By Fintan O’Toole (for the Irish Times)
Imagine, for a moment, that we are in the 1890s. It is not as big a stretch as it might seem.
Ireland’s great political project has been shattered. Its leader and animating force, Charles Stewart Parnell, has died, leaving behind not a nation united in mourning, but one bitterly divided over the manner of his fall from grace and the meaning of his legacy. The party he forged into a formidable force is now split three ways and rendered all but impotent. Home Rule, the future towards which the majority looked, was gone - the 1893 Home Rule bill, passed by the House of Commons, was thrown out by the Lords.
Why recall this grim period of animosity and grief? Because it was arguably the most dynamic age of civic, intellectual and cultural engagement in modern Irish history. Things were suddenly up for grabs. “There is”, wrote William Butler Yeats, “a moment in the history of every nation when it is plastic, when it is like wax, when it is ready to hold for generations the shape that is given to it. Ireland is now plastic and will be for a few years to come.” We sometimes get depressed at the idea that Ireland is plastic in a different sense, but it is arguably more malleable than at any time since the 1890s.
Consider just a few of the organisations founded or consolidated in the 1890s: the GAA (founded in 1884 but built in the following decade); the Gaelic League; the Irish Literary Theatre (later to become the Abbey); the Irish Trades Union Congress; the United Irish League (a highly effective mass movement of tenant farmers); Inghinide na hEireann (the first autonomous women’s nationalist movement); the Irish Co-Operative Agricultural Movement; the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.
From language to farming, from hurling to labour agitation, from feminism to theatre, from folklore to economics, from religious reform to political conspiracies, an extraordinary range of movements, ideas and practical organisations emerged. Irish writing took a massive leap towards the leading edge of world culture. Each of these movements in its way was trying to invent a new Ireland and, as Yeats said of himself, “to plot and scheme how one might seal with the right image the soft wax before it began to harden”.
I don’t wish to idealise this period. Desperate poverty and mass emigration continued unabated. Some of the movements that emerged were fatally blinkered in their definitions of Irishness. But there was a genuine ferment in which art, sport, nationalism, culture, economics, religion and gender were all connected and were all in play. As cynicism about parliamentary politics grew, civil society came into its own. And from that ferment, for good and ill, we eventually got a State. Ireland did indeed, as Yeats had predicted, “hold for generations the shape that [was] given to it”.
That shape is now shattered beyond repair. The forces that managed to imprint their seals on the wax -- the Catholic Church and Tammany Hall nationalism -- are shadows of their former selves. They now play the role that British colonialism played in the 1890s -- as the dead hand that must be removed.
If anything, indeed, Ireland is even more plastic than it was back then. This time, the religious as well as the political superstructure is in terminal crisis. There is no source of stable moral authority.
But are we capable of the kind of civic, political and intellectual effort at regeneration that marked the 1890s? In principle, we ought to be. We have no colonial or spiritual Big Daddy keeping us in check. Our collective resources of education and self-confidence are vastly greater than they were. Fewer of us (especially women) have to carry the dead weight of crushing poverty. We are, in all sorts of ways, freer to engage in the process of collective re-invention than our ancestors were.
But will it happen? When I’m trying to be optimistic, I tell myself that it will happen simply because it has to. We are constantly told, in order to pummel us into intellectual submission and fatalistic resignation, that there is no alternative to the current process of reducing the State to a support system for the banks and the property market. The reality is that there’s no alternative to an alternative. The current strategy can lead nowhere but into a deflationary spiral, psychological as well as economic depression and a return to our history of self-imposed underdevelopment.
The key question here is emigration. Mass emigration kept us poor and backward and poverty and backwardness encouraged mass emigration. The government seems hell bent on recreating that vicious circle. If it succeeds, we’re on a one-way road to nowhere.
An alternative is possible - simply because it is imperative. The wax is soft again and it will hold for generations the shape it takes now. Will we let it be stamped with an image of the Irish as suckers and losers?