Scoop Review of Books

Getting to Know Ireland: Five Books

Journalist ALISON McCULLOCH, who recently moved to Ireland, contributes the latest installment of the Scoop Review of Books’ Five Books series…

Getting to Know Ireland

Ireland: Inventing the Nation. By R. V. Comerford. Hodder Arnold/Oxford University Press. 2003.

Ireland has a deep and enduring relationship with emigration. Being migratory seems part of who the Irish are, and not just historically. As soon as the clouds of economic doom appeared on the horizon in 2008, newspapers started running stories about how many people were lining up to get out.

But there’s a fierce nationalistic sentiment here, too, where the “Celtic” identifier can be attached to just about everything – “Celtic crosses, Celtic soul, Celtic mind and Celtic spirit … Celtic rock, Celtic rhythm, Celtic chocolates, Celtic needlepoint, Celtic helicopters”, and let’s not forget the Celtic Tiger, R.I.P. So how do you reconcile such loyalty to country – and all things Celtic – with that centuries-old tendency of its people to pack up and leave? It’s pretty simple. In the struggle between economy and ideology, as Vincent Comerford argues in this most engaging book, Ireland: Inventing the Nation, economy will prevail over ideology at every turn. Call it Celtic pragmatism.

Comerford’s study is serious and intense, but it also contains interludes of delightfully sly humour that poke fun at some of Ireland’s most cherished notions about itself. The author’s starting point is a rejection of essentialist views of nationality – the idea that states are divinely or naturally prescribed – in favour of seeing the nation as an ongoing invention. And what a lot of invention there has been in Ireland. From Riverdance (“a late twentieth-century invention based on an early twentieth-century invention”) to the Irish Pub (“an astute variation on the English pub … adding the attractive element of ‘Celticity’, which amounts in effect to the promise of music, singing and general drollery”) to the nationalistic appropriation of objects and images (the harp, the shamrock, the Celtic cross, the round tower).

In Ireland’s recent history, efforts to enforce a prescribed culture have been deep and wide-ranging, covering language, religion, sport, music, dance, art, literature, politics. Comerford carefully unpicks them all. Take the battleground of language: Ireland has gained great economic advantage from its English speaking status, even though its first official language is Irish (in English, the term “Irish” is preferred over “Gaelic”), a situation that has sometimes left the language in a rather “peculiar position”, like the one that prevailed for many years in the EU:

While [Irish] is an official language of the Union, into which many EU treaties etc. are translated, neither at accession nor subsequently has any Irish Government displayed an overwhelming wish to have it officially designated as a working language. If it were, Irish ministers would be expected to use it (as the Greeks use Greek or the Danes use Danish), something most of them would find impossible, for want of competence.

In the end, that “want of competence” couldn’t hold back those clamouring for change, and in 2007 (four years after this book was published), Irish finally traded in its limited “treaty language” status to become one of the EU’s 23 working languages. But this has by no means ended the debate. The Irish Examiner reported last January that in its first full year of “working” status, Irish was spoken for fewer than 30 minutes in the European Parliament (costing nearly €13,000 a minute), adding that “records show six of our 13 MEPs have never used Irish in parliamentary debates since January 1, 2007”. Angry readers attacked The Examiner for what one called its “ongoing anti-Irish language campaign”, while European officials said they would carry out a review.

Sport is another aspect of Irish life that has long been on the cultural front lines. The powerful Gaelic Athletic Association has, over the years, enforced a series of bans on “foreign” (i.e. English) sports, including on individuals who play them, fans who go to watch them and GAA grounds that host them. In the early years, Comerford writes, “those appointed to police the ban were themselves permitted to attend foreign games in order to spy out transgressors. Particularly in provincial towns with thriving local soccer competition, appointment as an invigilator was much sought after as a licence to enjoy forbidden fruit.”

To the non-Catholic outsider, however, the nationalistic import of sport and language pales in comparison to that of religion. Just how did Irishness become so identified with Roman Catholicism anyway? Suffice to say, it’s a long and complicated story that has a lot to do, as you might imagine, with the English. Things might have turned out differently, of course. Religion might not have become the main indicator of political allegiance or the vehicle for national identity that it has been, at various times, for the Irish. And it might well not play those roles in the future. It all depends where the inventors of Ireland take it next.

Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat From Religion. By Malachi O’Doherty. Gill & Macmillan. 2008.

To try to understand the place of the church in modern Ireland, I turned to the most recent book on the topic I could find, Malachi O’Doherty’s Empty Pulpits. O’Doherty, a journalist from Belfast, was brought up in the bosom of Irish Catholicism and has developed a healthy scepticism of things clerical at the same time as remaining faithful to some hard-to-define something he sees religion as still providing. But if O’Doherty is critical of the Church, which he is, it certainly hasn’t pushed him into the arms of the so-called New Atheists (exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris). Here, his choice of words reveals his antipathy: Atheists are constantly “sneering” and “mocking” the faithful, displaying their “grandiosity” and their anger in works that have “nothing new in them.” Quite where all this hostility – O’Doherty’s, I mean – comes from isn’t clear.

But atheists comprise only a small part of this book. Most of the rest is spent taking aim the institution that is the (Irish) Roman Catholic Church, particularly its inability, or unwillingness, to meet the needs of its flock. It’s frequently a smart book that brims with ideas. But it is also frustratingly disorganised and repetitive.

Ireland’s retreat from religion, O’Doherty argues, did not originate with the child abuse and sex scandals of the 1990s, but much earlier, in the 1960s and 70s. Its causes are myriad, many of them of the church’s own making. Among my favourites are hypocrisy (“ ‘Oh, I see,’” O’Doherty imagines Irish Catholics saying of the child abuse scandals, “‘We are the ones who go to Hell but the priest gets a transfer to a new job’”) and stupidity (the book includes the delightful story of the priest who, in 1949, warned that tampons could “easily be a grave source of temptation, especially to those who have strong physical desires”). Catholics in modern Ireland tend to be of the à la carte kind, O’Doherty suggests, turning to the Church for weddings and funerals, perhaps even praying under their bedclothes, but who regard “the strict letter of dogma and doctrine as unimportant.”

So where to from here? It doesn’t look good for the Church. “Entering a hall full of priests is a bit like entering an all-male old people’s home, or a bowling club,” O’Doherty writes. In 2006, only one in five diocesan priests was being replaced in Ireland; in 2005, 199 Irish priests died, and only 8 were ordained.

“The old idea that your happiness is of no consequence if you do your duty has given way to a belief that true happiness is always a symptom of spiritual well-being. That is the revolutionary religious idea of our time. The trouble for the church is that few of us are going to take guidance from lonely and depressed celibate men on how to be happy.” Amen.

Mind Y’self Now, Jewarne: A Kiwi in Donegal and Dublin. By Joanne Doherty. Steele Roberts. 2008.

If you happen to be a member of the extended Doherty, McPadden, Rodden, McGuinness, Phelan, Kirwan, Clune, Caddigan or Byrne clans, you might enjoy Joanne Doherty’s account of the 14 months she and her husband, Jack, spent in Ireland discovering their roots and playing host to a seemingly endless series of visitors from New Zealand and elsewhere. If you’re not, this book is a slog.

Joanne, Jack and their youngest daughter, 16-year-old Alice, set off from Sunshine Bay in Wellington in July 2001 for an extended stay in Ireland. They begin their heritage tour in the north-western county of Donegal, living in a house in Letterkenny arranged for them by Jack’s cousins, the Kellys. But Alice doesn’t fancy the school she’s supposed to attend, and goes back to New Zealand, while Jack and Joanne move to Dublin where Joanne has landed a job. At the end of 14 months, they return home.

In between, cousins and cousins of cousins, friends of friends, wives of sons of cousins of nieces, and their boyfriends (etc.), drop in and take part in trips that, by book’s end, must surely have encompassed the entire island at least twice. “During Ainslie’s visit,” Doherty writes at one point, “we drive across to see Jack’s cousin Eileen and her husband Frank in Irvinestown, Fermanagh. Their son Brian, who has been living in New Zealand, is over from Scotland, and our niece Liz Doherty has arrived from Dublin.” It’s rather like one of those round-robin emails you get at Christmastime from that twice-removed aunt and, unfortunately, it swamps the author’s fine ear for Irish conversation and her eye for the curious.

Doherty’s Ireland is a largely idealized one (so is her New Zealand, for that matter), its dead are heroes and martyrs, its causes are just. Perhaps that’s a feature of having Irish roots, and of being Catholic. (“I don’t know how life would be here if you didn’t come from a Catholic culture,” Doherty observes.)

“Roots tourism” is serious business in Ireland, where genealogy is a “tourism product”. And – not to diminish the Doherty clan’s connections – the Irish seem able to dig up ancestry for just about everyone. According to newspaper reports, Barack Obama is related to a 19th-century Dublin wigmaker, a former provost of Trinity College who later became a bishop (19th century), a cobbler from Moneygall, Co. Offaly (19th), and a 70-something retired farmer (21st), also from Moneygall. Naturally, plans are afoot in the village (pop. 298) for a new 150-room Barack Obama Hotel complete with presidential suite and White House Bar, and a heritage centre in the old Obama family homestead.

The Gathering. By Anne Enright. Vintage Books. 2007.


Enright won the 2007 Man Booker prize with this powerful and dark tale of a woman from an outsized Dublin family dealing with a sibling’s suicide. Not that such a spare summary can begin to capture the intensity of this book. Its narrator is 39-year-old Veronica, middle-class, with two children and a husband, Tom, who “moves money around, electronically … quite a lot of it”. Her brother, Liam, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton Beach in England. Why? Well, he was an alcoholic, of course, and a bit of a “messer”.

He was a terrible messer. He was always full of it. He just couldn’t get it together. He had a good heart. He was all there. He was the best of company, we will say. Oh! but the wit. He had a tongue in his head, there’s no doubt about that! But he was very sensitive. It was a sensitivity thing with Liam. You wanted to look after him. He was not able for this world. Not really.

All of this. And more. Perhaps his decline and death had something to do with what happened in their grandmother’s house when they were children. Veronica was a witness, but her memories are confused, as is the question of whether or not her silence has made her, somehow, culpable.

Perhaps it had something to do with their mother – now a widow, who has grown permanently vague, and has “holes in her head” from those 12 children and 7 miscarriages. “There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six,” Veronica recalls. “There were girls with seven or eight – which was thought a little enthusiastic – and then there were the pathetic ones like me, who had parents that were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.”

Veronica’s sometimes dreamlike recollections of that childhood summer swirl around the present, as the family gathers for Liam’s funeral. She loved him. She hated him. She loves her mother. She hates her mother. Her husband. Her family. Herself. She wants to flee it all, as her brother did. But can she?

Dubliners. By James Joyce. 1992 Penguin edition.

Cultures can be stifling things. Among the myriad emotions that must have enveloped the waves of 19th and 20th century Irish emigrants, was there also a sense of release at the sight of those familiar shores shrinking from view? James Joyce left Ireland in 1904 at the age of 22, having written to his future wife a few years earlier: “My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity – home, the recognised virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrine.”

Joyce started Dubliners around that time, but the collection was not published until 1914, having been turned away in England and Ireland for fear that, as Terence Brown puts it in the introduction to the 1992 Penguin edition, “Joyce’s realism about sexual matters would offend contemporary taste and lay both printer and publisher open to legal penalty.” (In New Zealand in 1967, the film version of Joyce’s “Ulysses” was restricted to sexually segregated audiences out of concern that the dialogue “would cause embarrassment in ‘mixed company’”.)

In a frequently quoted letter about Dubliners, Joyce explained that his intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me to be the centre of paralysis”. The book comprises 15 stories that can be read and reread, then read over and over again. In its pages, the newly minted resident can meet and get to the know the city – every story is filled with soon-to-be familiar streets, bridges, canals, suburbs. There is Lenehan, the shyster of “Two Gallants”, stopping outside the Shelbourne Hotel before “stepping lightly in his white shoes, down one side of Merrion Square”; and Maria, in “Clay”, calculating her trip “from Ballsbridge to the Pillar, twenty minutes; from the Pillar to Drumcondra, twenty minutes”. (Endnotes in the Penguin edition detail changes, like the bombing in 1966 that destroyed “the Pillar” – a memorial to Lord Nelson which had stood in the former Sackville Street, now named O’Connell.)

But even as they move – Lenehan and Corley, Polly Mooney and Mr Doran, Kathleen Kearney and her mother – that “paralysis” seeps into their lives. Little Chandler, the main character in “A Little Cloud”, is a clerk living a “sober inartistic life” who has dreams of being a writer. He is on his way to meet his old friend Gallaher, now “a brilliant figure on the London Press”. Is it too late for him to make something of himself ?, Little Chandler wonders, as he trudges through the city, and imagines the reviews of poems he will never write:

Mr Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse … A wistful sadness pervades these poems … The Celtic note. It was a pity his name was not more Irish-looking. Perhaps it would be better to insert his mother’s name before the surname: Thomas Malone Chandler, or better still: T. Malone Chandler.

Gallaher’s life is surely not as splendid as Little Chandler imagines it to be (or as Gallaher claims it is). No matter. It’s the “if onlys” and “what ifs” that cause him to smoulder and chafe; it’s the struggle and grind of the everyday that drags at these Dubliners in one way or other.

“When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years,” Joyce wrote to his brother, “that it is the ‘second’ city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world.”


Alison McCulloch recently moved to Ireland. Her reviews have appeared in The New York Times and other publications.

1 comment:

  1. Malachi O'Doherty, 4. June 2009, 19:57

    Thanks for the generous review of Empty Pulpits. I am sorry if I gave the impression that I have a visceral distaste of atheism, far from it. Some of my best friends… and all that.

    But I do think that Dawkins and Hitchens don’t really have a feel for their target. They don’t attack religion in terms that would dissuade a religious person from it.

    I wanted to show that someone who had been inside a church tradition understood what might once have been attractive about a religious life.