Otto von Bismarck is said to have proposed the following solution to the Irish Question: Move all the Irish to Holland and all the Dutch to Ireland. With their industriousness, sobriety, and civic virtue the Dutch would soon have Ireland thriving. The Irish meanwhile would be so busy drinking and fighting, they would neglect the dikes. The sea would rush in and they would all drown.
That is of course a shameful slander on the Irish, whose history has been full of misfortunes. The primal misfortune, the one that generated all the others, was to be a small, poor island next to a larger, richer one, in whose sight Ireland was economically worthless and culturally alien yet strategically vital.
Such are the accidents of history and geography. Growing up an Englishman, I was aware from quite early on of a vague sense of guilt about the Irish. It was somewhat like the guilt that well-brought-up white Americans feel about blacks, though nowhere near as strong. They were a distinctive people all right, and not in an altogether attractive way: “Good for nothing but drinking, fighting, and f***ing,” was my father’s opinion. Yet they had been wronged, and some unknown portion of that disagreeable distinctiveness, perhaps all of it, had been caused by the wrongs.
Dad was actually ambivalent about the Irish. His earliest experience of them had been as a young soldier, serving in Ireland at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916. He attributed the obstreperousness of the Irish to their religion: “They were pleasant enough till they went to church of a Sunday. Then the priests would whip them up and they’d come out howling blue murder.” He spoke well of Irish hospitality, though — of being invited into an Irishman’s cabin to drink a mug of porter, “And the pigs and the donkeys in there with us too.” Charm is a much underestimated factor in human affairs, and the Irish, even at their most obstreperous, have never been short of it.
The Easter Rising was of course driven by historical grievance. In retrospect, from a coldly rational point of view, it was probably a mistake. Early 20th-century Ireland was in fact doing rather well. As has often been noticed, the nastier kinds of political trouble start not when things are dire, but when they are improving. Had Ireland continued a part of the United Kingdom, she might have thriven. There was too much accumulated bad blood for that, though, and the Irish won a nation of their own, more or less, in 1922.
The first half-century of Irish independence was not a shining success. The dominant figure was Eamon de Valera, whom Roy Foster, in his classic Modern Ireland, calls “a great political shaman” who paid “scant attention … to material progress” and conceded authority over culture to the church. Residual guilt over Cromwell, the Famine, and the Ascendancy did not stop us Englishmen from scoffing at the “priest-ridden potato republic” across the water.
Ambitious Irishmen of this period had three career choices: government bureaucrat, priest, or emigrant. Ambitious women has one fewer: nun or nurse. William Trevor has left a portrait of de Valera’s Ireland in his short stories. When I first went to Ireland in the late 1960s it was a poor place indeed. In Dublin I saw children playing barefoot in the street — not a thing you would see in any other north-European capital then.
Entry into the EU — at that time called “the Common Market” — in 1973 began to change things. The Irish seem always to have had a yen to belong to something big and international. The Catholic church satisfied most of that yen, but never all. Roy Foster: “The Free State and Éire had played a leading part in the League of Nations, de Valera serving as President of the Council in 1932, and subsequently as President of the Assembly; the failure of League policies disillusioned him deeply.” Taking my wife on a tour of the U.N. building in 1987, I was not very surprised to find that our tour guide was Irish.
The influence of the church had been declining for some years before 1973. (A thing Mary Kenny blames on the introduction of TV to the Republic in 1961.) There was therefore a cultural as well as an economic gap to fill. The EU filled it. The adoption of the Euro in 2002, at the height of the “Celtic Tiger” boom, completed the process of integration.
The personality of a nation is a mighty hard thing to shift, though. If there has been a constant theme in Irish life from the earliest records down to the present day, it has been the contrast between the bookish spirituality of Ireland’s best minds and the crude barbarism of Irish civil life. The saints’n’scholars of medieval Ireland could practice their saintliness and scholarship only by getting as far away as possible from the feuding, cattle-rustling warlords. This was not an option for the entrepreneurs of modern Ireland, who were squeezed between, on the one side, the busybodies of Euro-Hiberno-bureaucracy, and on the other, the Anglosphere’s most corrupt, most cynical political class.
The result was that a true patriotic entrepreneurship never developed when the opportunities for it to do so were maximal. The Celtic Tiger was fed by big globalized firms indifferent to the fortunes of the nations they planted themselves in, and by the attentions of Eurocrats who were, at heart, equally indifferent, even when Irish themselves. Commitment to big international things is hard to square with patriotism. (A quite disproportionate number of Ireland’s greatest patriots were not Catholic.)
Without that base of a patriotic, entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, Ireland’s economic success was a hollow thing. The multinationals drifted away in search of cheaper labor, the property bubble burst, leaving Irish banks with $60 billion in bad debts, and the Euro fell on hard times. Radical surgery on the nation’s bloated public sector has not been enough. Now once again the Wild Geese are taking wing, and the Irish economy is reduced to a choice of rescuers: the EU, the IMF, or — oh, the humiliation! — Britain.
Here is another thing Bismarck said: “Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong; it is only a geographical expression.”