Engaging Modernity provides a new and much needed appraisal of Irelands engagement with the phenomenon of modernity. The path we have travelled from being a rural-based, religious, traditional, insular country, to a secular, highly prosperous economic hi-tech centre has brought in its wake both problems and advantages. Engaging Modernity evaluates how in the realms of politics, culture and literature, Ireland has undergone a major paradigm shift.
This book is composed of a selection of papers from a conference held under the auspices of EFACIS (European Federation of Centres and Associations of Irish Studies) in Aarhus (Denmark) in 2001 and organised by Michael B?Âss. It brought together academics and commentators from many European countries and the book bears witness to a diversity of opinions on Irelands recent evolution.
Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, Dublin. His publications concentrate in the main on various aspects of the Franco-Irish nexus and he is currently writing a book on the Catholic Novel.
- INTRODUCTION: Engaging modernity in Ireland
In Seamus Deanes reading of key themes in Irish writing, Strange Country (1997), he describes how Irish literature and politics, from the end of the eighteenth century, became structured by a perceived conflict between tradition and modernity. He leads the paradigm back to Edmund Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he regards as a foundational text, in both England and Ireland, for this perception. (1) But whereas the paradigm had a number of salutary effects in Britain , where there was a state to support it through its institutions and to turn it into a positive factor in the process of social and political modernisation , it had a number of limiting implications for stateless, semi-colonial Ireland, which, in the same period, was trying to break free from the shackles of the Union. The modernisation project of the Irish nationalist movement defined itself against England and therefore became coloured by an archaicising of the idea of an Irish national culture. According to the same logic, its cultural politics became dominated by a search for emblems of adversity , to English modernity , by which the experience of disastrous ruptures of Irish tradition might be transcended.
As this collection of essays by Irish and international critics, scholars and commentators shows, many contemporary Irish writers and intellectuals engage the problems and dilemmas of individual and communal life from positions divorced from Burkes paradigm and the cultural contexts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Still, although life, politics and society in late modernity are definitely different and should be understood in their new contexts, it could be argued from a sociological point of view that many of the basic problems and dilemmas that people of the earlier period faced and experienced in engaging modernity are fundamentally similar and have only taken a new colouring today from changed circumstances in our late modern society, such as, for example, globalisation, the expansion of the consumer culture, social differentiation, educational reforms, the rise of the welfare state, changing sexual roles, developments in international politics, the process of secularisation and increased prosperity.
As editors, we have decided, in this introductory chapter, to take a sociological approach to the key issue indicated by the title of the book. However, we hold this approach to be crucial for the way in which the various responses to modernity , i.e. the modernisms and postmodernisms of, for example, literature and drama , should be understood and analysed. We also believe that there are important insights to be gained from establishing dialogues and inter-disciplinarity between sociology, political science and the humanities. At the end of the chapter, therefore, we will point out how recent debates on sociological and anthropological theory may have implications for our understanding, not only of recent developments in Irish society and culture, but also of the construction of meaning in modernist and postmodernist literature and drama. The individual essays of the collection do not deliberately reflect the theoretical considerations of the introduction. However, we have asked the contributors to keep the main theme of the book in mind in their analyses and discussions.
The essays have been selected from a conference held in December 2001 at University of Aarhus, Denmark, under the aegis of The European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies. The title of the conference was Ireland and Europe in Times of Re-orientation and Re-imagining. The very title suggested how new directions in the social and political thought in Ireland, as well as in Irish literature and theatre, could benefit from being discussed against a larger European and even global background. The same could be argued for earlier periods of modern Irish politics and arts, of course, for, although too seldom acknowledged and still too poorly researched, the political ideas and literatures that fed into classical Irish nationalism of the early twentieth century did take their distinctive shape under the impact of social and cultural developments in the wider international context. Some of the essays deal with themes from earlier periods of Irish history or represent re-readings of works that now invite us to reconsider them for their creative potential for re-orienting and re-imagining Ireland in its present state of late modernity, i.e. in a new political, social and cultural context. The fact that the conference was hosted in Denmark, and that many of the contributors were not Irish, provided a good panoramic view of how outsiders as well as insiders view the impact of modernity in Ireland , whether reflected in modernist and postmodernist literature or in cultural and social debate. It also added a dimension of objectivity and distance to the essays which enhances their relevance.
As the basis for our own discussion we adopt the concept of modernity, as used by the social science philosopher Peter Wagner. (2) Wagner characterises modernity as possessing four central probl?®matiques: (l)..the search for certain knowledge and truth, (2) the building of a viable and good political order, (3) the maintenance of a perception of continuous and coherent selfhood, and (4) the attempt to relate a sense of the past and future times to a lived present. Wagner emphasises, however, that these probl?®matiques are characterised by a resistance to final and definite solutions to given problems:
These probl?®matiques co-merge with modernity, and they can neither be rejected nor handled once and for all by finding their modern solution. Societies that accept the double imaginary signification of modernity are destined to search for answers to these questions and to institute those answers. Temporarily stable solutions can thus indeed be found , the thirty golden years in Europe and the USA after the Second World War, for instance, were marked by a temporarily stable compromise between different possible sets of answers to the political probl?®matique. In other words, the constitutive probl?®matiques of modernity have always to be interpreted in their concrete temporality, at their specific historical location. (3)
One of the most formidable modern challenges to the problematics of modernity, as defined by Wagner, is associated with changes of the economic structures and cultural environments of the European nation states under the impact of globalisation. In the 1990s, globalisation manifested itself in Ireland under the guise of the Celtic Tiger. We want to argue here that the Celtic Tiger quickly became a metaphor of Irish modernisation in its fin-de-si?¿cle version. Before we introduce the individual essays of this collection, we therefore wish to offer a tentative reading of typical responses to it, negative as well as positive, in order to demonstrate that the perceived conflict between tradition and modernity, which Deane points out as a major theme in Irish literature long into the twentieth century, still informs social debate in Ireland.
In analysing responses to Ireland in the age of the Celtic Tiger, we are struck by the way in which the ills of modern Ireland are often diagnosed as being a result of an erosion of a collective soul which has been put under pressure from outside forces, representing material greed, inhuman bureaucracy, and the strategies of capitalism. The middle classes are seen as complicit in this process. In this type of social critique, there is resonance from the public debate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with one major difference, however: today the modernising forces are no longer associated with England/Britain, but with the EU and the US.
We can identify, in the public debate that is currently raging, three basic attitudes to modernity. The first is characterised by a broad acceptance of the course Ireland has taken since the early 1960s: in spite of unsolved problems of adjustment, the modernisation project initiated by Lemass and Whitaker has rid Ireland of a social order that limited the possibilities of achieving individual happiness and developing a solid economic basis for a viable Irish nation state. This attitude prevails particularly among social groups that have benefited from the economic growth of the 1990s and among members of the political and bureaucratic elite. The second attitude strongly criticises or quite simply rejects the modernisation project as defined and administered by the liberal hegemony. This criticism is often voiced by the Catholic Church and the political left, particularly by intellectuals and academics who identify with postmodern and postcolonial critiques of contemporary society and culture. Finally, we identify an intermediary position which exists in two versions: moderately socialistic and neo-conservative. This attitude, which has echoes in classical sociology, may here be represented by the American sociologist Peter L. Berger. In his essay Towards a Critique of Modernity (1977), Berger concludes:
I believe that the critique of modernity will be one of the great intellectual tasks of the future, be it as a comprehensive exercise or in separate parts. The scope is broadly cross-cultural. It will be a task that, by its very nature, will have to be interdisciplinary; Im not enough of a parochialist to believe that sociology has a uniquely useful contribution to make. It will also be the task linking theory and praxis, touching, as it does, certain fundamental philosophical as well as highly concrete practical-political questions. The task is also of human and moral urgency. For what: it is finally all about is the question of how we, and our children, can live in a humanly tolerable way in the world created by modernization. (4)
This quotation and the following narrative , by which we wish the reader to co-imagine with us some central features of late modernity , reflect the nostalgia, anguish and moral predicament that may be associated with a critical engagement with the modern condition in contemporary Ireland.
In 1994, an Irish American journalist, Richard Conniff, visited Ireland for the National Geographic magazine. (5) He had returned after twenty years and, as a result, could not help noticing the great changes that had taken place since his first visit in 1974. On a brisk autumn day that year, he had been walking down a dirt road on an Atlantic island when he happened to come across an old farmer. The farmer returned his greeting with a contemptuous Tourists! Conniff did not take personal offence to this comment, but instead tried to strike up a conversation with the man as they seemed to be heading in the same direction. The man did not leave him in any doubt about his belief that not only were tourists a modern pestilence, but that among them, Americans were of the worst kind. The only thing they were good for was to be roasted, cut and served, under glass.
To Conniffs ears, there was an echo of Jonathan Swift in this immodest proposal. Aye, the old man responded, but wild rancour also tears this heart. It turned out that he was not only capable of citing the tomb of Swift, but also other Irish writers and poets. In spite of an inauspicious start, the old and the young man ended up spending , what Conniff imagined to be , a traditional Irish afternoon in each others company, drinking whiskey and citing poetry. Looking back on that day twenty years later, Conniff remembered him as a kind of man that only the Ireland of the past had been able to produce. This Ireland was one in which material comforts were less important than things of the spirit.
But, on his return, that was but a distant memory. The old motorboat, which used to take the islanders over on occasional visits to the mainland, had been replaced by a ferry transporting tourists. There was little agriculture left on the island. Potatoes had become cheaper to import than to grow. Nor were milk and butter any longer domestic products as had been the norm for time immemorial. Instead of grazing cattle, there were sheep everywhere. The reason for this was simple: sheep farming drew economic support from Dublin, or rather from Brussels.
However, it was the landscape that bore the brunt of the new scheme in Conniffs estimation. He saw how the sheep ate away the heather, leaving the steep hills open to the forces of erosion. He noticed the rows of old, deserted lazybeds behind the sheep trails all along the slopes. And he concluded that the island was no longer a self-sufficient entity.
His old friend was long since dead. In his house, he found a young American woman. She had originally come to the island to study its dying culture. She had moved in and lived with him during the last years of his life. She told Conniff that she had just applied for EU funding so that she could convert the small farm into a hostel. There was a call for rural tourism, she said. They talked about what the old man would have thought of the plan, how he would turn in his grave if he knew what was happening to his house. She was a little embarrassed about it, he thought. Still, taking leave of her, he wished her good luck before he went up to the old mans grave in a deserted potato bed behind the house. Here he stood for a while, waiting for the clouds to part. He suddenly remembered Yeats line about how nothing could be healed again until after it had been torn apart. Maybe this applied to nations also, he reflected. But now that the Irish had ripped apart the mythology of their traditional nationhood, might they still be able to gather the pieces and weave them into a new, strong form and image? Not the image by which they sold themselves to foreign tourists, of course, but one which reflected a liveable identity.
Conniff picked up a stone from the ground and placed it on the top of the old mans grave in honour of what he had represented: traditional Ireland. But the sky remained overcast and the bay was as grey as lead when he started walking down towards the harbour in a dejected mood, concluding that Ireland was in danger of making itself look like everyplace else in the world.
When the National Geographic published this article in 1994, the Irish economy had entered a phase of hitherto unseen expansion, transforming traditional dreams of a spiritual Celticity into modern aspirations of material comfort. Provoked by the reflections of the Irish American journalist, The Irish Times questioned its readers as to whether it was really true , as Conniff claimed , that Ireland was modernising itself out of existence: Were we adopting a modern life style for which utility was the highest value? Were we destroying our landscapes by building bungalows instead of living in whitewashed cabins? Or, alternatively, were bungalows not more comfortable than old-fashioned houses? Did we not have the right to modernise our society? Was all change by definition for the worse? Was it possible to have water closets, tap water, electricity and department stores while still preserving an Ireland which was connected with the past?
As has so often been the case with cultural debate in Ireland, the issue raised was whether it was possible to enjoy the benefits of modernity without losing a sense of continuity; history and tradition. Or, to put it differently, does an engagement with modernity only allow a choice between rejection and embrace?
Irish economists and leading politicians showed little doubt about the benefits of a modernising economy and society. A characteristically upbeat tone was struck by two of the fathers of tile Celtic Tiger economy, former minister and European Commissioner, Ray Mac Sharry, and former manager of the IDA, Padraic White, in their book The Making of The Celtic Tiger: The Inside Story of Irelands Boom Economy (2000). Introducing their thesis with Sean Lemasss words from 1959 that [t]he historic task of this generation is to ensure the economic foundation of independence, they held up the economic achievements of the past decade against a spectral past of famine and mass emigration, in addition to genuine concern about Irelands viability as a politically independent entity as expressed in the 1950s in government reports like the Commission on Emigration and in books like John OBriens The Vanishing Irish:
Now some of the descendants of those past generations who left because they had little choice are returning to a country which, by the close of the twentieth century; has managed a remarkable economic transformation. Sustained high growth has produced virtual full employment with low inflation, a sharply declining debt burden and large budget surpluses, all helping to complete this virtuous circle. Impressive economic indicators such as these have become the hallmarks of the Celtic Tiger economy. (6)
The national plan of 1958, which favoured a shift away from social investment (schools, housing and hospitals) towards more productive investment (attracting foreign capital with the promise of major tax relief), was of a great significance, they argued. It gave a psychological lift to the dejected national spirit in a time of severe crisis. (7) But the greatest boost to the economy came with Irelands membership of EEC/EU and the funds that helped the economy take off at a crucial time. Finally, the combined policies of cutbacks in public spending and social partnership between government, unions and business paved the way for an economic transformation of Ireland and its ascent into the premier league of Western European economies. The underlying argument of the book is, therefore, that liberal economic policies and international integration (globalisation), limited tax-financed social services and close co-operation between the public and private sectors, did not pose any threat to either social cohesion or the nation state. On the contrary, Irelands modernisation , and the Celtic Tiger , had benefited the nation and done away with the lack of self-confidence that had characterised it in the past.
More or less the same message came from a prominent economist, Dr Rory ODonnell of the National Economic and Social Council. In an essay published in Europe: The Irish Experience, edited by himself, ODonnell saw the new Ireland as rising from a state of disruption, disorientation and loss of direction after the breakdown of the traditional nationalist strategy:
The combination of social partnership and the European internal market provided an unusual, benign, combination of institutionalised co-ordination and pressure for market conformity. Consequently, I argue that the deepening of European integration, and the emergence of a new shared perspective on Irelands place in Europe, was a profound influence on Irelands economic and social experience. In particular, European integration and governance have been centrally important in the economic transformation that Ireland has experienced in the past decade. [...] In summary, the Irish economy and society have undergone a journey from closure, through dependent and vulnerable openness, to a new combination of international involvement and self-confidence. Irish development since 1960 has been an evolution from deliberate strategy , through radical disruption, disorientation and loss of direction , to a new shared understanding of the constraints and possibilities of national and international governance. (8)
Re-inventing Ireland was the title of the conclusion of ODonnells essay, which stated that the national self-understanding, shared widely among the Irish of today, is a positive outcome of a well-considered political agenda which has transformed Ireland in three areas. First, by taking Ireland out of a past, in which the outside world represented a number of constraining factors, into a situation in which the external environment provides valuable inputs and opportunities (europeanisation). (9) Secondly, by redefining the role of the state from that of a driver of the economy and the agent of social change to that of a mediator between social and economic interests (partnership). To these two transformations, ODonnell added a third: the rise of a new , individualist , social character which has unleashed enterprise and demands new patterns of organisation. (10) Together these three transformations have affected changes in the public sphere, he claimed, that could be seen as the beginning of a reinvention of Ireland, much as the cultural movement of the late 19th and early 20th century were shown by [the literary critic Declan] Kiberd, to have invented Ireland. (11)
In Inventing Ireland, Kiberd claimed in 1995 that the cultural revival achieved nothing less than a renovation of Irish consciousness and a new understanding of politics, economics, philosophy, sport, language and culture in its widest sense. (12) Kiberd saw the literary revival as fundamentally modern in its anti-traditionalist ambition to re-construct and re-orient the nation from a vision of the Irish as a hybrid people [...] exponents of multiple selfhood and modern authenticity. Thus the revival was a potential source of inspiration for a century which was about to end and which was once again dominated by the debate with which it began: how to distinguish what is good in nationalism from what is bad, and how to use the positive potentials to assist peoples to modernise in a humane way. (13) However, many social critics did not see the effects of the Celtic Tiger as humane.
Allegedly exposing the Celtic Tiger as a myth of social partnership, Kieran Allen, a marxist sociologist at University College Dublin, found in the social republicanism of the previous turn of the century a source of inspiration for a critique of Irelands new liberal self-image. If there had been a myth in the past that Ireland was a classless society, the increased social inequality in the wake of the economic boom , which only benefited an elite , had exposed it as a hollow joke.
What is required is a political movement that starts from the struggles of today, but links them to strategy for overall change. Ironically, the Celtic Tiger has laid a new basis for this politics to emerge. The constant talk of economic advance has whetted workers appetites for more and has helped to restore their economic strength. After the Irish rich have so blatantly vandalised the public services to avoid taxes, the legitimacy that was once accorded to the traditional political institutions has declined. In this situation, the prospects for a socialist movement which stands well to the left of Labour are very good. (14)
Allen and others , like Luke Gibbons and Kiberd , represented in the 1990s debate what Walter Benjamin once called revolutionary nostalgia, i.e. an active remembering of the suppressed voices of tradition which allowed the possibility of seeing a continuity between past and present without falling back on a traditionalist stance. Traditionalism was heard elsewhere in the public debate, however. A peculiar, but not unrepresentative, voice was that of the columnist John Waters. (15)
In 1994, John Waters published a book which appeared to be about the superband U2 and the forging of a new Irish identity, but which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a diatribe against a brand of Anglo-American modernity based on economic liberalism and its copy-cat Irish version. To Waters, this new modernity was responsible for cutting off the mystical connection between people and land as well as for doing away with Irish cultural difference. Irish rock-n-roll seemed to be only means to restore it. (16) Whereas for W B. Yeats, modernity had been associated with England, Waters linked it to the expansion of an American capitalist culture to the rest of the world, transforming the entire globe into a world ruled by greed, lust, fear, competition, consumption, obsession, celebrity, commodification and , increasingly , cultural homogeneity; a world in which people seek surrogate experiences in popular culture and art in order to disengage themselves from the awfulness of human life. (17)
Modernity had taken an especially malignant form in the Modern Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, Waters argued three years later in An Intelligent Persons Guide to Modern Ireland. (18) His Modern Ireland was the Ireland ushered in by Sean Lemass and T. K. Whitaker and the liberal regime since 1960 , the Ireland of Dublin 4, as he called it in his first book, Jiving at the Crossroads. (19) Waters thought that contemporary social problems were a result of a continuous battle in Irish history, between the people and successive social and political ?®lites, over ownership of land, society and culture. (20) First there was the Anglo-Irish landowning class with its alien culture. There then followed the nationalist elite who imposed its own restricting model of a Gaelic-Catholic Ireland on the common folk. Finally came the liberal, market-fixated urban middle-classes, whose political representatives surrendered the country for their own economic advantage to American companies and the European Union. As a result, todays Ireland, even after having been politically independent for eighty years, was deemed incapable of sustaining itself economically and culturally. The Celtic Tiger economy had turned out to be more phantom than reality since it affected positively only the lives of the already well-to-do, leaving large sections of the population in material destitution, psychological depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. In short, the Tiger had cast the whole country into a deep spiritual crisis and social malaise. In 1997, Waters no longer masked his personal anti-modernist nostalgia, which was already visible in his earlier writing. He conceded that there may have been many things wrong with the Ireland of the 1950s. Nevertheless, even for those of us who considered ourselves outsiders, it was still a kinder, gentler, more innocent place than it is now, quite different from the dysfunctional and morally fragmented society that Ireland has become. (21)
Waters guidebook to Ireland was only one of many such critical diagnoses of the state of Irish society since the mid-1990s, with appended catalogues of the ills of modern living. The odd Irish-American intellectual who chose to go into voluntary spiritual exile in Ireland was dismayed to discover that the Irish had become more American than the Americans themselves. One of them, the psychologist Thomas Moore, stirred up debate for a few weeks about the (mixed) blessings of the Celtic Tiger and the danger that Ireland was losing its Soul , a soul which basks on tradition and finds its heaven in family and neighbourhood and the unchanging, haunting figurations of nature , to the rationalistic and mechanistic Spirit of modernity. (22)
To bring the debate right up to date, we must also mention a book of essays assembled by Peadar Kirby, Luke Gibbons and Michael Cronin, Reinventing Ireland: Culture, Society and the Global Economy. (23) The title is, once more, a reference to Declan Kiberds defining work, which seems to have become a starting point for all contemporary discussion of the topic of Irish national identities in modern and late modern Ireland. The contributors to Reinventing Ireland see beyond the spectacular economic successes achieved during the 1990s and concentrate on quality-of-life issues. The book initially quotes from the strategy document of the National Economic and Social Council which declared in 1999, in the same vein as Rory ODonnell, that Ireland had reinvented itself during the 1990s. When analysing how this came into being, the contributors engage critically with the new culture of Ireland, which ODonnell and other liberals are praising, but which, in their own view; is embraced in an uncritical manner by its supporters. They see it as marking a break with the past and the coming-of-age of an enlightened, tolerant and liberal Ireland. Furthermore, while this new culture is closely linked by its proponents with Irelands success of the 1990s, [...] the links between economy and culture have been little explored apart from a generalised correlation between economic success and a climate of national self-confidence and creativity(p. 2).
This sets the scene for what is to follow, which is a series of articles on how the cultural debate has become subservient in many cases to commercial interests. There is a shrinking space for articulating oppositional arguments(p. 8), according to the editors. Very seldom is it pointed out that there is a growing gap between rich and poor in Ireland and that we spend less on anti-poverty measures than any other member of the European community. Ireland has a higher per capita prison population than most other developed countries and the cells are occupied to a very large extent by the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom have come to feel disenfranchised and disillusioned. It is significant that there have been more checks on bogus social welfare claims in Ireland than on fraudulent tax returns, in spite of the fact that tax evasion costs the state far more than social welfare abuse, it is pointed out in the Introduction.
The editors also refer to the tendency among businessmen and politicians to turn a blind eye towards the more negative social consequences of the economic boom (p. 10). This is due in part to the pervading notion that modern Ireland, having shed the baggage of a turbulent history dominated by religion, land and nationalism, has now reached the El Dorado of prosperity and liberalism. The reality, however, is somewhat different, as can be seen by the furore caused by the serialisation of Roddy Doyles television drama, Family, in 1994, in which alcoholism, sexual abuse, social and moral decay, and racism come to the fore. The high point of the series is when the downtrodden and abused wife of the main protagonist, Charlo, takes her fate in her own hands and: expels her husband from their home after she notices that he is thinking of abusing their adolescent daughter. The harsh realism employed by Doyle in this drama was at variance with the prevailing image of the new Ireland. In the conclusion to their book, the editors propose an alternative to both colonialist, nationalist and liberal conceptualisations of modernity:
Rather, modernity, as we understand it is intended in the sense of a self-aware and self-critical continuity with those traditions and movements in Irish life which have contested or continue to contest the monopoly of power and resources by ?®lites, whether pre- or post-colonial. As Ireland moves from a land of emigration to a land of immigration, such a conception of placed modernity allows for the repudiation of a facile and exploitative culture of consumerist multiculturalism in favour of a radical and transformative engagement with new immigrant communities. It is through foregrounding the internal diasporic and dissident energies in Irish culture that a genuine openness towards others can thus be effected. (pp. 206-7)
They also make a statement which we feel has a resonance with many of the papers you will read in this book: When surprise is expressed about the coldness, the lack of warmth, the aggressive selfishness of Celtic Culture in Ireland, what is surprising is the surprise. The consequences, both personal and social, of the new capitalism as currently practised in Ireland mean that the scene could hardly be otherwise (p. 207).
Such comments are a good translation of the views of Irish people at the turn of the millennium when, apparently, widespread pride over Irelands new position in the forward-moving train of an integrated Europe gave way to doubts about the implications of the latest phase in Irelands modernisation process. These doubts came to the surface during the two referenda on the Nice Treaty. However, the leaders of the li