(From Church & State Magazine, No. 74, Autumn 2003)
The Last Irishman
Brendan Clifford

There is a country, or a state of being, called "the republic of letters". It is, of course, an illusory country. It is an ideal—a Utopia. It can never be realised—and yet without it there is nothing much to realise. There is only matter-of-fact money-grubbing.

The republic of letters—the country that doesn’t exist—is unfortunately the only country in which I am capable of living when I have a pencil in my hand. The very fact that I have a pencil in my hand and that I make words with it on paper shows how backward I am. And I suppose it is right and fitting that a person who writes with a pencil in the age of Information Technology should inhabit an illusory world where there is no commerce. But there it is. I can do nothing about it. I am a product of the backwardness of Catholic Ireland—or of the paganism which the Protestants who tried to civilise us accused Catholicism of preserving.

A reflective English socialist writer—of which there have not been many—published a book, a little over a hundred years ago, with a title which has more thought-content than many learned books of the present day have in their entire volume: Civilisation: Its Cause And Cure. The writer was Edmund Carpenter. He wrote another book, England’s Ideal, in which he said that the dreadful thing about ideals was that they tended to be realised. He looked at the actual ideals dispersed across English society and concluded that, on the basis of them, England would become what it has become in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

So it seems that there are two different kinds of ideals. There is the trivial and trivialising ideal which devalues everything but money, and which can be comprehensively realised by a minority of individuals if a general social condition conducive to it is established. That general condition is that almost all individuals in the society should accept market values and no others. In a general conflict of each against all many will succeed. That is a simple inevitability of the situation.

Where does the other other ideal come from? The one which in all probability can never be comprehensively realised, but which somehow made the lives of the great majority in pre-commercial society at least as satisfying in actual experience as life in commercial society has been? It seems to come in great part from a cultural carry-over from these backward societies.

Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the End Of History ten years ago. He hailed the arrival of the Last Men (of NIetzsche's Zarathustra) as the human components of a generalised and unproblematical liberal capitalism. Even though events have not confirmed his vision so far, I would say that he has a case. The motorways into London from all sides, for twenty miles or more, fill up at about half-past five in the morning. The cars crawl along to their destinations, their drivers accepting the situation contentedly. They arrive at their destinations and spend eight or nine hours there doing this and that. As the society gets wealthier the hours at work get longer. Then they crawl home in the evening on the motorways, have a bit of quality time with the nuclear family, watch a bit of television, and go to bed early so that they can be up early to be on the motorways again by six o’clock. And, like the Last Men, they have their drugs to keep them contented.

That seems to be how it is throughout England, and how it is becoming in Ireland as it raises itself out of its backwardness. If I had not seen humans living like that I would not have thought it possible that human life could be lived like that. But I have seen it and therefore I believe.

And I have seen how 'ethnics' refuse to live like that for a generation or two while they are being broken in to progressive ways.

Fukuyama’s vision is realisable. The only global force actively opposed to it is Islam. And Islam is being taken on by the forces of progress.

A literary innovation accompanying this mass commercialisation of life is the book storehouse. Charing Cross Road in London was once a street of small bookshops staffed by people who were interested in books. It now has two or three immense storehouses of books staffed by people selling commodities.

France and Germany are very backward in this respect. They still have apprenticeships for bookselling, would you believe? But Britain is doing its best to reform and modernise them into progressive attitudes.

The French are still producing books that are scarcely commodities at all—shoddy-looking books in plain white paper covers which only tell you the author and title. I take it from this that French books are still produced within a literary culture.

English books have been privatised. Their function seems to be to provide a private fantasy life for the thoroughly commercialised individual as he revolves in his rut. The products of all ages and all countries are published cheap in vast quantities for reading on long journeys to and from work, without reference to anything that could be called a literary culture. A literary culture is a social phenomenon. English reading is a solitary activity. The 'ethnics', who are still preoccupied with the pleasures of living, do not read very much.

The Irish Times, the James Joyce Centre and Professor Declan Kiberd have launched a book project: "we invite you to select the greatest Irish novels in the English language" (Irish Times 27 September). To protect you from making an unfortunate choice they have themselves made a selection of fifty novels from which you must choose.

Last year the BBC set out to find the most popular song in the world. It left the choice completely open to its audience. The result was that A Nation Once Again came out on top. We don't want anything like that to happen here, do we? So, even though a superior class of reader is being consulted, precautions have been taken.

The choice is to be made within a pre-set multiple-choice structure. Whichever book is chosen to be "the greatest Irish novel", it will have the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat of the new controllers of the public mind. In place of the old Vatican Index Of Prohibited Books, the Bishop-substitutes have presented us with a list of Permitted Books.

The list includes a number I had never heard of: The Party by Keith Ridgway, Love And Sleep by Sean Reilly, Death And Nightingales by Eugene McCabe, Surrogate City by Hugh Hamilton, Birds Of The Innocent Wood by Deirdre McMahon. One of these was published this year, another last year, and can only be classified as unknown books to which the Positive Censorship has decided to give wider currency.

John Banville (Literary Editor of the Irish Times) has two books on the list, as have Beckett, Jennifer Johnston, Joyce, Brian Moore, George Moore, Flann O'Brien and William Trevor (who is the BBC's favourite Irish writer).

You are allowed to chose Gulliver's Travels or Tristram Shandy or Esther Waters as the greatest Irish novel, but not The Vicar Of Wakefield. And you can have Castle Rackrent but not The Collegians or The Boyne Water.

Swift was born in Dublin and was later exiled there. His parents were both English. He was born in Dublin because his father got a position in the English administration there. His mother returned to England when her husband died soon after Swift was born. Swift was bred in England until he was four and was then sent to an English uncle who had an official position in Tipperary. The uncle sent him to Kilkenny College, and then to Trinity. Jonathan then became a clergyman and got a living in Kilroot, near Larne. But he quickly tired of Irish life and got a position as secretary to a leading English politician of the time, Sir William Temple. As Temple’s assistant he got a taste for English politics and showed a talent for pamphleteering in the emerging English party system, and he got to shake hands with William of Orange. Politics in the reign of Queen Anne was a welter of confusion. Though a Protestant, she was a Stuart and a legitimate heir, and the English Constitution as we know it was waiting for the arrival of the alien, German-speaking Hanoverians to emerge. Anne conducted the meetings of her Government in the manner of a monarch. Her successor, the boor from Hanover, could not do so because he did not speak the language, and, because he was beholden to the Parliament which appointed him, he knew better than to try. And so we get Parliamentary government by parties.

Swift was an increasingly influential pamphleteer during the run-up to the Hanoverian Succession, first as a Whig and then as a Tory. He was given the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin but did not rush to take up the position. St. Patrick’s was only the first instalment of a much larger payment for services rendered. When it was made Swift had no intention of retiring from English politics. But, when the Queen died in 1714, his Tory friends were comprehensively outmanoeuvred by the Whigs and some of them barely escaped hanging. Bolingbroke escaped to France and Swift lived in exile in Dublin, his Siberia, and wrote his anti-human "Irish novel". I would not have thought of it as being either Irish or a novel. It is more in the nature of a group of fables. And the source of its disgust with humanity is English. And it owes its enduring popularity to its suitability for bowdlerising into an entertaining children’s story.

Swift was at least an exile in Erin, and he held a Deanery and a number of parishes there. But Sterne was born in Ireland by the merest accident. His father’s regiment was transferred from Flanders to Clonmel when his mother was pregnant with him. And then he was sent off to England to be an English gentleman.

By comparison with either Swift or Sterne, Goldsmith was thoroughly Irish. And The Vicar Of Wakefield is every bit as much an Irish novel as Tristram Shandy and Gulliver’s Travels, even though it is not Irish at all. But The Deserted Village seems to be an Irish poem—even though Macaulay said nothing like Sweet Auburn existed in Ireland and that Goldsmith transmigrated an English village to the Irish Midlands (I think it was Macaulay). I don’t know how sound that view was. But I do know that The Deserted Village was very popular in Slieve Luacra, whose basic culture in English was forged in the Young Ireland period. And I know that The Vicar Of Wakefield was widely read there. But the Irish Times and the Joyce Centre will not allow it to be chosen as a great Irish novel.

(Gulliver's Travels was generally known in Slieve Luacra in the children’s story form. I never heard anybody mention Tristram Shandy, even though it was around. I started reading it after seeing a mention of it by Bertrand Russell in connection with the concept of infinity, but I got bored with it. It gave me the feeling of inconsequential eternity. But Sentimental Journey is something else. And, if Sterne is to have an Irish novel, let it be this one which at least shows an appreciation of a way of life that is not English.)

Beckett has two entries, Murphy and Molloy. There can be no arguing with that. For Beckett, even more than for Joyce, Ireland was a place to get away from and to hate, and to make a European literary career out of hating. It is a very long time since I read Murphy Dying. I took it to be a French existentialist novel that took the post-Ascendancy Irish as a symbol of the awfulness of human existence. And I saw the series of plays, whose length was progressively reducing towards vanishing point, in which the futility of existence was portrayed by Jack McGowran. I forget the titles. In one of them, society was reduced to two decrepit individuals living in dustbins, and in another to an old man and his Grundig tape recorder. It was French culture of the existentialist era, but the subject was post-Ascendancy Ireland.

I can see why novels that were readable in Ireland by people who were not disgusted with the place could not be included in a list with Murphy and Molloy—I think of Walter Macken’s Brown Lord Of The Mountain, for example, and John Broderick’s novels that were widely read in the 1970s and '80s.

It is, of course, a black mark against Broderick that, though he was homosexual, his novels are not alienated. But surely Brinsley McNamara’s Valleys Of The Squinting Windows is alienated enough to be included?—I suppose it is excluded because it was actually read in Ireland. (J.G. Farrell's Siege Of Krishnapur no doubt qualifies on the grounds that it has nothing to do with Ireland.)

Also missing are O'Flaherty, O'Faolain and O'Connor.

George Moore actually did write Irish novels, but they are not on the list. He was both an Irish novelist and an English one. We are allowed to vote for Esther Waters, the original social realist novel of English working class life. The heroine is a girl of an extreme Puritan sect, the Plymouth Brethren, who goes into domestic service with the aristocracy in Victorian England, becomes pregnant, is left to her own devices, and copes. It is a novel to which the term 'classic' can be applied in strict accordance with Saint Beuve's definition. But Irish it most definitely is not.

Esther Waters is an original, as was Moore himself—and as was Canon Sheehan, the most widely-read and influential of all Irish novelists, who, needless to say, is excluded. Both Moore and Sheehan wrote from nature, so to speak. They wrote out of what they were, and what they saw because of what they were.

Moore, a gentleman of Connacht, was bred to horse-racing. He had a fancy to be a French painter, but the Land War disrupted his source of income and caused him to leave Paris for London, where he found he had the knack of writing saleable material. Even though he was a gentleman and the rising peasantry interfered with his income, he did not turn anti-Irish (which, I suppose, is why we can only vote for his English novels). He was, of course, a Catholic gentleman—or a gentleman from a distinguished family of Catholic gentry. But he did not even turn anti-Irish when he became an English Protestant. Nor did he cease to be Catholic when he became Protestant. He could imagine the life of the working class Puritan girl, but the imagination which imagined it was not itself Puritan.

Sheehan was an Irish/European intellectual. Because there was nothing provincial English in his make-up, and he was simply un-English, he could give a lead in the land-purchase movement and then advocate conciliation of the bought-out landlords with a view of incorporating them into the national movement as Protestant country gentlemen, at the same time as writing a novel that was a precursor of the Easter Rising. He died in 1913. I think it was in 1918 that he was dismissed in an authoritative article in Studies by Professor Stockley. He was puzzle to the renascent nationalism of the cities that followed the collapse of their virtual incorporation into the Empire under Redmond. He was an All-For-Irelander, which was entirely beyond their ken. And he was a priest who seemed to be determined that the only photographic image of him should be as a sour-faced cleric in full regalia. And he put up a facade of being "curious but unconcerned" about the affairs of the world. But he was the most authentic intellectual of his time in Ireland, and the most engaged with the world. And, in failing to encompass him, the academic institutions of independent Ireland failed to root themselves in the dynamic which produced independence.

The word "Irish", in revisionist usage, means "provincial English". Brian Cleeve explained how the editors of London publishers nursed budding Irish novelists on English lines. There was no hint of political censorship—perish the thought. But the English reader will not quite understand this. So this gets altered to suit the understanding of the English reader, who will be the main purchaser of the commodities of the English publisher. And the outcome is just as if it was political censorship by a committee of a Politburo.

I imagine that was the case with O'Faolain, who did not have the originality to develop from his roots. But it is in the course of nature for William Trevor to write as provincial English. That is what he is in his Irish capacity—and also in his English capacity if I remember right. (Is he not a Sussex writer?)

If Ireland was capable of becoming provincial English, revisionism would have 'accomplished fate' by now. But England is too unstable to allow it. For close on four centuries Irish adaptation to English pressure has always been undone by England itself. And now that there is an Irish state there is always a political structure getting in the way of Anglicization, regardless of intentions.

What Is Striking About Ireland Is How British It Is, Mary Kenny says in The Irish Catholic (18 Sept.). Kenny herself, the 1960s radical, became an English Tory, and I have heard her say that "we gave the Africans their independence too soon". But, at her most English, she is only Irish provincial.

I attended the launch of a book by Desmond Fennell in Dublin last month and heard a series of well-educated people deploring the fact that Ireland is not European. Since I have never felt un-European, I concluded Ireland must have been de-Europeanised by the English provincial element in its educational institutions.

Sheehan was the last Irish intellectual whose world was Europe rather than England. His intellectual dismissal in 1918 stunted academic life in Ireland. At this juncture, when the Celtic Tiggers are desperately wondering what Europe is, it is time to point him out as the last Irish intellectual who knew what Europe was.

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