Ireland’s rebellion problem
The country’s crisis stems from conformity
Whenever I discuss holidays with the family, explaining why I don’t want to spend money on expensive foreign trips, I go into this sort of Monty Python routine where I explain that my childhood summers usually involved going to Ireland for a couple of weeks on a ferry – if we were lucky!
My memory of Ireland was that it was poor, and while I don’t know if it was necessarily happy, it was incredibly safe. My brother and I would leave the family home in the morning, aged maybe 12 and 9, and just wander into town, go up and down the DART all day, or hang around games arcades by the seaside in Bray. That was considered perfectly normal, and unsurprising, since the Republic of Ireland in the late 20th century may have had the lowest homicide rate in any society, ever. Before the Troubles, Northern Ireland was perhaps even safer.
That has all changed, and last week’s knife attack on a woman and three children in Parnell Square is just the latest illustration. The subsequent disturbances in the city, and the government’s reaction, are symptomatic of both a wider European trend towards mismanagement and a particular Irish problem with conformity.
As a plastic Paddy who grew up in the greater Paddington-Euston arc of Irish settlement in London, my impression of my mother’s people is that they have pulled off the greatest national marketing scam of all time. The image the country portrays is one of free-wheeling unruly rebels, qualities the modern ruling class pretends to celebrate, but in reality they are conformist, as befits a small island community.
In part this misunderstanding is due to the gregariousness of the people; no one really knows why but the Irish possess unusual levels of banter, a word that originated in early modern London but perhaps comes from Gaelic and denotes an ability to converse in an amusing way. Even the median Irish person would be on the 90th percentile of banter in most European countries, rising to the 99th percentile in places like Finland. This is especially advantageous in the global economy, as is the country’s semi-Mediterranean character. Ireland’s great advantage is that it has northern European levels of trust and southern European levels of interpersonal warmth (France is the opposite). But that trust is fading.
The myth of national rebelliousness stems from centuries of dominance by England; but the Irish were never natural rebels and lawbreakers, they just never accepted rule by a foreign race. Under their own leaders they have proved to be docile, first towards Éamon de Valera’s conservative Catholic state, and now to the revolutionary order which replaced it (and which despises its inheritance).
The common English criticism, that their neighbours were unquestioning in their obedience to a clergy, has seamlessly continued with secularisation and the replacement caste of journalists, politicians and NGOs, painfully conformist in their thinking and obsessed with signalling moral value and maturity; this is a wider European problem but especially prevalent in Ireland.
Although banterous, the Irish are also quite reticent in many ways, more so than the English, less likely to complain about bad service or minor mistreatment, and have a ‘mustn’t grumble’ mentality. This was visible during the pandemic, when the country endured the longest and most stringent lockdown in Europe.
When Ireland embraced Christianity sixteen centuries ago, it was unusual in how quickly it converted. Most countries saw decades of conflict, a culture war between the old faith and the new, but the Irish seemed to accept St Patrick’s religion within a generation, without a fight. The same thing has happened with the new religion, Ireland’s elites embracing progressivism with rapid speed – perhaps only Canada has gone further down the road so quickly.
A key factor is internationalism. A small island on the very fringes of the Eurasian world, Ireland has often had a global outlook. Even St Brendan the Navigator, one of its earliest saints, was famous for his urge to explore the world. Although Ireland has historically sympathised with England’s continental enemies, it was largely through the British Empire that it expressed its internationalism, in particular via missionary work and service for the empire and the people it ruled. My great-uncle from Co. Galway, a doctor in the Indian Army, was very typical of this.
When my mother was growing up Irish parishes would raise money for the Jesuits to educate young Africans (including a young Robert Mugabe, for which thanks). This has continued into the modern era with the activism of Irishmen like Bob Geldof and Bono in trying to eradicate global poverty.
Ireland’s internationalism has in recent years manifested itself with a strong sense of identification with the EU, a new empire which has treated the country far better than its neighbour did, allowing it to grow rich in a way that would have astounded my grandparents. But membership of the organisation has also given Ireland’s elites a chance to be part of something bigger, always a temptation for rulers of a small land.
This has encouraged a mindset of extravagant obedience, what Conor Fitzgerald once termed ‘goodboyism’. At the same time, Ireland’s intellectual elite, its new clergy, is utterly beholden to American cultural dominance, to the extent that Irish politics and culture is even framed in a US context; this is true of Britain, too, where it is often inappropriate, but for a small, historically very homogenous country that not only has no history of colonialism but was itself colonised and viewed as a subordinate, inferior race, it is almost comical.
A clerisy, an intellectual elite with a guiding philosophy, is not a problem in itself – as long as they are wise and prudent, and capable of adapting to changing circumstances. But while modern western European leaders are obsessed with appearing rational and mature – the highest compliment is to call a nation ‘grown-up’ – they are also revolutionary in nature. Thanks to the radicalisation of institutions, the ideas they frame as sensible and inevitable are in reality incredibly extreme.