We are not carrots or radishes or yams or even good old potatoes. What we have is air. Our literature is the breath of our country, or at least a great burst of the puff of our humanity.

I am lucky to have been allowed to breathe it in Irish and in English; for what does he know of Ireland who only English knows?

(The author is Emeritus Professor of Modern Irish, University College Cork).