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.

The Irish Psyche



Maurice Earls writes: It was reported recently in the Financial Times that the British might cut off gas supplies to Ireland this winter. And it’s not even their gas; it comes from Norway. Could you be up to them?

Certainly, if Boris’s successor were to flip the Éire switch, it would be a serious matter. Should this danger have been a cause for alarm? Should people have been advised to prepare by dusting down the old paraffin oil heaters in their grannies’ garages?

Well, as it happens, the public did not become alarmed, and it turns out they were right to keep their panic powder dry. Some weeks after the story broke, the UK authorities announced that Irish consumers would be treated “absolutely equally” to those in the British market, in the event of an emergency. One might wonder why it took them some time to arrive at such a commendably fair-minded position. Is it possible the Norwegians, perhaps following a little prompting from the Irish, reminded them of their contractual obligations and that they too could be cut off in the case of a breach?

The public response to the threat, shrugging and carrying on in the enjoyment of everyday minutiae, was behaviour entirely consistent with Sean O’Faolain’s view of the Irish psyche. O’Faolain found the tendency, which he attributed to the Irish, of not worrying too much and not considering big picture issues really annoying. In the end, his explanation was that there was a deficiency in the Irish of a sort which today we would characterise as genetic.

For O’Faolain the Irish, among other things, were quite hopeless at strategy, and this defect explained everything that had gone wrong in Irish history. His views, which are a bit odd, are reflected both in his 1940s contributions to The Bell and elsewhere, including in his book The Irish, which was published in 1949.

Certainly, the country faced dangers, or at least considerable inconvenience, during WWII, when O’Faolain was editor of The Bell. In April 1944, it seemed to him that America and Britain were beginning to put a “squeeze” on Éire. The American Note of February, signed by the (unimpressive) US ambassador David Gray, supported that interpretation. It included the (false) claim, contrary to his own intelligence advice, that

It has become increasingly apparent that, despite the declared desire of the Irish Government that its neutrality should not operate in favor of either of the belligerents, it has in fact operated and continues to operate in favor of the Axis Powers and against the United Nations on whom your security and the maintenance of your national economy depend.

O’Faolain saw this as a cause for alarm and found the sang froid of his fellow citizens disturbing. The public, he said, had decided the whole thing was a storm in a teacup and no more exciting than Gray’s Elegy. O’Faolain, on the other hand, thought an invasion might be on the cards. He thought that people should have the decency to be alarmed.

But the instincts of the public turned out to be accurate. We now know that Irish neutrality operated substantially in favour of the allies, a fact well-known to US and British intelligence services at the time. Arguably, an allied invasion was always unlikely, and very much so in 1944. Indeed, a weather report from a west of Ireland weather station provided secretly to the allies is said to have prompted the decision to go ahead with the Normandy landing in June of that year.

But O’Faolain, using the evidence available to him, felt there was growing reason for concern. He noted that shortly after de Valera’s reply was delivered in Washington “the British government closed all traffic between the two islands, except for urgent reasons. In the first week of April all telephonic communication between the two islands was stopped.” He saw these moves as linked to possible invasion plans. Again, it seems the public was not disturbed and again, as we now know, the public got it right. The measures which alarmed O’Faolain were concerned with preventing any inadvertent leaks that might alert Germany to details of the forthcoming D-Day operations.

But that does not mean there were not and would not be inconveniences and problems with supplies into Ireland. Sean Lemass seemed to be expecting reduced imports and stated: “indications are that a serious fuel shortage may develop during this year [and that] available resources cannot maintain the essential services for more than a short period”. According to Lemass, whom O’Faolain described as our “blood-and-tears” minister, a “major economic dislocation threatened”. O’ Faolain threw in his own jeremiad, saying that train services had been cut and that a prolonged drought and low water on the Shannon meant that the ESB was only able to generate half the electricity it produced in 1941. Writing in The Bell, he said that on Easter Sunday another critique of neutral nations had emanated from Washington, the very day de Valera ‑ described as our “God-is-good minister” ‑ saw fit to spend “decorating the graves of the dead”. Once again, the public declined to descend into panic.

While O’Faolain felt that de Valera “sometimes gets one’s goat” he was broadly positive toward the Taoiseach and approved of what he believed was the state’s rigorous approach towards neutrality, which he saw as the essential underpinning of national sovereignty and, indeed, the reason the British had not invaded. But, in fact, this rigorous neutrality only applied to the state’s diplomatic window dressing. The level of Ireland’s support for the allies was significant and secret.

Sadly, and unavoidably, international affairs are rarely conducted on the basis of unvarnished truth, especially in time of war. The business of statecraft frequently involves disinformation, hypocrisy, duplicity and cunning. In seems that in 1944 the Irish government was adept on all these fronts. It was not actually neutral; it just didn’t want to be invaded and didn’t want to get involved militarily.

In 1944 O’Faolain’s main concern was that, as the end of the war was in sight, Ireland should be considering how it would align itself internationally in the postwar world and that the government should make some pronouncement as to its plans. He foresaw, as many others did, that multi-state blocs would characterise postwar geopolitics. His fear was that the Irish state would find itself isolated, that Irish politicians, being so absorbed with historical oppression at the hands of the British, would shoot themselves in the foot by choosing isolation.

The EEC, which would have been O’Faolain’s preference, had not come into being, so he argued that it was in the country’s interests to remain in the Commonwealth, and that this was preferable to isolation and vulnerability on the edge of Europe. Actually, his thinking was not too dissimilar to de Valera’s.

Speaking in the Dáil in 1945 de Valera observed that Ireland was in fact a republic but “associated as a matter of our external policy with states of the British Commonwealth”. As academic research has shown, in a private conversation with the Canadian high commissioner he said that he believed an Irish initiative to sever connections with the Commonwealth would be harmful to the prospects for Irish unity. Canadian diplomats, following conversations with FH Boland, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, believed Ireland was anxious to have good relations with the British “with whom they feel they share a special community of interests and problems ‑ economic social and historical.” The Canadian view was that it had been hoped in Ireland that membership of the United Nations might provide the framework for such a relationship. A regional defence compact embracing Ireland, Britain and the United States and possibly Canada had even been mooted.

Back in the editorial offices of The Bell in 1944 O’Faolain opposed what he regarded as the myopic nationalism that was keen to formally leave the Commonwealth and, indeed, he gauged the prevailing mood of the political class accurately on that question. De Valera, on the other hand was a little out of step and would almost certainly have waited before severing ties.

Looked at from one angle, leaving the Commonwealth in 1949 was a great success, of the cakeist variety. The Republic was formally established, yet Irish citizens were not regarded as aliens in Commonwealth countries ‑ despite Pakistan’s reservations ‑ and trade concessions were not withdrawn. That all sounds good, but from the point of view of ending partition, it was something of an own goal. De Valera’s fears proved accurate, with the British taking the opportunity to let themselves off the “democracy-in-Ireland” hook and declaring as their new policy that unity could only come about with unionist consent.

This and the somewhat negative image of Ireland in the postwar US, following bad press over neutrality during the war, left the state with little room to manoeuvre on the partition question.

Sean Mc Bride, presumably wishing to open up some space, explained that Ireland was “willing and anxious to join” the proposed North Atlantic military alliance if the impediment of partition, which he argued was contrary to the democratic principles the alliance was built on, was removed. That stratagem, however, did not attract much international support for the cause of unification.

For O’Faolain anything was better than isolation and when it came down to it in 1944 there was only one bloc available, the British Commonwealth of Nations, with which he wished Ireland to remain involved. He argued, somewhat optimistically, on a few occasions that Britain was no longer the nasty imperial behemoth of earlier times and had become a normal country which shared many interests with Ireland.

That was as far as he was prepared to go as editor of The Bell. But the issues involved were enormously important to him and he felt debate had to be stimulated. Taking advantage of his position as editor, he made use of a time-honoured deceit, the anonymous contribution. It seems high-minded editors of literary journals are not always averse to embracing slippery practices of a sort often associated with the political class.

A letter from a resident of Howth signed NN and dealing with the very issues preoccupying O’Faolain and little else, “landed” on the editor’s desk. NN was almost certainly O’Faolain himself. The author echoes all of O’Faolain’s concerns and much of his language but takes the arguments further. O’Faolain, under the cover provided by NN, was able to let fly on two matters of great importance to him, first that Ireland should obviously align with the Commonwealth in preference to isolation and secondly that there was something mentally askew with the Irish, which explained their history of misery and defeat and which was possibly beyond cure.

NN puts the boot in fairly quickly. Wolfe Tone is quoted as saying that the study of the past can prevent the repetition of errors. But it seems Irish history teachers did not take this approach and that the teaching of history “consists in an unending glorification of our past”. This it transpired was a deep-seated and long-established Irish disorder. Indeed, the difficulty the Irish had in learning from the past was a theme O’Faolain was to return to in The Irish.

Eoin MacNeill’s Phases of Irish History is quoted to illustrate the historical depth of the Irish deficiency. Mac Neill asks: “How came it that a brave and intelligent and energetic people did not keep itself in the forefront of western development?” The answer is not long in coming:

The Irish nobility was rendered incapable of using their intelligence to profit with the times by one defect ‑ they were perhaps the most intensely proud class of men that ever existed … Too much pride blinded the native rulers to the insecurity of their state, and made them careless of their safety and neglectful of the measures it required. Glorying in the long vista of their past they did not look before them. They were conservative, unadaptable and unproviding. Herein lay the fateful weakness of medieval Ireland.

This sort of  ‑ well, let’s call a spade a spade ‑ banal crypto-Whig reading of history appealed to NN’s no nonsense problem-solving mentality:

Ponder for a moment ‑ think of the catastrophic downfall of Kinsale and all that it involved. Think of the bitter quarrel about precedence on the march [and] on the night of the attack ‑ think of the long series of uprisings in the three previous centuries, every one of which failed disastrously, and always for the same reason ‑ want of unity and organisation.

The emotion is palpable. Why, oh why were our medieval forebears not more businesslike in the conduct of their affairs?

Prof James Hogan is quoted from an RIA publication:

The Gaelic poets, historians, and jurists, equally with the ruling aristocracy, continued to live in the past.

One can identify a certain juvenile charm in this thinking, particularly if, like the present writer, one engaged enthusiastically in it up to around the age of eleven and a half. Why did Gaelic Ireland not see the absolute necessity of a centralised state, organise a rational co-ordination of resources, set the poets and other agents of distraction to productive labour and align the country with the path which the great progressive wheel of history unquestionably pointed towards?

NN comments:

What does all that amount to? That we Irish have been so stupidly proud and intractable that we were ‑ and probably still are ‑ incapable of perceiving and adapting to the changes taking place all around us … It is useless to deny it.

O’Faolain now approaches the dark heart of the matter. Yes, the Irish are congenitally incapable of seeing beyond the minutiae of their own concerns to engage with the big picture. For this they have suffered defeat and humiliation historically. But, and here’s the cruel rub, people in Dublin in 1944 are no different!

It seems the city’s most representative type is indistinguishable from Joyce’s Denis Breen, a person who readers of Ulysses will recall was quite mad.

I met recently a man I know, walking O’Connell St with a cap pulled down over his eyes, untidy clothes, unpolished boots, driving remorselessly through the crowds, staring straight in front obviously seeing nobody, and too intensely pre-occupied with whatever goading thoughts urged him on with resistless impulse to pay attention to what passed before his eyes. Later, I learned he was the victim of a ‘persecution-complex,’ had been severely reprimanded by his superior, his salary reduced, and yet was engaged in three or four of those petty prolonged lawsuits which are one of the curses of Irish life. Even though it means eventual ruin to himself and his children he will persist in these tragically futile suits. He is the personification of the pride and stupidity commented on by MacNeill and Hogan. Even the imminent danger of ruin and destruction cannot change the habitual course of his thought: ‘I am right and no matter what happens, I’ll go on.’

The clear implication for Ireland is “We are totally screwed!” And why? Well … because we are screwy. But stay, is there perhaps a ray of hope? Can we be brought to see what is in front of our noses?

We are now approaching a change far more fundamental, far wider and deeper than that which happened under Henry VIII and Elizabeth. No small nation can ever again hope to exist as before the war, isolated and sovereign in its own territory. Vast changes in economic order are coming, as surely as the end of the war must come … With whom will we ally ourselves for protection in war and economic well-being in peace? … Will we, or will we not remain in the British Commonwealth? Or do we, as seems likely, prefer isolation on the edge of a Europe from which we have deliberately cut ourselves off?

After this dramatic flourish, the mood changes and national options are enumerated in a businesslike manner:

1          What group, if any, shall we join?
2          Is it physically possible for us to ally ourselves with any other than the British Commonwealth?
3          Or are we too proud to ‘take the measures necessary for our safety under modern conditions of government and warfare’?

Well, which is it to be, the author seems to ask? As we know, despite O’Faolain’s arguments, Ireland left the Commonwealth and became a republic

But today we are living in a secure and prosperous if unequal and environmentally delinquent country. How did that happen? One factor is because the country was in fact not isolationist

Ireland joined the United Nations at the first opportunity in 1955. It was a founding member the Council of Europe in 1949 and also a founding member of the OECD in 1961. It signed the European payments agreement in 1950. In 1957 it joined the IMF and the World Bank. The Republic applied to join the EEC in 1961 and again in 1967. It gained membership in 1973. Ireland has been a member of GATT since 1967 and a member of the WTO since 1995. It is a member of numerous international bodies and signatory to many international agreements.

Not bad for self-absorbed isolationists! But the pattern can be divined in the 1930s too, and indeed in the 1920s. O’Faolain simply confused the steady pattern of national distancing from Britain, which began in the 1920s and continues today, for a desire to distance ourselves from all and sundry. Should an EU military emerge, Ireland will almost certainly join it. In the meantime, it is highly unlikely that if EU territories were to come under attack Ireland would not assist in their defence under whatever banner.

Journalist intellectuals can and do have some excellent ideas but if they fail to appreciate the authenticity of the past and do not strive to understand it on its own terms, or if they imagine that the state is always asleep, the quality of their contribution to public discourse and understanding will inevitably suffer.


Maurice Earls is Joint Editor of the drb

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