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Hail, glorious St Patrick!

But beware the dangerous new tradition that paints 20th century Ireland as a grim theocracy

By on Monday, 17 March 2014

Thousands gather of Dublins O'Connell Street for this years St Patricks day parade (PA)

Thousands gather of Dublins O'Connell Street for this years St Patricks day parade (PA)

On St Patrick’s Day my thoughts turn to my first trip to Ireland; it was in August 1988, and I was in my twenties. Two things were happening in the world at that time: one was aftermath of the Ethiopian famine, the other was the continuing controversy over extraditing Irish terror suspects to the United Kingdom. This latter matter could have meant that a very English sounding young man might not have been enthusiastically received in Dublin, County Louth, County Cork and County Tipperary, especially as one of the extraditions was taken place on the border just a few miles from where I was staying in County Louth; but if that were the case, my kind hosts gave absolutely no sign of it. In fact I have rarely encountered such warm and friendly people, few of whom had been previously known to me. Ireland struck me as a hospitable place, and all the people I met went out of their way to be friendly and kind.

The other thing about Ireland that I have noticed is that it has more intellectuals per square foot than many other places. In this – in the very concept of intellectuals – it resembles France. The atmosphere of Ireland is intellectually curious, and people who write, or make music, or paint, are respected and liked. And when you think of it, this is reflected in the huge number of musicians Ireland has produced, along with poets, novelists, actors and other artists, quite out of proportion to its size.

While it is true that for much of its history Ireland has been mired in poverty, it has also been a country with a strong intellectual and artistic tradition going back to the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, there were no “dark ages” in Ireland. It is worth remembering too that so many of the geniuses we associate with these islands are in fact Irish by birth or association – Jonathan Swift, for example, and Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. And the list goes on.

St Patrick’s day is the tradition day for celebrating all things Irish, and that is certainly to be encouraged. Conversely, to be discouraged is the recent tendency towards denigrating all things Irish. There has been a long tradition in England of dislike for the Irish, which goes right back to medieval times, and certainly grew more acute with large-scale Irish immigration to England, Scotland and Wales: the tradition exemplified by landladies putting up signs saying “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. But there is now a new tradition that claims that Ireland in the twentieth century was a theocracy run by the Catholic Church, riddled with grim and abusive priests and nuns, a place that was cold, wet, miserable, poor and above all benighted, a place untouched by the Enlightenment.

Though he did not found this tradition, it is exemplified in the work of Frank McCourt, who wrote the best selling Angela’s Ashes. The opening passage of that work announces its theme: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

But it is worth remembering that this misery memoir, that sparked off a whole genre, was dismissed by many, including the author’s own mother, as a “pack of lies”.

What was Ireland like when McCourt was growing up? It certainly cannot have been easy being the child of an alcoholic father, which must have been the chief cause of family woe: the father’s alcoholism, not the Catholic Church, which, to be fair, had campaigned long and hard against the evils of drink. But McCourt and the misery memoirists are not simply inaccurate: they are dangerous.

People need to feel good about their culture, and good about themselves. Naturally this can be taken too far, and we should all strive to correct what is wrong with ourselves and with our culture. But it can go too far in the opposite direction, when people begin to hate their own culture, hate their own history, and despise the world their grandparents lived in. Fifties Ireland was good place; it was not like contemporary Iran; to paint it in unrelieved dark colours is historically misleading (and usually done with very tenuous historical arguments) and also unjust to past generations.

On my first visit to Ireland in 1988 there were numerous people collecting for famine relief in Africa on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. I stood and watched every person who passed put some money in the bucket. And it struck me that these people who had once suffered famine themselves, were now helping others in the same trouble. They had not forgotten. And back in 1988 Dublin gave little indication of being a rich place. Solidarity with the poor the world over, that is a great value, a great Irish value too. Where did they learn it? Weren’t they just doing what their parents and grandparents had taught them, what all those priests and nuns had taught them too?

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