A sense of Irishness? A pastoral setting. Triumph over adversity. The twelfth pint. The mythological culture of the pub, instilled in Irishmen, from which literary greatness is supposedly born. An ideal of culture, of intellectualism. The continuation of the celtic vision of a society, with indigenous and Catholic influences playing an immense part in the manner in which we perceive and are perceived. As De Valera might have hoped, the common perception is of an Ireland utterly drowned in tradition and sentiment, learning nothing from its past and utterly ignoring the future. Unfortunately, the lessons of history have been afforded a special place in Ireland’s progression through the years, precisely for what the Irish have, or have not, achieved. The achievements of Ireland are not those of ‘greater’ nations. We have not colonised. We have not brought about advances in technology. We have not waged immense war. Ireland is, after all, merely a lonely outpost in Western Europe - a country in ‘splendid isolation.’
The extent to which this relatively obscure island may exert influence on its writers, academics, statesmen, or on that most peculiar of animals, the politician, depends to a large extent on a‘sense’ of Irishness. Figures in history have, over the years, attained a particular mysticism because of a peculiarly Irish persistence with the storytelling tradition as a whole, leading ultimately to the virtual deification of certain historical figures. And yet we seem reluctant in general to persevere with symbols of the past. That the country as a whole produces a writing talent to the extent it does would seem to be indicative of a general intellectual climate - perceptibly at odds with the image of a nation that has produced far more than mere words on a page: individuals that have willingly died for a cause, and for Mother Ireland - providing distraction from the meaningless literary cavortings of lesser mortals. Those who would seek to personify Ireland in the lost leader rather than in the writer and his writings would probably have the following to say - that the Irish are in no way a nation of romantics, poets, alcoholics, condom-buying dreamers. The country is instead entirely peopled by heroes: fine, upstanding, red-cheeked, staunchly Catholic individuals, who alternate attendance at mass with relating great heroic deeds beside a peat fire.
Of course, neither of these extremes is true, and yet are important because both are very much a part of Ireland’s reality. The Land of Saints and Scholars is a haven of paradoxes, and yet possesses a cohesiveness and an individuality no other country can even aspire to. What makes Ireland so special? Ask the question, and the replies tend towards the same theme. A certain uniqueness. The feeling that throughout the world, there is nowhere quite like Ireland and our forty shades of green. Big cities tend to be the same everywhere: it is merely the characters that function within that city that change, but then only in transient ways. It is civilisation on a generic scale. Irish society, no the other hand, retains an extraordinarily individualistic quality, in the face of all manner of peril and change. The heroes of Irish literature, from Dean Swift onwards, were all to recognise this, albeit begrudgingly. The combination of love, pity and hatred for the ongoing misery of the Irish has constantly recurred amongst Irish writers, right up until the present day, with Joyce’s Ulysses and the work of Samuel Beckett. The love and revulsion, the rhythms and cadences of thoughts and emotions, the portrayals of what seems a very Irish countryside: the hallmarks of the Irish creative process.
It would therefore seem that literary genius (or, for that matter, any genius) may only derive from a particular type of society. This society need not be in any way perfect: on the contrary, as Orson Welles famously pointed out in the movie Citizen Kane, the great works of the Renaissance were produced during decades of bloodshed, tyranny and corruption in medieval Italy. On the other hand, Switzerland had six hundred years of peace, order and stability - all of which, seemingly, culminated in the invention of the cuckoo clock. Similarly, for all its failings and inadequacies, Irish society combined with a common literary heritage has achieved prosaic distinction almost despite itself, through the advantages and disadvantages of the very manner in which society functions. It welcomes, just as it alienates: notably, one of the common things about Irish literary achievement is the geographical distance at which it was achieved. Many of the Joycean masterpieces were written in France: Wilde, Swift, Beckett - in essence foreigners, and yet Irish at heart. It is a commonly held belief that one must be at some distance from Ireland itself in order to properly appreciate it, lending weight to the argument that being Irish is more a state of mind - or sobriety - than it is a particular state of affairs.
The Irish literary tradition, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had brought with it an entirely new attitude in terms of a cultural approach to history. Writers such as Yeats and Synge brought a new sense of nationalism to Ireland’s literary awareness: they perceived a need for the reestablishment of a common cultural background, a unity as a justification for political action during the contemporary period. This is the very point at which the lost leader and the Irish writer collide. It is clear from the very start that the two attitudes are not utterly incompatible,as the question would seem to imply. On the contrary, prosaic achievement, especially in the cases of Yeats and Synge, was to play a significant part in the revolutionary aspects of Irish history during the early twentieth century.
It had been sensed at an early stage that the Irish were in need of certain figures in order to inspire them to particular action: in this sense, therefore, Ireland is no different from any other nation, requiring a charismatic individual to act as a filip for a nation’s emotions. Through this, both political and cultural means co-operated during the late eighteenth and early ninteenth centuries, when intellects quickened and Ireland trembled at the hands of both rebellious insurgents and overtly melodramatic writers. The precise nature of this phenomenon, of course, will remain a mystery - subtle, yet undeniably Irish in origin. ‘Irish’ serves just as well as an adjective as it does as a collective noun. Indeed, the mystery extends itself to encompass all things remotely Irish oriented: from the horrors of the famine to world-wide achievement in literary circles, the question continues to pervade our society as to the exact nature of the highly unlikely phenomenon of Irishness.
Characterizations on a nationalistic level do not easily lend themselves to accurate representation: you are as unlikely to find a typically dim witted Irishman as you are to find a miserly Scot. Or, for that matter, a Frenchman with a peculiar garlic fixation. These are images conjured up by those who would seek to simplify the differences between nations, to the extent to which things are not so much a matter of cultural differences as of racial purity.
Importantly, many aspects of Irish society are fundamentally interconnected. The size of the island, in addition to our relative geographical distance, means that there is a certain insularity in Irish affairs which precludes any overt influence from other cultures,and governments. The context in which Irish society finds itself demands that the caution expressed in support for the creative element of the society must be effectively backed up by a culture formed on a more solid historo-cultural basis. Which would seem to be at variance with certain elements in Irish society. This could be as an assertion as to certain limitations that exist within that society - and that the figure may provide an ideological justification for the actions of a government, to act as a guideline for the ambitions and actions of the people. In this respect, it comes to represent the classic interpretation of the Irish personality - the triumph of emotion over thought, of passion over indifference, of the spirit of the individual: all of these are poetically embodied in the individual who can yet reconcile himself with selfless abstracts such as patriotism. The historical figure remains a potent one: in a country still bound up in the constraints of traditionalism, the existence of a figurehead in a historical context serves as a constant reminder as to the importance of the nation’s heritage.
The hero in Irish history, therefore, exists as a statement as to the sacrifice that has made the nation what it is. The character tends towards a particular individual: an essentially political animal, struggling on behalf of his country and who yet is doomed to ultimate failure in the face of insuperable odds. What recurs in all our heroes is the image of the dark, quiet leader, pure and brave, and who is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of a field or a few humble, cowering peasants. They form part of a historical continuity: the ongoing fight for liberation from the English is what binds the majority of Irish historical figures together. This is merely due to the fact that England has had the greatest interest in Ireland’s history for the past six hundred years: it forms a continuity that symbolises Ireland’s desperate battle against injustice down the centuries. Since then, subversion, rebellion and insurrection have been the actions of the Irish people, as opposed to more innocent pursuits which a less turbulent history would probably have allowed for.
In the light of English influences over the years, it seems hardly surprising that much of the nation’s history deals with this uneasy relationship. Our political stature harks back to our turbulent past, rather than existing as a progression, an example to others. History, as Marx would have it, exists as a series of struggles: Irish history, somewhat conveniently, essentially exists as a series of struggles against England, as an attempt to come to terms with foreign influence over the centuries. England in itself is extremely important in that it provides a continual foe down through the years, allowing aggression to become more focused and instilling an attitude in the traditions of a country. Through this, it gains importance and credence as the conflict continues. Consequently the lost leader of whom we speak represents the classic image of the Irishman over the years, battling bravely against the inevitably superior English oppressor. Down through the centuries, and up to and including the heroes of 1916, Ireland has required its heroes to serve as a representation of the nation as a whole, as an embodiment of the Irish spirit, or vitality. The hopes and aspirations of an entire nation are reincarnated by those who sought to represent the country as a whole - all the men whose activities in support of Erin represent a nation in general, a nation that has struggled over the centuries to win its liberty.
And so, this heroic past sits uneasily with a literary tradition that is the enduring characteristic of Ireland’s cultural achievement. This tradition exists well as a cultural basis, but can only go so far: pretty words are all very well and good, but do not an effective constitution make.Imagine a system of law devised by Wilde, for example. The mind boggles. Part of the Irish literary tradition, however, attempts to allow these two to mutually coexist, in a symbiotic relationship best personified in a writer such as Yeats. Accordingly, there need not be a disparate opposition between the lessons learnt from historicism and those based more on the individual, as such. The essence of the matter lies in the fact that both form different, as distinct from opposing, bases from which the spiritual heart of the nation draws spirit. It is as disparate as culture is from history, and intellectualism. The relationship of all three of these go towards what Marx regarded as the totality of civilization, encompassing all manner of social phenomena, of which such diversions as law and religion are merely a part.
The question we are dealing with seems to suggest the choice of a heroic failure over the relatively innocuous pursuit of prosaic success. A great deal of Irish tradition revolves around the wit and wisdom involved in storytelling, which has led to the formation of a certain literary heritage. This is important as it forms the very basis of a culture that revolves around communication, in one form or another. The conflict with England is also a tradition, and so in one way the literature exists in terms of an effort to establish a reconciliation between these two sides. It is an attempt to define ‘Irishness’ through one way or another. Writing, for example, expresses the feelings of the individual towards Ireland. It is immediate, subjective, personal, and untainted by the constraints of convention. Through the use of tradition, on the other hand, we have an attempt to establish a particular identity through the representational continuity of the lost leader. The memory serves as a reminder to the nation as to its origins, as opposed to the essential diversity of a literary heritage. Different authors have different viewpoints: therefore, they provide us with a variety of stances and options. The lost leader represents a unification: a coming together of a perception of a common historical heritage, that will allow for a unified ‘state of Irishness’ - loyalty, patriotism, nationalism - all are inspired by the heroic figure in history, whose status is being eroded by the forthright literariness of individuals, whose need for self-expression overrides the comparative selflessness required for actual heroism.
The point is that our literary heroes and the heroes who are part of Irish history can only make up two different parts of the same continuity. Both parties will leave a legacy: prosaic achievement will remain as it is, with ongoing generations perceiving it differently as time progresses. Literary works will continue to be interpreted in the light of our own concerns, which means that as society evolves, so will the work. The Homer of the Middle Ages is not the same as our Homer, as our Homer is different to that originally written. All literary works, therefore, are constantly rewritten, and at no time is there not a reading of a work that is not also a rewriting. Despite this, our literary figures will remain representative of an Ireland at a particular time, as the men of 1916 retain relevance to the Ireland of the 1990’s. So to demean either one side or the other is to limit the extent to which Ireland may represent herself.
As a nation, are we really in need of ‘distraction’ from the brilliance of Irish writing ? Not in the slightest. To suggest so is faintly ridiculous, simply choosing to discount a hugely valuable national asset. Unless, of course, this is meant to imply that through our obsession with prosaic expression we ignore other aspects of civilisation - industry, achievement, vigour, energy. Is this a bad thing ? Should Ireland become another Japan, a high-powered economy simply because of a few patriots stirring up trouble and ruining post offices seventy-five years ago ? Despite the fact that there is a definite need for Ireland to compete on an international scale, we must never forget the richness of our cultural heritage - nor may we underestimate the importance of being a nation among nations, whilst retaining our cultural integrity.
The lost leader represents the struggle for Irish freedom and individuality, a product of a society whose ultimate apathy is its major flaw. The Irish are not a progressive people, eagerly seizing an initiative and taking full advantage of it. We are a nation that supplies the materials, rather than the impulse, of history. In direct contrast to developing nations, the classic image of Ireland is that of a society which is either stationary, or retrogressive. It is as if Ireland attempts to excuse a certain immobility through its undoubted achievements. literary and otherwise. The heroes of old suggest a certain vigour, a willingness to tackle problems and overcome them, and to escape the basic insularity of Irish life and achieve aims that transcend the conventional. It is as through, as a nation, we are all talk and no action. In the lost leader, the Irish seek a reassurance: an establishment of a certain type, or caricature- a typically heroic Irish gesture. It is a return to true nationhood: through the magic of history, individuals such as Michael Collins and Charles Stuart Parnell will be remembered as the Irishmen who took on the might of the British empire - and triumphed. They will not be remembered for their inherent ‘Irishness’, as such: no emerald-tinged leprachauns, they.
The Irish preoccupation with the lost leader is less a deliberate distraction from our cultural exploits than an attempt to redefine the conceptual ‘Irishman’ on a historical basis, rather than in terms of a literary representation. It is an assertion of the uniqueness of the Irish context and outlook, rather than that as defined by the idiosyncratic individual’s perception of Irish society. Dublin to the individual rarely equates to Leopold Bloom’s wanderings. There is a need felt to transfer impression from that of the poets, towards that based on actuality: abstraction is eschewed in favour of a more concrete evidence with regard to Irishness. Through this, therefore, historical figures gain a particular importance that they do not, by necessity, deserve: but it is only in this way that hearts and minds can be weaned from the perception of the individual onto a more nationalistic basis, from which the identity of the nation may be re-established.
Ours is not a nation living in the present: nor, for that matter, does Ireland behold the future open-eyed and with keen anticipation. Precedence has thought us caution, and moderation in almost things - other than those related to alcohol, of course. The Irish have no need for the image of the lost leader: and, if they do, they do so for the wrong reasons. To remain stuck in the past will allow the future to degenerate in terms of importance - and, as long as this continues, Ireland will never manage to escape from the tyranny of its past.