Monday, December 31, 2012

Cool Hibernia

The holidays have been a chance to catch up with some reading. One of the more interesting essays I've read is John Fanning's in the latest issue of the Dublin Review of Books. John worries that Ireland has lost its cool, explaining why in an essay on the origins of 'cool' itself as a cultural phenomenon in the United States (as part of the culture of African slaves brought to America).

John has written extensively on the subject of Ireland's image and brand before (see here, for example). Like many he laments the damage done to Ireland's image and reputation by the excesses of the Celtic Tiger. As to the task of 'restoring our cool' he looks to poets and philosophers for guidance, making much of our capacity for creativity and imagination, citing Richard Kearney:

Culturally and historically we have made a point for better or worse of occupying that territory called imagination ‑ this passion for the possible that imagination represents where you have to take a leap of faith is deeply rooted in the Irish psyche, that given our history and our set of choices in response to what seemed like a repetitive series of impossible obstacles, imagination became at once a mode of compensation.
Unfortunately I have no idea what this means. I'm not sure John does either. In fact, the essay is ultimately disappointing in that there is little beyond wishful thinking and platitudes in its conclusions and prescriptions (what few can be discerned). John seems somewhat fixated with ensuring that global surveys are used by the relevant authorities to continue to track Ireland's image. It isn't obvious to me what this has to do with restoring cool - even if that is a worthy ambition in itself (I'm not so sure).

The problem for prescriptions such as John's (and Richard Kearney's and the others cited in the essay) is that they fail dismally to understand the nature of the problem they are trying to 'solve'. It's a bigger problem than they realise. Simply put: Ireland is trapped on the other side of modernity, like the rest of the West. We are 'stranded in the present' in Peter Fritzsche's memorable phrase (quoted in Brad Gregory's magnificent book 'The Unintended Reformation' - also on the holiday reading list). Ireland, like the rest of Europe, no longer sees the past as a meaningful guide to the present and certainly not as a source of answers to the question of 'how shall we live'.

The result is that we have become just like everywhere else. Hence the decline in UK tourists visiting Ireland - what makes the Irish different to the British any more? The answer: practically nothing. What makes anywhere interesting - cool even - is that it is different. But the traditional sources of difference in Ireland - Catholicism, culture, nationalism, language - have faded away, or are almost gone. We're living in SkyTVland, only with euro rather than pounds. That's not a lot to get excited about, never mind hop on a plane to visit. The much lamented Irish psyche is now completely uprooted from Irish history; no wonder creativity and imagination are in such short supply.

If we want to restore Ireland's cool (though there might be worthier ambitions), then we need to preserve, restore and promote the things that make us different: religion, language, nationalism, and the deep sense of belonging and bonding that such elements provided in the past, in turn inspiring confidence in the future.

Though I suspect the authorities will be happier conducting a few surveys than facing up to that task. Can't say I blame them.


  1. Ireland's headlong flight from a past that it associates with poverty, is probably its most distinguishing feature right now. However, it might be better to call for patriotism rather than 'nationalism' if we are trying to embrace all that was best about the country.

  2. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to look for Irish cultural distinctiveness in Hiberno-English; or, as Paul McGuinness, said, in the fact that 'we usurped the English language.'


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