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Home Uncategorized Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Niall Crowley

Irish Adventures in Nation-Building, by Bryan Fanning, Manchester University Press, 196 pp, £18.99,ISBN 978-1784993238

It all starts with Patrick Pearse looking into the future in a 1906 essay in An Claidheamh Soluis about Ireland in 2006. Ireland has an ard rí, who is opening the Oireachtas in a ceremony attended by the emperor of the French and the president of the Russian Republic. Everything is in Irish, of course. There is a debate in parliament about a bill for the compulsory teaching of Japanese as a second language. English is now only spoken by a few peasants in Shropshire, England having been conquered by the Russian republic and its empire split up into independent kingdoms and republics.

This is quirky, but gripping, and it is interesting to examine how those in the past saw the future. Another chapter opens with “The Dawn of All”, a 1911 novel by Robert Hugh Benson, an English priest who had converted to Catholicism. This imagined future is one where Catholic social and political thought reign supreme across the world. Cardinals are consulted by political economists and Ireland is the contemplative monastery of Europe. A picture begins to emerge from these writings of imaginations tempered by the cultural and political goals of their authors.

Moving quickly on, we come to “Ossian’s Ride”, a 1959 science fiction novel by Fred Hoyle, that imagines a near-future Ireland. This is a state with significant levels of high-tech industry and commercial nuclear reactors. A group of scientists has persuaded the Irish government to give them permission, along with high-quality tax breaks, to set up an industry to extract chemicals from turf. It appears however that the scientists are in fact making contraceptive pills from turf and they were actually being directed by aliens from a dying world.

These focused imaginations sum up the key message of the book really. It is the story of nation-building that, far from adventurous as suggested by its title, is first driven by Catholicism and cultural nationalism and then by economic development and human capital. Some uncertainty is suggested by the author about the current moment of nation-building, with tentative pointers to immigration as a driver for change and the search for new definitions of Irishness.

All too often we just look to the past for the evidence to justify current actions or aspirations. We find those trends or events that underpin our arguments rather than searching for those that would challenge and undermine them. We seek learning for a present faced by unprecedented challenges of climate change, inequality and a broken politics that the past just does not hold the answers to, or any part of the answers to.

Fanning usefully tracks values as the drivers for nation-building. This has a potential to serve us well in looking to the future. His focus is on the nation state as “the container of society and the boundary of sociology”. Nationalism is his concern. This is posited as an “ideology” that assumes “humanity is naturally divided into a limited number of nations, which, on the inside, organise themselves as nation states and, on the outside, set boundaries to distinguish themselves from other nation states”. These boundaries are where values and symbols come into play in promoting “cultural distinctiveness”.

Modern societies, according to Fanning, have to “adopt a standardised culture in order to function”. He appears to drift somewhat from this thesis, however, in framing the changing nation-building project in Ireland as a battle between culture and economy. He might have better explained it as a battle between different cultures, or more specifically different value sets. He does, astutely, suggest that this change did involve a key shift from valuing the family to valuing the market, and the replacement of the cleric by the economist.

Values are key motivators for people, institutions and society. Those who control the means of shaping which values are prioritised and exercised in society inevitably become the nation-builders. The Catholic church was dominant at independence and continues to play a role in this cultural battle. Business and its marketing arm grew in power and is now the dominant nation-builder. Politics, in Fanning’s narrative, merely plays an enabling role for both forces, moving from one to the other as their dominance shifted.

What would a future look like where equality, environmental sustainability, and participation in decision-making became the dominant values? This would be just as interesting as painting a picture of a past and present where very different values dominate. It would, however, be no more than interesting. The key question is how to achieve such a shift in popular prioritising of values. This is where history might help us pursue a better future.

Fanning sets out the shift from the family as a dominant value to the market as dominant value. He charts this, in a unique manner in one chapter, through a review of the journal StudiesStudies was launched by the Jesuits in 1912 and its Catholic intentions were well advertised at that time in a remit that sought to examine social, political, cultural and economic issues “in the light of Christian values”.

It saw the leaders of the 1916 rising, at one point, as “exemplars of Catholic piety and true patriotism”. Studies contained many different strands of thought and it is risky to condense a full chapter into a few paragraphs. It did, however, publish many articles on the implications of Catholic social thought for the Irish political project after independence. The 1937 Constitution marked a key milestone in this successful propagation of Catholic values.

In the late 1950s the journal provided space to those arguing for Keynesian planning and an economic development role for the state. While state activism in this arena was becoming more acceptable, there were the inevitable articles criticising the welfare state, with particular hostility being shown towards Noel Browne and his Mother and Child Scheme. This orientation changed in the 1960s when Fanning suggests the journal was “the vanguard of progressive social debate”, with contributors including Garret FitzGerald.

Then it went off the rails and, from the 1980s, began to take on the establishment in responding to social injustices and pursuing social inclusion for marginalised groups. It even had a few articles in 2005 criticising the Catholic church for its response to the child abuse scandals. This demonstrates the need for exploring where and how a new “adventure” in nation-building will emerge.

However, while the shift in value base is well described by Fanning it is not adequately analysed. If we want societal change based on values of equality, environmental sustainability and participation, we need to better understand cultural battles, both in terms of how they are engaged and how they are won. History should have more to tell us about this.

There is interesting evidence provided of TK Whitaker viewing values as motivators of change in an essay. He argued for cultural change as a precondition for economic development. However, his talk of the “psychological stimulus of planning” seems all too quickly dismissed by Fanning.

Fanning might have served the future better had he tracked the cultural battles of times past rather than just documenting the shift in dominant values over this period. He does, at some points, explore conflicts within dominant ideologies. There is repeated reference to the tussle between Daniel Corkery and Sean O’Faolain within the Catholic and cultural nationalism driver. Corkery sought to unearth and celebrate the ancient nobility of the Gaelic culture. O’Faolain objected to this celebration of the Gaelic aristocracy and the romanticism of Corkery. O’Faolain, through his review, The Bell, sought to air the realities, often harsh, of life in Ireland. He was also founding president of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties.

Fanning does not address battles for dominance between alternative sets of values. The inclusion of a wider range of voices would have helped. Women are excluded with an apology and a token chapter on social policy and women. Working class voices peep out from the establishment forest on the rare occasions when socialism gets a mention. Minorities are silent beyond a recognition of the potential in recent immigration. Such voices would have offered deeper insights into cultural battles and how they were fought and lost. Instead we just get an account of the handover of power from one elite to another.

The chapter “New Rules of Belonging” does introduce the Travellers into the debate. This, innovatively, explores the 1963 “Report of the Commission on Itinerancy” as part of the “canon of Irish developmental texts”. This report is examined in terms of the “modern rules of belonging” after the economic take-off. The chapter analyses how Travellers and their ever-deteriorating standard of living did not fit the bill.

Travellers were invited and forced to surrender their values and their cultural distinctiveness to be included in this new nation-building project. This process, however, could have been explored much further in terms of a cultural battle. How a minority ethnic group fought to hold on to its values in the face of the juggernaut of dominant values that made up the economic development and human capital driver for nation-building could have been assessed.

The use of the nation as “cage” and “container” of society and sociology in the book excluded another source of learning about cultural battles, Northern Ireland. The North intrudes into Fanning’s narrative from time to time despite an early determination to exclude it. This is telling in suggesting that this exclusion is artificial and diminishes the exploration of nation-building. However, this intrusion of the North, it must be said, is addressed in the tamest of terms.

A chapter on Tuairim, an early think tank seeking to influence public opinion and government policy, offers an example. Tuairim was a forum for emerging establishment figures and, according to Fanning, would never seek to “rock the boat too much”. An early Tuairim pamphlet, described, was on ‘Partition Today: A Northern Viewpoint”. This blamed the Irish government for exacerbating divisions with the constitutional claim while acknowledging that the Northern government had contributed to Catholic alienation.

The intense and sometimes violent conflict in the North has to be relevant to any examination of adventures in Irish nation-building. Its exclusion diminishes any understanding of Irish nation-building and the cultural battles that underpinned this. Partition shaped and enabled the dominant narratives that emerged. It was a central brake on nation-building and key to understanding any adventures pursued in this field. Struggles over issues of nation and culture in the North could have informed a deeper exploration of cultural battles and how they were engaged and fought in very particular and oppressive circumstances.

There is, finally, the strange corralling of a whole range of journals in a chapter titled “Partisan Reviews”. Studies, with its Catholic ethos, gets its own chapter, while a host of journals are effectively dismissed in this chapter. The chapter examines journals involving “journalists writing against the flow of mainstream Irish society and a space for the diversity of opinion that was not available in the national newspapers or provincial press”.

There is something unhelpful at work here that is a barrier to any examination of cultural battles and how these are played out in the different periods examined in the book. The journals covered in this chapter include Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman, Pearse’s An Claidheamh Soluis, the Irish Citizen of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, James Connolly’s The Worker and, in more recent times, Dublin OpinionHibernia and Vincent Browne’s Magill.

The book would have benefited from being more open up to a wider range of voices. A late chapter quotes George Orwell on the question of “Why I Write?”. Beyond earning a living, he suggests that the four motives are “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, the desire to see things as they are, and his own main reason, political purpose”. I was left wondering how and why this book was written. There are hints of the desire to see things as they are and even political purpose, but the coherence is not there to give effect to such motives.


Niall Crowley works as an independent expert on equality and diversity issues. He is convenor of Claiming Our Future, chairperson of the Equality and Rights Alliance, and co-founder of the Values Lab. Formerly, he was chief executive of the Equality Authority.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Maurice Earls’s essay from 2014 on how Catholic elites in nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland educated their children, “One Onion, Many Layers”. Here is an extract:

Choice of school, as many a parent will perhaps grudgingly admit, is the first decision affecting status to be made in relation to a child. In the eighteenth century the children of privileged Catholic families were educated abroad. Like many upper class Catholic youths of his time, O’Connell attended school in France. Indeed, his was the last generation for whom the educational journey to France was de rigueur. The relaxation of the penal laws not only enabled O’Connell to study law at Trinity, it also enabled the Jesuits, the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Vincentians and others to establish schools for elite children in Ireland. O’Connell’s own sons attended Clongowes. Indeed the Liberator contemplated retiring there when he reached sixty-five.

Catholic elite education was about succeeding in a world shaped by British interests and culture, a culture which was residually anti-Catholic and negative in its perception of the Irish. In this demanding environment privileged Irish Catholics sought parity of opportunity within the empire. Clongowes Wood College was set up in 1814, Castleknock in 1835, and Blackrock College in 1860. These schools offered an English public school-style education, with cricket, rugby and a powerful internal culture which encouraged students to place the school towards the centre of their identities throughout their lives. The idea was that graduates could pass muster in the company of the English elite, who would therefore not be ill-disposed to granting them appointments.



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