I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Defending History



Maurice Earls writes: A story entitled “Three Glimpses of Life”, written by Patrick Kavanagh in preparation for his landmark novel Tarry Flynn, is a good place to start for anyone wanting to understand the culture that took root over much of Ireland in the century following the Famine. The story, set in the 1930s, was published in The Bell in 1944. The novel Tarry Flynn was published in 1948 and promptly banned on grounds of indecency.

Some millennials and others in the lately arrived Z cohort might wonder why anyone would feel a need “to understand the culture that took root over much of Ireland in the century following the Famine”. They might say, yeah yeah, we know Ireland was a place of Stygian darkness ‑ especially in relation to all matters sexual and reproductive. But isn’t that weird stuff all in the past? Hasn’t social liberalism conclusively triumphed in Ireland? What’s the point of going on about it? Shouldn’t we be focusing on more important stuff like housing and cycle lanes.

I would agree there is not much to be said for “going on about it”, although one can understand why those who were directly damaged might feel entitled to make a few points. In any case, there are good reasons for going beyond reflexes of outrage and denunciation, however valid, to engage in a process of historical and cultural unravelling. The potential outcome from such engagement would be an enhanced clarity in relation the specifics of our society’s inherited social, cultural and political character. Such historical engagement would be beneficial because, after all, all efforts to promote and realise social vision, whether broad, such as the ideal of social justice, or narrow, such as the minutiae of urban planning, must act on and from this inherited base.

To make the point another way, the benefit of understanding history is not that it enables us to avoid the “mistakes” of the past but that it might enable us to avoid new ones based on a misunderstanding of what comprises the present, what has gone into making up that present, and therefore what is culturally and politically feasible.

The alternative to accepting the fundamentally formative role of the past (“The past isn’t over, it isn’t even past” approach), is to embrace a local version of the-end-of-history theory. But why should that prove any less delusional in Ireland than it has done internationally? Irish social liberalism was not downloaded from the internet in the late 1990s: it has its roots in the past just as much as Irish illiberalism has.

In Kavanagh’s story we experience both the conditions which encouraged a culture of instruction, conformity and obedience and also those widespread feelings of dissatisfaction which bubbled beneath the surface. It was the continuing presence of these feelings which was to enable the strikingly rapid cultural changes which occurred in the later decades of the twentieth century and beyond.

The essential piece of historical background required to appreciate the social thrust of “The Three Glimpses”, is an awareness that post-Famine Ireland, especially rural Ireland, became the obverse of the pre-Famine world. To put it in very condensed terms, the latter was populous, peasant-dominated, culturally complex and energetic in tendency. The former was conformist, anti-peasant, dour, fearful and in its general character shallow.

There were, of course, numerous pockets of non-compliance in the century and a half following the Famine, but none had the heft to alter the prevailing cultural climate.

When I was in school in the 1960s the moral and political value attached to the post-peasant order was very much in evidence. Our teachers didn’t get too worked up about the disappearance of the peasantry or indeed about the Famine itself. That all came later, mostly with and after its sesquicentennial in the late 1990s, coinciding with a general stepping away from the social values of the post-Famine order. Over earlier decades there was a discreet rolling of eyes when visiting Americans spoke of the potato famine and its effect on their forebears. (Who cares? Just keep sending the parcels!) Ireland in the 1960s and before did not much grieve for the destruction of the peasantry nor particularly regret their absence from the rural landscape.

The country in general, and particularly the central agricultural part, was firmly attached to the post-Famine social order, which was one that endorsed the dominance of the medium-sized tenant farmer and was hostile to any other form of rural order. The impression given in school was that the peasantry, with their interminable subdivision of holdings and early marriages, were a feckless lot. There was even a slight suggestion that they had it coming.

But there was a problem with the brave new world of post-Famine consolidated holdings in that they were not very profitable, a situation that prevailed until the advent of money from the EEC in the late twentieth century. Farmstead profits could not support those born into farming families and thus the culture encouraged emigration, late marriage, sexual continence and, perhaps most damaging of all, conformity and obedience. Aging sons hoping to inherit the paltry few acres hung around in dependence and young women spent the best years of their lives waiting. All in all pretty grim, with very little in recompense for the vanished joys and freedoms of peasant life. There was something vaguely suggestive of the expulsion from Eden about the whole thing, a feature which, along with some others mentioned, finds an echo in in Kavanagh’s tale.

We join the main characters, Tarry and his friend Eusebius, as they begin a leisurely Saturday evening peregrination towards the local village, observing their neighbours along the way. First, they mischievously sneak up to the Finnegan farmhouse and eavesdrop on an argument under way within.

‘I want a shilling for fags and I’ll have to get it,’ a powerful, lamenting voice could be heard. ‘This is going to be good,’ Eusebius said under his breath. The two young eavesdroppers looked at their feet. ‘I hope these stones don’t go from in under us,’ Tarry said, ‘or we’ll be landed in the street.’ ‘I’ll break your neck if you ask me for a shilling the second time,’ Pat Finnegan, the father, shouted
‘Didn’t you get a shilling last Saturday?’ the father cried.
‘And what about me? Am I to get nothing?’
‘Yez – yez, where do yez expect a man to get money? am I made of money? am I made of money?’
The father’s angry voice rose into a squeal as sharp as a whistle.
A pup screamed and ran under the table. Stools and chairs were being knocked about. The house was now a bedlam, all the family of ten, big and little, it seemed, shouting and crying at the same time. Fists appeared to be flying.
‘Hell to your stinking sowl to go and hit me with the pot-stick and me only asking for the bare lousy bob. Am I not earning it? Am I not earning it? I near busted myself putting the bags on the cart the day – that fellow there wouldn’t give me a hand and he can get everything – and here’s me thanks. I’ll leave here first thing in the morning.’
‘That’s Jo.’’ commented Eusebius.
‘If you go, Joe, that you may never come back,’ said the father.

The father was probably not especially mean. Money was in short supply and there were many children after the eldest, who were not yet ready for the boat but who had still to be fed.  Maybe Pat Finnegan enjoyed the power he exercised over his adult labouring son, who had to beg for the price of a few cigarettes. He may have had to do the same in his own day as perhaps Joe’s, as yet unconceived, son would have to do a few decades in the future.

In desperation Joe reached for the nuclear button and threatened to leave. The response was immediate: ‘If you go, Joe, that you may never come back.’ Joe, we can depend on it, did not leave, holding out in ego-sapping dependence until such time as Pat was buried and the farm would come to him. He might have had to wait decades to inherit, and maybe by then life’s enthusiasms would have ebbed and his interest in matrimony might have receded. Joe might well have ended up like the group of older men later encountered by Tarry and Eusebius.

Ahead of them they saw a line of old crooked men, walking with rolling gait and speaking in loud voices ‑ about football. All unmarried men. Their sisters were coming in the opposite direction, from confession or from the shop The sisters were not married either.

This line of “old crooked men” did not impress Tarry.

But one household, the Dillons’, is seen to have escaped the prevailing pattern of gloom. They were a surviving peasant remnant, some of whose members were farm labourers and others factory employees. Their situation echoed the old pre-Famine dream, that industrialisation would save the Irish from a Malthusian disaster. But, of course, a factory here and there was not enough. The prelapsarian Dillon household, however, had found a way. Significantly, they resisted the paltry efforts at modernisation offered by the Free State and, unlike all those around them, refused to bow before the general submission to Malthusian terror. The Dillon house we are told “stood on half a rood of bad soil”.

A thatched cottage that had resisted all the charms of government grants to have a new red roof and new walls rough cast. Inside, there was freedom and joy. Within the house there was laughter and singing. One of the girls came to the door and emptied out the tea-pot. As she did so she managed to keep in touch with the happy conversation … The men folk were an easy going sort who never passed any remarks on what the women of the house did. There were three old men who worked as farm labourers; there were two young men who worked in the new rope factory, and who only came home on Saturday evenings; there were several young children and courting girls … Even on this October evening there were young scamps from local towns, and from the village too, hanging around the gables or around the haystacks courting the Dillon girls. It seemed to Tarry, who was a serious minded lad, that sin was the truer way to happiness. The Dillons were not much heeded. What one of these girls did was never considered by the general community.

Kavanagh, like Tarry, was “a serious-minded lad” himself. Deciding against the life of his birthplace, he too chose the life of an outsider, walking the seventy miles to Dublin to doss in the Iveagh Hostel and embrace freedom of a sort.

Like many, his thinking was ahead of the economic tide, which in due course was to lift many a liberal boat, including those of a great many who had suppressed their liberal impulses in favour of survival.