Stories as National Narratives

The ‘European stories’ told by public intellectuals in Ireland commonly share a defining trait: they have the Irish nation at their beginning, at their centre, and at their conclusion. In these discourses, ‘Europe’ is at times a concept and other times a context, but in all cases it serves to validate a national narrative or project. This was evident in the utopian ideals propounded by independence movements prior to the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, it was so in the campaigns around the referendum on EEC accession fifty years later, and it is still the case in all discussions on Ireland’s EU membership broadcast from the studios of RTÉ.1 The nature of intellectual debate about Europe in Ireland has thus been largely determined by the predominant concerns of building and developing the Irish nation‐state. In Ireland, such concerns emanated from a desire to shake off the mantle of post‐colonialism, with its patchwork pieces of economic dependence, territorial partition, and cultural vulnerability. Thus, to investigate the nature of Irish intellectual debate about Europe is, by necessity, to trace the path of maturation in official national discourses.

As building the nation‐state has been the priority, so Irish intellectuals’ approach to and, in the main, support for European integration have been mediated through national(ist) discourses. All debates about EU membership, from all quarters, have been conducted around particular readings of national identity, integrity, and interests, and correlated claims as to how these would be best preserved. As a consequence, the need to protect Irish military neutrality, for example, has featured in ‘No’ campaigns in every Irish referendum on an EU treaty, regardless of the actual remit of the treaty for European foreign and security policy. For the ‘Yes’ side, which has enjoyed the support of the largest political parties and the majority of public (specialized) intellectuals, the(p.168) nationalist rationale behind pro‐Europeanism is best summarized under the slogan that has adorned many a referendum poster: ‘Europe is good for Ireland’. Indeed, much of the warmth bestowed on the popular image of a Europe in which Ireland ‘belongs’ was fostered through bipartisan political discourse which brought together fundamental tenets of Irish official nationalism with an integrationist agenda. This extension of national narratives into European stories by Irish intellectuals in particular constitutes the focus of this chapter. Before considering the details of these discourses, it is necessary to outline the position and nature of public intellectualism in Ireland.

Intellectuals in Ireland

Disparate and disappearing

There are two crucial qualities of Irish intellectualism that differ from common experience in continental Europe and which have had a profound effect on the public role played by intellectuals in national debate. First, it is not possible or even useful, on the whole, to identify distinct and classic ‘schools of thought’ in Irish intellectual debate. Whilst some intellectuals may be loosely associated with others in terms of their generational peers or political ‘leanings’ (a phrase, in its ambiguity, that is generally more apt in the Irish case than the term ‘ideology’), their role is not generally considered in the context of a philosophical tradition as it might be recognized elsewhere in Europe (Meagher 2001). This is, in part, due to the predominance of the ‘national question’ in Irish intellectual debate. For example, in her overview of Irish intellectual thought in Ireland, Denise Meagher (2001) categorizes the contributions of individual scholars under the headings ‘post‐colonialism’, ‘revisionism’, and ‘feminism’. Given the nature of intellectual debate in Ireland, even feminist critiques have concentrated on reinterpreting and rebalancing Irish national stories rather than on turning the focus around to the wider context. The other reason for the absence of intellectual traditions with clear European parallels is that scholarly contributions to national debates tend to be recalled and assessed in terms of key personalities. This is also true in intellectual positions on European integration, the array of which would be better represented by a brief list of names (including Anthony Coughlan, Desmond Fennell, and Garret FitzGerald, for example) than a philosophical spectrum. Maurice Goldring (1987) has described this phenomenon as ‘personalised intellectualism’. This may be in part due to changes of opinion on the part of the individual thinker over time,2 a corollary of (p.169) being a relatively small country with tight and overlapping social networks, or because of a certain amount of anti‐intellectualism that lingers in Irish political culture.3

The second distinguishing characteristic of Irish intellectualism is that a significant proportion of those most critical and/or visionary about the Irish nation in its wider context leave Irish shores and speak to it and its needs from abroad, following in the footsteps of predecessors such as Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, and Beckett, to name but a few. It is curious that the reversal in migration flows that Ireland experienced in the late 1990s did not appear to extend so far as to the intellectual ‘community’. Indeed, some departed Ireland as the Celtic Tiger arrived. Many of the most notable Irish intellectuals, particularly those who directly and conscientiously challenge dominant Irish nationalist discourses, make their contribution from a position outside the island of Ireland. Today this includes academic scholars from various disciplines, such as the historians R. F. Foster and Joseph Lee, the political theorist Philip Pettit, the sociologist Gerard Delanty, the literary critics Seamus Deane, Luke Gibbons, and John Wilson Foster, and the philosopher Richard Kearney.4 The audiences and readership they address are, as a consequence, rather less likely to be Irish policy‐makers or voters than students and scholars of Irish Studies in universities in Uppsala, Notre Dame, Liverpool, or Melbourne. Of those intellectuals who have stayed in Ireland, it is notable how few have instigated, or even directly engaged with, public debate about the European Union (especially as one of twenty‐seven member states) and Ireland’s place within it.

Cultural authority and the communication of ‘Europe’

If public intellectuals by definition possess ‘cultural authority’ (Collini 2006),5 intellectuals in Ireland have been granted their status due to particular priorities and conceptions of nation‐building in the twentieth century.6Intellectuals’ engagement with nation‐building was as much a cultural as a political affair (p.170) for these elites (Hutchinson 1987). In the Irish case, this has meant an emphasis on the Irish ‘imagination’,7 an emphasis on Catholicism, and an emphasis on national interests and state‐building. Thus, intellectuals valued in Irish national culture traditionally included poets and writers, priests and theologians, policy‐makers and scholars. The contributors and the contributions to intellectual discussion have altered according to the priorities of the national political leadership and dominant social culture. O’Dowd’s analysis of this connection led him to contend (after the study of modern French intellectuals by Debray 1981) that the key institutional arena for intellectual activity in Ireland shifted from church to state in the 1960s, only for both to be replaced within a generation by the media as the dominant cultural apparatus (O’Dowd 1985, 1996: 14).

Certainly, under Eamon de Valera’s premiership (from the 1930s through to the 1960s) the ecclesiastical influence on policy‐making affected most intellectual contributions, be it by those speaking from within the Church (including the numerous humanities and social science professors in the National University of Ireland who were ordained Catholic priests) or by those who were reacting (either positively or critically) to its precepts (Garvin 2005). By the turn of the twenty‐first century, the Celtic Tiger had replaced Mother Church as the source of ideals to be embraced and practices to be adhered to. As Fanning (2008: 226) puts it, ‘the pursuit of economic growth became the defining nation‐building project’. Economic transformation in Ireland further reduced the prominence and acceptance of intellectual paradigms (particularly from left‐wing or Catholic quarters) and, indeed, of public intellectualism in general. Today, representatives of the Catholic Church are rarely invited to contribute to national debates, civil servants are not expected to perform a role that is either public or intellectual,8 and most Irish politicians who might befit the label of ‘intellectual’ now speak from the position (or age, as in the case of the inimitable Michael D. Higgins) of official (if not actual) retirement. The common – perhaps defining – characteristic of most public intellectuals in contemporary Ireland is that they are (or at least have been) academics by profession.

Furthermore, the public role of ‘intellectual’ has been replaced by that of ‘commentator’ (usually journalists, former politicians, business leaders) or ‘expert’ (most frequently, economists and historians, with the occasional political scientist). The assortment of commentators and experts who speak on ‘Europe’ is particularly slim and the scope for their analysis is tightly confined. Individuals with the knowledge and capacity to debate the subject of EU integration (p.171) rarely get the opportunity to do so in a public realm, and when they do it is invariably in the context of a referendum on an EU treaty (either forthcoming or failed – there is little discussion afterratification). At such times, all broadcast contributions to the debate are categorized as being on one side or another9 – there is no room for ambiguity or what Posner (2003: 5) describes as a ‘respect for the complexity of problems’. As a consequence, specialized intellectuals invited to speak on ‘Europe’ must decide which position, either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, they will speak from. The lack of deliberation in, and even detailed telling of, ‘European stories’ in today’s public sphere belies the rich European dimensions of Ireland’s intellectual heritage.

European dimensions of Ireland’s intellectual heritage

Many of Ireland’s most influential thinkers and national story‐tellers have been shaped by practice and ideas on the Continent. Direct experience of ‘Europe’ was common in times past; many Irish ‘saints and scholars’ who lived and studied on the Continent did so as a result of British colonial rule in Ireland – for example, the impact of penal laws on Catholic education (Kearney 1984: 14). Interestingly, this movement was not only one way, and one of the first scholars to write on the subject of Irish society and the devastating effects of British policy was the French social reformer, Gustave de Beaumont (2007 [1839]). More recently, the philosopher Richard Kearney was influenced by contemporary continental philosophy, particularly that of Paul Ricoeur. He studied in Paris before returning to Dublin to become the public intellectual who engaged most directly with the need to define European values and to respond to their implications for Irish national culture and politics.10 His co‐founder of The Crane Bag, the Benedictine monk Mark Patrick Hederman, also studied philosophy in Paris under Emmanuel Levinas. In the present day, a survey of the biographies of many of the most eminent Irish novelists and poets would reveal that emigration, be it a consequence of necessity or curiosity, has meant that continental Europe has been a home and inspiration to many and this has been reflected in their writings (cf. O’Grady 2001; Sweeney 2007; Tóibín 1994).

In more circuitous ways, the intellectuals behind many Irish nationalist organizations were also apparently inspired and influenced by similar (p.172) movements on the Continent. For example, The Nation (an Irish nationalist newspaper of the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s) was, according to Oliver MacDonagh (1983), a mouthpiece of ‘romantic nationalism of the German and more specifically Prussian type’. In fact, Richard Kearney traces most tendencies in Irish political thought back to ‘an inclination to readapt foreign, usually French, ideological precedents’; he gives as examples Edmund Burke’s liberal adaptation of Montesquieu, Wolfe Tone’s republican adaptation of Robespierre and Voltaire, and James Connolly’s socialist adaptation of Marx and Fourier (Kearney 1984: 25).

In terms of twentieth‐century Irish political thought, the intellectual preoccupations of Conor Cruise O’Brien, the former diplomat identified by some as the leading Irish political thinker of his time – arguably because his views were often as provocative as they were erudite (English and Skelly 1998) – have been said to originate from the ‘colossal moment’ of the Second World War (McNally 2008). O’Brien, like many of his peers (such as Owen Sheehy Skeffington) and forebears (such as Peadar O’Donnell), was appalled by the similarities between the dominant political culture in Catholic Ireland and the anti‐modernism and authoritarianism in much of the Catholic part of Western and Central Europe (including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary) in the first part of the twentieth century (Pašeta 1999). It was the causes and consequences of untrammelled nationalism, rather than the political means to temper it (such as European integration), that concerned O’Brien. He drew direct connections between Irish and European history in a negative sense (in contrast to most of his fellow intellectuals), blaming medieval Europe for the early origins of the ‘sacral nationalism’ that he despised so much in its modern form of religious nationalism (O’Brien 1988). Such examples illustrate the point that the focus of Irish intellectual contributions on Europe is the nation, or Irish nationalism, itself. Myths of Europe serve to reinforce particular normative conceptions, be they positive or pejorative, of the past, present, and future of the Irish nation.

Myths of Ireland’s European legacy

There is an enormous possibility here of projecting a stronger sense of the antiquity of our culture, of the different strands of it…there is an opportunity in Europe for Ireland to project its culture…We have a much broader spectrum [in the EU] to reassess Irish culture and reinforce the linkages with other European countries.

(Robinson 1992)

Pro‐European intellectuals have frequently sought to emphasize the historical legacy of Ireland’s relationship with the Continent – thus EEC/EU membership, rather than creating new partnerships, merely ‘reinforced linkages’ long‐held with fellow Europeans, as President Robinson argued. In outlining such (p.173) discourses, intellectuals sought above all else to quash the post‐colonial notion that Ireland is an insignificant country hidden behind another on the margins of Europe. Hence the allusions to myths about the role of Irish saints and scholars in preserving Latin and Christianity whilst the rest of Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages, the stories about the earls from Ulster finding refuge in European colleges when in flight following the Tudor re‐conquest of Ireland, the tales about the interventions of the Spanish Armada in support of Irish rebels…these are still recounted today much as they were one hundred years ago, and still with the same intention: a nationalist desire to write Ireland into the European story and, in so doing, to erase the remnants of a history of oppression and internal division. In fact, mythical conceptions of Europe in post‐accession Ireland have retained a remarkable degree of consistency with key themes of the romantic nationalist movements of the nineteenth century. Such myths centre on a loose interpretation of the Celts as a ‘European people’ and of implications drawn from this for ‘ancient connections’ between the Irish and the Continent (typically in patterns that may include Scotland or Wales but, of course, bypass England). Mary Robinson, when President of Ireland, spoke in a manner representative of official discourse on the subject when she said: ‘the Celtic heritage is really the pan‐European one. It’s the strongest pan‐European basic culture and we in Ireland have a unique role in that Celtic culture’ (Robinson 1992).

This emphasis on Celtic heritage as a connecting point among European countries, and between contemporary Europe and its ‘shared past’, experienced a revival in popularity across the Continent in the late twentieth century.11 Ireland benefited from and contributed to this resurgence, not least through the ‘Riverdance’ phenomenon that embodied a new vibrant confidence in Irish culture.12 Its geographical location on the periphery of Europe gave an additional air of plausibility to national stories that presented Irish culture as a sanctuary of such unspoiled ‘European heritage’.

Drawing a connection between EEC/EU membership and the revival of Ireland’s cultural integrity and identity is a common feature in intellectual discourse on the subject. See, for example, Tarlach Ó Raifeartaigh’s claim in a pamphlet published prior to the 1972 referendum on EEC accession:

It is the most natural thing in the world that we should strengthen our links with the continent. It was when we were most Irish, that is, from the fifth century to the French Revolution, that these links were strongest. In the early days, our missionaries, some of them martyrs, saw to that. (Ó Raifeartaigh 1972: 4)

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