Barra Ó Seaghdha: Intellectual Reviews and the Independent State
The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle of Ideas 1912-1986, by Bryan Fanning, Irish Academic Press, 278 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-0716529033
The cover of Bryan Fanning’s book shows a (slightly shaven) reproduction of The Holy Well, one of William Orpen’s curious, allegorical pre-WWI paintings. In it, some well-dressed and rather attractive men and women disrobe before approaching a well (part of a cluster of beehive huts) at which a friar, face turned heavenward, eyes closed, offers a blessing to one of those penitents who are, presumably, about to partake of the holy waters. Also kneeling at the well is a nunlike figure, while at a distance another female, in an idealised version of traditional clothing, stands in the calm certainty of the already pure. Above them all, in front of a desiccated bush, wearing patched clothes and a crios, a proud man of the West stares defiantly outwards.
Who knows what exactly the painting represents?1 It could be the young, bright and individualistic talents of Ireland renouncing their past values and errors and submitting themselves to peasant tradition and to the authority of the Catholic Church. Is the proud, unbowing figure, then, the embodiment of the authentic? As it happens, he is modelled on Sean Keating, a pupil of Orpen’s who would go on to allegorise the new post-Independence order in a style that owed much his teacher ‑ and to criticise that teacher, who chose to live in England after his return from working as a war artist on the Western Front. Whatever Orpen’s intention (was he overtly satirical, ambivalent, confused?), we might well take this painting as foreshadowing the narrowing of intellectual life and the increasing subservience to the Catholic Church that were to mark the transition from the cultural and political ferment of the years before the War of Independence to the duller and sometimes depressing post-Civil War order.
Though Bryan Fanning probably had little to do with the choice of cover image and has little enough to say about painting or the other arts, this image does point towards the content of the book. It should be said that, though understandably intended to draw the curiosity of the reader both the title and sub-title of the book are rather too generous in describing its contents. The book does indeed tackle some aspects of the quest for modern Ireland, and some battles over ideas, but it does so in a particular and limited context: the debates that took place within five Irish journals between 1912 and 1986. This is a valuable project, because the prevailing belief among many writers, journalists, TV presenters and producers, columnists, comedians and commentators, and indeed among those who breathe the same cultural air as them, has been that independent Ireland was a cultural and intellectual desert, with only the rarest of oases, until (among those who take the long view) Whitaker and Lemass waved the wand of modernisation and the waters started to flow or (for others) the collapse of Catholic authority in the 90s and the taming of nationalism led to the intellectual and cultural flowering that we recognise all about us and to the rejection of insularity in favour of confident cosmopolitanism. (The effects of the current blast of desert air remain to be seen.) This essay will both review Fanning’s book and offer some supplementary or alternative perspectives on his themes.
The Quest for Modern Ireland is interesting in construction. It first looks at The Crane Bag (1977-84), goes back to The Bell (1940-45), then further back to Studies (1912-1939), before moving forward to Christus Rex (1947-70), Studies (1940-68), Studies (1951-86) and Administration (1953-86). In fact, it makes perfect sense to start in the near-present before moving back into the past in order to understand it. This is, after all, how we analyse broken relationships, broken histories and many aspects of our lives. Fanning tells us that the seeds of the book lay in an attempt to understand how the ground-breaking cultural magazine of the late 1970s could seem to hark back to a form of nationalism that had been criticised four decades earlier by The Bell. Singling out The Bell in this fashion would not be unusual, as it is commonly thought of as being the only centre of critique in that mistily perceived but much-invoked entity “de Valera’s Ireland”. As a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies at UCD, Fanning is particularly drawn to debates on the nature of Irish society and on attempts to reshape Irish society in accordance with a variety of social philosophies. It may in itself be a reflection on the poverty of endeavour in the field of Irish intellectual history that ‑ before even discussing his understanding of the material ‑ we should be so grateful to Fanning for mining a whole underworked seam of Irish culture and bringing the results of his labours to public attention.
Bryan Fanning refers to the thinness of the twentieth-century material in Thomas Duddy’s A History of Irish Thought. It must be said that the title of Duddy’s valuable book should not be thought of as fully describing its contents, as the book excludes many of the forms of thinking in which Irish intellectuals have distinguished themselves. Conor Cruise O’Brien, for example, appears only in relation to some biographical detail about Edmund Burke and, again very briefly, for a negative view of Burke as philosopher/aesthetician. Joe Lee, to take another example, has done a little more thinking than would be guessed from the brief reference to him, though it is not the form of thinking that interests Duddy. Fanning’s own approach is most of the time so close-up, so nose-to-page, that he should perhaps not in turn be reproached for relegating Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2000 to a mere listing in the bibliography. In Fanning’s own words:
My approach was to rely as much as possible on what was expressed by contributors to the main debates within the journals, to let these breathe in how these were recounted and so try to capture the different worlds these constituted culturally, epistemologically and ontologically. The book attempts to break free from magisterial tendencies within Irish historiography to focus solely on pivotal figures. This was necessary because the stall each journal set out in what Sean O’Faolain called ‘the mart of ideas’ was generally dominated by normative shared understandings rather than by the charismatic influence of key intellectual entrepreneurs.
Chapter One, “Taking the Fifth: The Crane Bag, 1977-84”, points to Richard Kearney’s metaphorical use of the idea of the fifth province. There have been only four recognised provinces in Ireland for many centuries but the Irish word for province being cúige, meaning a fifth, the lost fifth province became for Kearney the imaginative space in which artists and thinkers could operate, providing intellectual/spiritual sustenance to the administered world of the other four. This metaphor was also to hover over, or animate, the Field Day enterprise in its early years and to be revived, but ultimately flogged to death, by Mary Robinson ‑ who, along with her positive achievements, institutionalised presidential metaphor-production.
Fanning dutifully works his way through the early issues of the Crane Bag but, happily from a reader’s point of view, does not confine himself to summary. A degree of exasperation surfaces more than once ‑ much of it directed at Kearney for his invocation of the transcendental, his avoidance of empirical engagement with political and social realities and for his valorisation of art as, in Fanning’s paraphrase, “the only power capable of reconciling the rift between the spiritual and the material precisely because it called for the suppression of the fallacious distinction between the two”. Kearney’s gentle response to romantic idealism ‑ in contrast with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s rejection of it as leading to fascism ‑ and the presence in the first issue of a number of rather condescending pieces on popular culture, bring this sharp comment from Fanning: “The fifth-province artist was someone who refused to take sides except, presumably, in the conflict between high and low culture.”
Fanning pays particular attention to the relationship between artist (and intellectual) and politics where Northern Ireland is concerned. An interview with Seamus Twomey, then leader of the IRA, features strongly, as do Seamus Deane’s disagreements with O’Brien, the interview in which Deane tried to clarify and perhaps to marshal Heaney’s implicit politics, various other pieces on Northern poetry and Mark Hederman’s rather imaginative take on Ryan’s Daughter.
With the second issue of the Crane Bag, A Sense of Nation, Fanning’s disapproval of the overall philosophy of the journal becomes clear. There is indeed plenty to disagree with, as notions of an Irish Soul or Irish Mind come to the fore, implying the transmission of deep, mythic patterns down the ages ‑ not a million miles, it must be said, from the notion of core racial identity. This is how Fanning puts it:
In essence Kearney proposed that bad ideals could be countered by more authentic ideals, but the debate was potentially a closed loop predicated upon myths of intrinsic Irish cultural authenticity. To put it another way, the fifth-province family therapy excluded those outside the family. To use the language of the social sciences, it outlined an ethnocentric and mono-cultural conception of social membership.
Kearney is one of the puzzles of contemporary Irish cultural life: a genuinely constructive spirit; a breath of fresh Irish air with a touch of the Celt in France, a translator of the latest continental news from the post-modern front in Ireland; frequently present at the birth of interesting cultural movements and initiatives; the nationalist proponent of the European regionalism that Edna Longley proposed (in vain) to unionism; a feeder of attractive metaphors to the public world ‑ but which twenty pages of his voluminous work are compulsory reading for someone interested in one of the many questions he has touched on?
As we move from issue to issue, it becomes clear both that Conor Cruise O’Brien is the great antagonist of Crane Baggery and that Fanning finds almost nothing to criticise in his view of Irish nationalism, past and present. Some of us would have no difficulty in acknowledging that O’Brien was an absolutely unavoidable presence across a whole range of debates in the 1970s and early 1980s, that he laid down a bracing intellectual challenge to his opponents and that he also scored some palpable hits ‑ not least in his TLS review of the Kearney-edited Irish Mind volume. But this does not make him the sole compass by which to be guided out of the mists of nationalism. This is not the place for an examination of the O’Brien question, nor would it be especially useful to summarise here all of Fanning’s summaries of debates within the Crane Bag, but one observation cannot be avoided.
When he ventures away from commentated summary and from his own special fields, Fanning is on shaky ground. It is important to be specific on this point, so once again let Fanning speak for himself:
Deane’s ambivalence towards Yeats might well be located in a historical reading of the gradual displacement of Protestants within Irish nationalism from the second half of the nineteenth century. S.J. Connolly, for instance, argues that the Gaelic revival was initially fostered by a Protestant elite anxious to reaffirm its place in Irish society at a time when an increasingly strident political rhetoric identified Irishness with Catholicism.
Fanning goes on to draw a line from late eighteenth century Protestant patriotism to the Young Irelanders and on to Yeats:
As such it [Protestant nationalism] provided a conservative ideology which drew upon idealisations of rural society and pastoral tranquillity as the authentic source of Irishness. It also emphasised an ‘elite harmony’ that extolled the virtues of a society where aristocrat and peasant were bound by shared cultural values and mutual respect. In Deane’s reading, Yeats, the Romantic extoller of aristocratic nationalism and presumed despiser of the (Catholic) middle classes, found himself at the wrong [end? – missing word in text]2 of a line that defined Irishness in terms of religion and social class.
There are problems with this historical reading. It confuses Gaelic Revival ‑ the project of restoring Gaelic language and culture to a central and active place in Irish society ‑ with the earlier, Irish version of the scholarly, antiquarian interest in folk culture that developed across Europe in the eighteenth century ‑ and which fed into the artistic and political movements that were to follow. It bypasses 1798. It forgets that one reason why Irish political life expressed itself in Catholic terms in the early nineteenth century was that the Catholic Emancipation that had been promised with the Act of Union was not delivered and had to be fought for. It forgets that impoverished Catholic peasants had to subsidise the clergy and churches of the wealthy Anglo-Irish. It neglects to mention the waves of strident Evangelical fervour that crossed British and Irish Protestant society from the 1820s to the 1850s (to say which is in no way to underplay the increasingly authoritarian and reactionary ideology emanating from the Vatican in the same period). It neglects to mention that the Protestant elite was also fearful of democracy (which, to the degree that it existed, was reduced, with O’Connell’s agreement, as part of the Emancipation deal). It also fails to mention the regime of religious/sectarian apartheid that had prevailed in eighteenth-century Ireland – the overcoming of which gave powerful impetus to the Catholic Church as it sought to work its way ineradicably into the fabric of Irish society in the nineteenth century. It fails to mention the tension between the generally conservative and anti-Republican leadership of the Catholic Church ‑ which had, of course, been happy to make the counter-revolutionary deal with the British government that allowed the setting up of Maynooth ‑ and groups such as the Fenians, the anti-Parnellites, the Irish Volunteers, James Larkin, Connolly, the IRA in its early days, the anti-Treatyites, and so on. It fails to mention other supremacist, racist and reactionary strains within Protestantism, while also overlooking people like Armour of Ballymoney or those Protestants who participated in non-leadership roles in pro-independence organisations. It fails to remark that it was Redmondite nationalism that was entwined with the Ancient Order of Hibernians and that non-sectarian republican values were commonly espoused by radical nationalists.
The above list may appear rather over-detailed as a response to one paragraph but it has been spelt out here only because Fanning’s historical framework is simplistic and, to an excessive degree, “presentist”. In other words, he projects the debates and problems of the present back into the past to a degree that undermines the work’s claim to historical truth. Fanning has been admirably concerned with discriminatory and exclusive forms of thought and behaviour in Irish society. His Racism and social change in the Republic of Ireland has much to say about the problems of the Protestant minority, of Jews, of refugees and asylum-seekers, and of Travellers. The majority which has been ungenerous or positively discriminatory towards these minorities is of course the Catholic majority of independent Ireland. It is their church which has often opposed legal reforms and social change that would have made the country a more open and welcoming society. It is the same church which has too often behaved with indifference or brutality towards those under its care or whom it turned into social rejects.
Bryan Fanning (along with many drb writers and readers), belongs to a generation of intellectuals that largely turned its back on the Catholic Church and that sees a certain justice in the discomfiture and loss of authority suffered by it in recent times. That the 95 per cent Catholic post-partition state turned into far more of a mono-culture than most of those who had worked for an independent Ireland had foreseen is an unquestionable, unpleasant and challenging fact. However, to read the whole struggle for civil, economic and religious rights that took place from the late eighteenth into the twentieth century as the straightforward growth of such a mono-culture would be an act of historical distortion.
For confirmation that the passage criticised above is not merely paraphrase, we may look to the third chapter – “Nation-building and exclusion” ‑ of Bryan Fanning’s Racism … This too manifests a drastically simplified understanding of the cultural and political forces at work in pre-independence Ireland. It is noteworthy that Ulster ‑ where a large Protestant population was to be found at all levels of society, both rural and urban, and where forces that shaped and contested the Irish nation-building project were unleashed ‑ scarcely figures in Fanning’s Ireland. Here too the author is a representative figure. The fact of partition has meant that most active politics in the Free State and Republic has been carried out within a twenty-six county framework. In earlier decades, this led to an accentuation of the Catholicism in the nationalist mix.
As the Catholic-nationalist orthodoxy has unravelled, as partitionism was accentuated by disgust at the activities of the IRA in Northern Ireland, some of those who have distanced themselves from the old orthodoxy seem to replicate its self-obsession as they fail to look at or understand those parts of Irish history which demand more than a twenty-six county or post-Catholic/post-nationalist critique. This can be demonstrated by looking, not at some of the standard actors in the revisionist debate, but at Diarmuid Ferriter’s Transforming Ireland 1900-2000. Though much discussed, and rightly praised for making generally available a mass of social history, there has been hardly a word of comment on its failure to engage with and properly analyse either the British dimension, particularly from 1900 to 1922 and from 1968 to 2000, or Unionist actions, ideologies and leadership in the same periods. In history books, in commentary about the Republic, whether for internal or external consumption, the effects of Southern statism, and the incomplete analysis of political and historical issues involving Northern Ireland and Britain that goes with it, pass unnoticed because Southern statism is the default mode for much intellectual life.
Though the last few paragraphs might appear extremely critical of Bryan Fanning, what is interesting, and very much to his credit, is that the material he has examined in his quest for modern Ireland leads him to a far richer appreciation of Irish intellectual and cultural life after independence than would be suggested by his previous writings or by his comments in “default mode”.
We can now return to Fanning’s journey through the journals. If Conor Cruise O’Brien is the challenger from without of Richard Kearney’s project (though a contributor to the magazine also), it soon becomes obvious that Seamus Deane was the source of the questioning from within. The Crane Bag gave him space in which to develop his ideas, but he was never going to be a full subscriber to its myth kitty. For someone with his political passion and with lived experience of nationalist life in un-Free Derry, mythic archetypes would be an unlikely set of intellectual tools. It is to the Crane Bag’s credit that it allowed Deane, who edited the third and fourth issues, to criticise the journal’s underlying ethos. Fanning quotes him thus:
Ireland, by which in this instance I mean the Republic, may now be reaching that point where defending her way of life is more important to her than dreaming towards that yet to come. The year 1972 saw a very definite turn on the part of the republic from its earlier attitude to Northern Ireland. Despite Bloody Sunday and the prolonging [sic: proroguing in the original] of Stormont, Dublin was politically muted. The burning of the British Embassy was no more than a gesture, an allowed release of energy after which attention returned to the real consequences of those late January days ‑ the effects upon the Republic’s trade and tourism. This is all very deflationary towards any heroic ideal and very far removed from either Jack or W.B. Yeats’s Irelands. But it is perhaps that very defensive practicality and conservatism which, in disguised form, operates here in The Crane Bag also.
Throughout his commentary, Bryan Fanning echoes and amplifies Conor Cruise O’Brien’s insistence that the Republic must think practically about the reunification it aspires to, shake off its ambivalence towards nationalist/republican violence, make itself more hospitable to unionism and make itself the kind of society that others would want to join. Kearney and Hederman are credited for their positive intentions and their imagination. Though Deane is treated far less sympathetically, a phrase of Fanning’s which depicts an impatient Deane as “sounding almost like O’Brien” might point to what these two figures had in common: real intellectual energy, combativity and the ability to unsettle those around them. Fanning sees Deane’s re-readings of earlier forms of thinking about Ireland as backward-looking in the full sense of the word and as politically regressive. Deane would probably have seen it as his task as an intellectual to enliven the present and open up the future by breaking open moribund cultural patterns of thought. O’Brien was seeking to decommission the nationalist past; Deane to redesign and activate it.
It is the way in which Crane Bag debates remained essentially an internal family quarrel (or therapy) that interests Fanning ‑ so much so, in fact, that he pays little attention to the later issues in which the journal looked in more empirical fashion at contemporary debates. In the light of his own intellectual interests, it is curious how cursorily he deals with the special issue on women. It is hardly surprising that he ignores the Eastern Europe issue and not surprising at all that he ignores the volume with a focus on the Irish language, Irish speakers not being one of the minorities that concern him.
If the author sees The Crane Bag as generating rather too much Celtic mist in the 1970s and early 1980s, he is happy to go back to an earlier age and magazine in the chapter titled “Out of the Mist: The Bell, 1940-45”. There was indeed very little misty-eyed writing in The Bell. Fanning highlights Sean O’Faolain’s editorial in the second issue which urged future contributors to note that The Bell was more interested in documenting life than in offering opinions about it: thus, the first-hand accounts of a local theatre, of a teacher-training college, of prison life. O’Faolain was a man with a mission, as in this later editorial: “When Ireland reveals herself truthfully, and fearlessly, she will be in possession of a solid basis on which to build a super-structure of thought; but not until then.” The Bell, he said, was something new and different: “There were plenty of other magazines that dealt with abstractions. There should be room for one that concerned itself with facts.”
Bryan Fanning recognises that O’Faolain could occasionally be disingenuous in proclaiming his interest in facts over opinion ‑ a commodity of which he was not short ‑ and notes the way he “hectors and chides” prospective authors as he tries to make the magazine live up to his ambitions. O’Faolain attacks inherited ideas, idealisms, arid traditionalism, woolly opinions, the unthinking application of imported notions, laziness … The weakness of the response to his pleas leads him to think that there is a kind of psychological inertia weighing on the nation and that it needs to be removed before national energies can be released. As Fanning says:
O’Faolain’s battle with the dominant strands of Irish life was an epistemological one. The Bell emphasised the need for empiricism in the plainest possible terms. What O’Faolain proposed, without recourse to the language and terminology of social theory, amounted to a radical intellectual challenge …
Fanning highlights the articles that dealt, even glancingly, with such difficult topics as emigration, life in the slums, birth control, freemasonry, the Knights of Columbanus, unmarried mothers, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, mental illness, unemployment, tuberculosis and prostitution. The author notes how The Bell’s fiction writers often contributed non-fiction as well, with the short story providing the stylistic template. In the context of the time, all this was indeed a major achievement.
So intrigued is Fanning by O’Faolain that he breaks free of his self-set task (following debates in his chosen journals) in order to describe O’Faolain’s disagreement with Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland and the challenge he set romantic nationalism through his biographies of Hugh O’Neill and Daniel O’Connell. Frank O’Connor, his friend and rival until they fell out completely, also figures in these debates. That Fanning needs to step back in order to let us know more about O’Faolain points to the fact that The Quest is both extremely instructive in what it unearths and constricted in its scope. There are times when readers might wish for more connections to be made with the broad stream of culture of which the journals were a part; as Terence Brown does; or to put it another way, Fanning might have knocked a few more holes in the roofs of his tunnels. Without quite explaining why, he loses interest in The Bell when O’Faolain gives way to Peadar O’Donnell as editor, but the fact that he follows O’Faolain’s subsequent evolution tells its own story: he is at least as interested in O’Faolain as the prototype of the modernising intellectual as he is in The Bell and its destiny under different leadership. Fanning recognises also that The Bell was not a hothouse of ideas and that few academics contributed to it. He is sensitive to O’Faolain’s frustrations and comments shrewdly on a passage from The Irish, noting that it is as much about the writer himself as about its ostensible subject:
What was it the Irish rebel sacrificed? The better part of his life? Far worse, far more exhausting, harder far to bear, he sacrificed the better part of his mind. Men like Tone, Mitchel, Doheny, all of them, had smothered talents. They were presumably men with as much human ambition as anybody else, and more sensibility than most. It was a drudge to them to ‘go down into the cabins of the people’. How bored Tone was by these talks and meals with dithering, half-educated, Catholic tradesmen and farmers, and he was the last man to whine or complain …
O’Faolain goes on to say that these men “were good rebels in proportion as they were bad revolutionaries”, devoting “their lives to passion rather than thought”. Fanning paraphrases O’Faolain sympathetically, saying that he
got at a distinction between the emotional impact of the French revolution and any political programme grounded in Enlightenment ideas. An emotional response to these ideas, rather than an intellectual one, rendered Ireland unable to cope in a world shaped by the Enlightenment.
O’Faolain’s formulation here is rather schematic, and by neglecting the power structures in which these rebels were forced to operate in favour of a rather ungrounded notion of abstract Enlightenment does less than justice to their actions and achievements. It fits with one polarity in O’Faolain’s thinking, however: his tendency both to invoke democracy (his choice to remain and to be active in Ireland was a demonstration of attachment and of practical patriotism) and to see change as something brought about by the injection of ideas into an emotional and misguided population by cosmopolitan leaders. There was a certain vanity about O’Faolain as well (he was self-aware enough to title his autobiography Vive Moi!), and a degree of self-mythologising. At his best, he managed to combine the strictness and detachment of his academic training at Harvard with awareness of the life of the teeming lanes of Cork where he had grown up and of what had driven him to participate in the War of Independence; at other times, he struck a tone of superiority that cast his audience as slow-learning pupils.
What O’Faolain wished for was the kind of project that would be set in train in the late 50s and early 60s by Whitaker, Lemass and others ‑ a project which Fanning in turn admires as practically-minded, unrhetorical nation-building. (Strangely, judging from Brian Kennedy’s Dreams and Responsibilities, O’Faolain’s later stint as director of the Arts Council was characterised by laziness, long absences and lack of initiative.) O’Faolain is also important as a forerunner of revisionism, though he was probably more honest than some of his successors about the crusading spirit that lay behind his urge to demystify and his rhetoric of fact.
This is the point at which many would have stopped. To have painted a picture of an Ireland in which a brave, isolated thinker stands out against a sea of mediocrity, mindless pietism and prejudice would be seen as a job well done. Fanning, however, though clearly admiring of O’Faolain, becomes curious about what his intellectual contemporaries were doing if they were not contributing to The Bell. Studies, under Jesuit guidance for much of its long history, provides a window on more mainstream intellectual life. Fanning, though thorough in reading his way through the mountains of journals he has chosen, might have benefited from an occasional foray onto the mountains unread. He mentions, for example, that O’Connor and O’Faolain had attacked Corkery “in literary journals such as the Dublin Magazine and Ireland Today”.
In so saying, and demonstrating no knowledge of Ireland Today’s contents, he is continuing a long history of neglect of that predecessor of The Bell. Its fifth issue (October 1936), for example, contained the following: editorial commentary on Spain; a “Foreign Commentary” by Owen Sheehy Skeffington (ranging from Spain to the Middle East, where “the Arabs are fighting for their liberty against British Imperialism, which is using the Zionist movement as a willing instrument”); an article on “the National Character”; Frank Pakenham on Ireland and Germany, on historical wrongs, democracy, fascism, and so on; “Is an Irish Culture Possible?” by James Devane, and a sharp response from Sean O’Faolain; an article advocating a coherent national monetary policy; poems by Patrick Kavanagh and others; a short story; overviews and reviews of the Municipal Gallery, the theatre scene, cinema, a Harry Kernoff exhibition and a John McCormack “Celebrity Concert”; Edmund Curtis on a survey of Irish literature by Aodh de Blacam; Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound perceptively reviewed by O’Faolain, along with reviews of, amongst others, HW Nevinson’s autobiography, an English anthology, Trotsky on terrorism and another book on Russia, books on ballet, stagecraft and dancing, a poetry book, a number of novels (including Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper), Pevsner on modernism and a study of Dun Laoghaire.
This mix was not untypical, and the magazine was notable for its brave stance on the Spanish war. It also featured a wide range of articles on industry and the economy alongside many high quality reviews and articles concerning the arts. Even during The Bell’s heyday, there was some intelligent writing in the gentler Dublin Magazine, edited by Seumas O’Sullivan. The April-June issue of 1943 included extracts from a nineteenth century diary of Dublin life, an article on free verse, articles on Dean Swift and Dorothy Osborne, a long article on “Tyutchev ‑ A Great Russian Poet”, art notes, and reviews of Hone’s biography of Yeats and O’Faolain’s of Hugh O’Neill, of books on folklore and bibliography, of TS Eliot’s Introducing James Joyce, of several British poetry books, of Eliot’s Little Gidding, and quite a number of others.
It has been necessary to labour the point here in order to illustrate how Bryan Fanning’s narrow selection of material may not go far enough in countering stereotypical views of intellectual life in the Free State and the complacent assumption that everyone bar a few heroic dissidents was sunk in a bog of unthinking mediocrity.
Fanning goes back to the foundation of Studies in 1912 in order to explore Catholic intellectual life as it developed through the decades. As elsewhere in the book, it might have been useful to situate Studies in the broader stream of culture. With the prospect either of a Home Rule or an independent Ireland appearing close to realisation, the shape of the future state and society was not set and there were many eager sculptors wishing to get their hands on the clay and artists hoping to breathe their own version of life into it. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church was aware of the possibilities offered by an autonomous Ireland. It had spent much of the nineteenth century building an infrastructure. It had got a controlling interest in several universities and was going to keep a close eye on cultural life.
There were, of course, many currents within the Catholic stream. No one would ever confuse scholarly and polite Studies with the far more vehement Catholic Bulletin, for example, though Fanning’s references to the latter (and his footnotes) suggest second-hand acquaintance. He describes it as “luridly anti-Protestant and anti-Semitic”. It could indeed be described as anti-Protestant, and as fixated on freemasonry, but its real target from the 1920s into the early 1930s is largely political: anything it sees as condescending towards Irish Catholics, as smacking of nostalgia for British power or as acquiescent in or obsequious towards British power, not to mention the self-bestowed superiority of AE (his Statesman in particular) and WB Yeats.3 It is less Trinity College’s Protestantism than its continuing culture of loyalty to the Crown that arouses the Bulletin’s ire. In addition, some English Catholics – not Belloc and Chesterton, who took a sympathetic interest in Ireland ‑ come in for abuse, as do prominent members of Cumann na nGaedheal. Hence the excoriation of Paddy Hogan, the “Rancher Minister, the Legislator for Green Grass, exhibiting himself to the Dominant Power on St Patrick’s Day, 1930” in a message to the London press that justifies a switch away from tillage towards livestock and livestock products:
… Our ambition is to reach the time when, in the opinion of the British consumer, our beef, butter, bacon and eggs will be regarded as the best value sold on the British market. All our agricultural legislation has been directed towards that end.
The Bulletin treats this policy as unwise at a time when the British economy is sliding into depression. In the 1930s, the anti-British strain continues but is accompanied by increasingly conspiratorial theories of masonic/Jewish influence on world events. Irish Catholics, of course, had no monopoly on anti-Semitism, as the writings of Oliver St John Gogarty attest. The intensification of existing anti-Semitism in the late 1930s (the concluding pages of Sceilg’s 1939 pamphlet Stepping-Stones are another repulsive example) may partly derive from the poisonous racial/political discourse that was in the air at the time, both in Europe and the United States, and partly in irrational response to the curdling of earlier hopes for Ireland. What is distinctive about the Catholic Bulletin is the combination of serious scholarship, Irish pastoralism (Robert Brennan’s “On Tramp in Kerry”, for example, in which Máire Mhac an tSaoi appears fleetingly), political analysis, zestful abuse and sheer prejudice.
What emerges most clearly from Fanning’s pages on Studies is that serious debate could take place on a whole range of issues, even within a journal with a strongly Catholic ethos. Though the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum was endlessly invoked, and Thomas Aquinas and the idea of natural law were almost permanent presences, it was possible to propose different forms of society as the best realisation of papal guidance ‑ and with Ireland a society or a nation in the making, intellectuals could feel that their ideas might be of real consequence, though there was also frustration that a society so Catholic in belief did not often bring Catholic social principles into political debate.
One of the recurring frustrations of this book is that Fanning does not bother to provide basic details about some of those he quotes repeatedly or at length. Who was the Henry Somerville who wrote twenty articles for Studies, who advocated something close to socialism though couched in Catholic language, and who visited Russia in 1929? Fanning makes an ironic reference to his “Herculean labours” but we have to go elsewhere to discover that he was an English Catholic who moved to Toronto but whose ideas and activism in the area of workers’ guilds were not always well received by the Church hierarchy in either country. One can have moments of doubt about Fanning’s selection of material when one realises that – unmentioned in The Quest ‑ the same Somerville wrote quite forthrightly in the March 1921 issue of Studies about British Labour and Ireland:
To be definite I will state at the beginning of this article my own answers to the questions that I suppose Irishmen to be asking. The answer is that British Labour will do nothing. The report of the Labour Commission will be forgotten before these lines are in print. The Labour Party’s Irish programme will not even be debated.
Darwin, Nietzsche, Tawney, Weber and other major thinkers were scrutinised in Studies; Hilaire Belloc and Chesterton figured in it too ‑ just as they did on many Irish bookshelves, not excluding Daniel Corkery’s, it may be supposed, for he was an ardent lover of Shakespeare and other English writers. One of the most startling details in the book is the reference by Alfred O’Rahilly of UCC to making sociology compulsory for commerce students, but with papal encyclicals included among the prescribed texts.
Before 1918, the nationalist community had had to persuade itself that it was worthy of autonomy or independence; the Irish Parliamentary Party had perhaps finally lost itself in proving this to the British and losing sight of Ireland itself. Now, with a state to run, the real question was about the society and culture that were to be built ‑ or, as time passed, were not being satisfactorily built. Would independent Ireland ever create a state and a society worthy of the struggle that had gone into its creation? Some of what Fanning highlights here ‑ debates about the Irish language, about the fact that democracy came to Ireland as the language was lost, about the importation of political ideas from the English-speaking world, about the corporate state, about whether or not to take the twenty-six-county state as the extent of the nation – is quite fascinating.
Fanning recognises the seriousness of what was at stake, for these people, in the language debate. If pursued back to pre-Studies days, such lines of thought might lead him and others to a necessary revision of simplistic evaluations of, for example, Douglas Hyde’s reasoning in his “De-Anglicisation” talk and, more broadly, to an appreciation of the complexity of the cultural politics of the Irish nineteenth century.
It might be too much to say that in this area the handling of the material is actually questionable, but questions suggest themselves nonetheless. Couldn’t the power of Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael/corporatist intellectuals within the universities be addressed, however briefly? Could it be that, while dismissing Michael Tierney’s ideas on rooting the new Irish state in pre-Renaissance Gaelic culture, Fanning is happy to highlight comments of his that cast doubt on the validity or authenticity of Anglophone Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century? If it is reasonable to lament the poverty of political theory in Ireland in the nineteenth century, is it not reasonable also to acknowledge the creativity of O’Connell and Parnell, among others, in changing the practice of democracy within the constraints imposed by the inequality of power between Ireland and Britain?
As already suggested, his journey through the journals has brought Fanning to recognise that intellectual life in Ireland in the post-independence years was far more complex than has often been supposed. Rather than falling into inertia or self-satisfaction, many intellectuals continued to propose roads towards a transformed Ireland. Here we must again temporarily leave Fanning behind and develop the point further. For a generation of writers and intellectuals who still feel a certain understandable glee at having, first, broken with authoritarian Catholicism and then seen that massive structure teeter and collapse, it has become difficult to associate culture and intelligent life with Catholicism.
It is the function of the historical imagination temporarily to inhabit forms of life and culture that the historian does not share. To read the 1930s and 1940s as a nothingness relieved by a few isolated figures like O’Faolain is unhistorical. Intellectual Catholics in the 1930s and 1940s could find much to think about or appreciate in Studies, in the Capuchin Annual, in the Dublin Review and in other publications; they could also be challenged by Ireland Today or the Bell. The small number so inclined might also explore the radical, anti-imperial publications to which Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin, for example, has drawn attention.4
There is also a widespread assumption that because Ireland did not connect with the world in our fashion it was not connected at all. But the Catholic cultures of Southern Europe and their languages were an important form of connection with the world for intellectual Catholics. An Irish Catholic who read Bloy, Péguy, Duhamel, Claudel, Bosco, Maurois, Pagnol or Mauriac was connecting with the world, and was living a life that included a non-insular, comparative dimension. French Catholic culture offered a supplementary world, and in some cases a focus for unfulfilled longings, for those who found Free State culture insufficient or repetitive. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Maria Cross can strike today’s reader as brilliantly eccentric, an anomaly; it should instead be regarded as the finest analytical product of a culture we have almost forgotten.
To introduce the Catholic Bulletin again at this point may appear provocative, but it, along with the Irish Monthly, for example, cannot be defined as insular in the normal sense of the term. In keeping with the French-flavoured Catholicism mentioned above, the Bulletin – in addition to its “Roman Notes” and “Far and Near” jottings – featured monthly “Notes from France”. In the August 1937 issue of the Irish Monthly, there was an article about American foreign policy, a wide-ranging article on radicalism for Catholics, one (“Another Scrap of Paper”) on the Vatican’s Concordat with Nazi Germany, and another on naturalism and revolt in the international theatre. A left-wing Gaeltacht magazine of the 1930s, An t-Eireannach,5 as well as standing up for the rights of the landless and small farmers in Ireland, connected its politics with what was happening in Spain and elsewhere.
We are now in a position to see that curiosity about the world was not confined to avant-garde or progressive literary intellectuals. Sean O’Faolain’s calls for change take their place amid many other blueprints for the future ‑ authoritarian, fascist, corporatist, leftist, agriculturalist, industrialist …
It should not be forgotten that much of this theorising developed during the 1930s, a period of ideological divisions, economic depression, protectionism, war and the threat of wider war in Europe – in addition, of course, to specifically Irish factors: the loss both of life and of creative energy brought about by the Civil War; inherited economic patterns (growing food for Britain and its empire rather than pursuing goals of its own); and the harsh consequences of de Valera’s economic war with Britain. It may not have been the ideal moment for twenty-six flowers to bloom, but there was plenty of advice and disagreement about what gardening should be done. (And the Second World War and its immediate aftermath was not the moment to create an open economy.)
In the fourth chapter of The Quest, Fanning becomes the latest in a long line of academics and commentators to put de Valera’s comely maidens dancing at the crossroads – an error that went unnoticed, we presume, by the UCD historian/political scientist Tom Garvin, who endorses the book as “an instant classic”. The substance of the chapter is devoted to Christus Rex, a journal that attempted to deal with social change while trying to hold back the modernist tide. Its school of Catholic sociology – which could not sociologise religion itself – eventually became irrelevant. The author identifies some positive achievements: a number of “pioneering empirical studies”; a tolerant piece on homosexuality (1962); the translation to Ireland of Michael Harrington’s approach to The Other America; the emergence of Liam Ryan as a researcher. Those of us who grew up in the declining reign of Bishop Lucey were largely unaware of his earlier intellectual eminence or of the nineteenth century roots of his concern for the small farmer. In 1971, Christus Rex gave way to Social Studies.
Chapter Five – “Liberal Agendas: Catholic and Liberal Alliances, Studies, 1940-68” – demonstrates the evolution of Irish thinking about the relationship between church, state and the individual. At this point, Fanning becomes less of a summariser of opinion: a certain enthusiasm infuses his writing as a new technocratically driven vision of Irish society emerges amid the living remnants of neo-Thomist thought and the emerging discourse of anti-interventionist economic liberalism:
By the 1950s the compact against the state between Catholic and liberal thought was reformed to promote a new state-led nation-building developmental project. Here it was no longer the case that an enemy’s enemy was a friend but that Keynesian thinking about economic planning debated in Studies for two decades had finally become intellectually institutionalised.
It might be noted in passing that, though Fanning does not enter into detail on the point, his nation seems to be located unambiguously within the borders of the twenty-six county state. Education is an important focus of debate: the continuing demand for Catholic dominance (sometimes from within the civil service); the possibility of a merger between UCD and Trinity; the increasing lay influence in schools; the failure of the school system to foster the use of the Irish language. There is no trace of irony or distance in Fanning’s style as he describes how the government, through the report Investment in Education, “promoted human capital goals for education”. Garret FitzGerald and David Thornley emerge as voices for change. Fanning goes on to describe how the emergence of the welfare state in Britain was read in Ireland. He notes the change in the Catholic Church’s language as Lucey draws on liberal as well as Catholic ideals in countering such a system in Ireland. The active campaign against tuberculosis made possible debate about the state’s role in medicine; Studies opposed the “Mother and Child Scheme”. The era speaks in a quotation from Jesuit Father Coyne as he welcomes Fianna Fáil’s Health Bill two years later. There is
something sacred and primary and personally intimate and holy and inviolate in the privileges and duties of paternity: a married man is more than a man, when he shoulders, alone, the proud burden of responsibility for wife, mother and child.
Bishop Philbin looked both forward and backward as he envisaged an active role for the state while UCD’s Patrick Lynch attacked laissez-faire economics and demanded a planning role for it:
the conscious management, to the extent consistent with democratic political freedom and individual liberty, of the course in which the national economy should be directed, if the agreed economic and social objectives are to be attained.
The confluence with the Lemass/Whitaker project is clear. As the author states at the end of the chapter:
Whitaker had to carefully bide his time for eleven years until 1956 before being able to advocate Keynesian economic policies on behalf of the Department of Finance. The genesis of Economic Development lay in 1945 papers both [Whitaker and Lynch] wrote that mirrored those in Studies at the time.
If Burke-Savage, the editor of Studies in the 1960s, seemed happy to open intellectual windows, there was still the occasional loud slam of a closing one: an unprecedented 16,000-word article defended Archbishop McQuaid from the assault of Peter Lennon – soon to make the documentary The Rocky Road to Dublin ‑ in the Guardian.
Chapter Six, “Faithful departures: Culture and Conflict, Studies, 1951-86”, winds the clock back before moving forward again; it looks at the role of literature as censorship weakens, at critiques of nationalism and at the eventual emergence of a “leftist Catholic social justice movement”, influenced by Latin-American liberation theology. As the general lines of change reflected here are well known, we need not linger over them here, though it is interesting to see O’Connor and O’Faolain become identified with the world of which they had been so critical and to note, first, that in 1956 Garret FitzGerald was diagnosing southern incomprehension of the North and, second, that in articles by Conor Cruise O’Brien and Donal Barrington, Studies is challenging nationalist ideas of a united Ireland. The quotation from O’Brien’s Memoir in relation to this period points again to Fanning’s erratic contextualisation of his material. Studies played its part in the debates about 1916, though this included suppressing Fr Shaw’s famous article until 1972. Fanning’s interpretation of this material is entirely conventional. In the course of paraphrasing Shaw, he quotes Pearse in “The Coming Revolution”: “The people will perhaps be its own Messiah, the people labouring, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonising and dying, to rise again immortal and impassable. For peoples are divine …” This is followed by the sentence ‑ further paraphrase presumably – “Here the worshipped dead Irish were destined to rule the living.” That this is not what Pearse was saying at all goes unnoticed. We need not share either Pearse’s vocabulary or his idea of the immortal nation to note how inaccurate the paraphrase is. The passage from which the quotation comes is all about action, about recognising and participating in the mutation of the nation in each generation. Pearse’s extravagantly religious rhetoric could be seen as a way of goading himself, and radical nationalism, out of its passivity. As pointed out decades before by the Cork Home Ruler JJ Horgan in his memoirs, what stands out is how heretical a Catholic Pearse was in making the people a Messiah; from that perspective, where participation in the work of the nation was all that mattered, there was nothing at all troubling for Pearse in hymning Tone, Mitchell and other non-Catholics as saints or prophets of the cause.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Studies, while pursuing debates on the national question and on pluralism, produced many interesting articles on art and literature, but it had probably lost its place as a primary intellectual conduit for national debate.
It is no surprise that Fanning’s development symphony climaxes in the seventh chapter, “Fables of the Reconstruction: Administration and Development, 1953-86”, with three heroic figures at its centre: the economist Patrick Lynch, the overlord of administration TJ Barrington (brother of Donal), and of course Ken Whitaker, author of the key document Economic Development. Administration was the journal in which the guiding lights of the new economic order both worked out their own ideas and tried to transform both mentalities and practices within the civil service. While tracking different emphases among the key figures, and indeed tingeing his account of the process with irony, Fanning is enthused by the intelligence, vision and pragmatism of those who drove the transformation of Irish economic policy ‑ a process that required overcoming the Catholic Church’s traditional resistance to state control:
Economic Development was repeatedly invoked in dozens of articles in a manner that recalled how an earlier generation ritualistically referred to the Encyclicals that set out Catholic social thought. Around Whitaker and Economic Development a new nation-building renaissance myth was propagated, one less glamorous, perhaps, than the 1916 Rising ‑ yet one that partially supplanted it ‑ with public servants rather than poets in the driving seat. Whitaker’s argument that a cultural change had precipitated the sixties boom and a new modern Irish history that dated progress from 1958.
Joe Lee is the historian who has most clearly been fascinated with this phenomenon; one of the disappointments of recent Irish history is that inertia, lack of initiative, short-termism and economic depression were again the forces needing to be battled in the 1980s when he produced his Ireland 1912-1985. Fanning follows the debates over whether Irish failures were a matter of system or of cultural psychology. Again, while there is much of value here, it would need to be read against or alongside the political history of the period. This would have to include the process by which dynamic figures were given their heads; it would also have to include the multiple and still not fully explored effects that the outbreak, and prolongation, of the Troubles had on the whole 1960s project in the Republic. Perhaps it is just as well that Fanning, who has in certain regards done a real service to Irish cultural/intellectual history, has not attempted this.
Bryan Fanning outlines Barrington’s views on democratic accountability, self-criticism and feedback, and the failure of the universities to produce the kind of thinking that could bring about change. He finds something patrician in Barrington’s tone and describes him as “an exception to his own rule and something of an outsider to the culture he disparaged”. He mentions Barrington’s 1965 article “Administrative Purpose”, which suggests that said purpose should reflect the societal values of Christianity, nationalism and democracy. Fanning points out how little the first two elements of this trinity figured in the journal. Nonetheless, the story Fanning has told suggests that much baggage had to be left behind in order for the country to move forward into the era of state planning.
Let us return briefly to the August 1937 issue of The Irish Monthly, a journal not covered in The Quest for Modern Ireland:
It is the great leveller this religion, this orthodoxy, uniting rich and poor, capital and labour. It is no barrier between men and classes, but the only thing that can break the barriers between men and classes. The wonderful thing about the Church is that it is in all things Catholic. It abhors the cleavage between the Right and the Left because that cleavage obscures in men’s minds the only essential cleavage, that between right and wrong. For it is the duty of the orthodox person to support the right, whether it Left or Right, and to abhor the wrong, whether it be Right or Left.
Or again, the June 1940 issue:
What we need is a greater radicalism to give such direction and purpose to our shambling national gait that eventually we shall get somewhere. This will require of us all our moral and physical endurance. It may mean sacrificing temporarily or even permanently many things we cherish. For instance, much individual freedom. Here again it is a question of choosing what is of most value. ‘There is only one liberty,’ said a former President of the United States, ‘the liberty which secures the right and power to every man to win a home, marry and rear children in comfort within the frontiers of the land that gave him birth.’ To that one can only add: and freedom to worship his God.
A policy, therefore, is what we need, a policy revolutionary enough to cut to the heart of our deepest discontents, yet conservative enough to preserve all that is essential to the good things we enjoy at present. Let no man imagine that the job of rebuilding a nation is an easy one, a mere matter of distributing bank-notes to all and sundry. Only by reorganisation that will cut to the very depths of our being can we build a land fit, not so much for heroes, as for ordinary Irishmen and women to live in.
And the writer in each case? Thomas Barrington.
1. Roy Foster has an illuminating article on Orpen in Estudios Irlandeses, Number 0, 2005.
2. There are, it must be said, far too many missing words, misspelt names, puzzling footnotes, bungled corrections and so on in the volume as a whole.
3. Brian Murphy was writing about this aspect of the Bulletin two decades ago. See “J.J. O’Kelly, the Catholic Bulletin and Contemporary Irish Cultural Historians”, Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 64 (1989).
4. Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin, “‘The Mosquito Press’, Anti-imperialist Rhetoric in Republican Journalism,1926-39”, Eire-Ireland ‑ Volume 42:1&2, 2007
5. Éamon Ó Ciosáin, An t-Eireannach 1934-37, 1993.