Shortly after the visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom, Martin McGuinness wondered whether there would soon be a similar visit to Ireland. He was (and we were) quickly informed that there were no such plans being made.
Perhaps you have read (or seen the TV adaption of) Somerville and Ross’ work The Irish RM. It’s worth a read. It tells the tale of a well-meaning but rather stuffy English Residentiary Magistrate sent over to Ireland to civilize the natives. On their part, the natives are charming scoundrels who run rings around the magistrate like naughty schoolchildren around a benevolent if ineffectual teacher. The book and its accompanying volumes are unquestionably patronizing, but not without genuine affection for Ireland and the Irish.
Different nations, having different temperaments, have taken different approaches to unwanted occupation. Some have co-operated with the occupiers, simply working the system to their own advantage wherever possible. Others have bitterly resisted; still others sung sad songs. The Irish simply practised circumvention, which became something of a national sport, and which I’ll expand on in a minute. The English might make as many laws as they like; the Irish would simply do things their own way. One might readily understand the frustration of a Residentiary Magistrate, but, as Somerville and Ross’ magistrate found, in many, if not most, cases there wasn’t anything to be done about it, but only accept it as a fact of life.
The only real authority that the Irish would recognize, because it was their own, was that of the Church, and its local representative, the Parish Priest, whose word generally was law. He would be listened to with respect, and his law would not be circumvented.
Come Irish independence, the system didn’t really change much. The Church had a huge input into the Dáil Eireann, and the country was poor (thus the continuing emigration) but, on the whole, happy. However, the law continued not to mean much, because, actually, the whole circumvention thing kept going.
It remains possible because of the very conservative nature of Irish society. The land where you belong is the place where you are yourself. ‘Home’ is not the place you currently live, but the place where your ancestors lived and died. Time and again I have been welcomed ‘home’ to places I have never lived, because people know who I am and where I fit into the local structure. I am tied to land where my mother’s ancestors have lived, measurably and identifiably since my distant ancestor Niall O’Cuainn died at the Battle of Clontarf (1014), and in legend and vague memory for centuries before that. A lake bears the family name, and so do three or four villages. That is why it is ‘home’, and though my family on my father’s side lived within the pale and does not have nearly such a long pedigree, it’s held to with equal passion, though there are only two of us left now.
In a land where this is common (though not universal, and indeed decreasingly important), passing rulers have little real importance, and things will continue to be done as they always have been done. Which is to say, when I go 'home', I find that the town has been aggressively covered to its utter and ridiculous limits with restricted parking zones. Even the residents of the terraced streets are now expected to pay 90 cents per hour from 5.15 in the morning until 11.15 at night. This ought to cause outrage, and indeed it does cause indignation in the bars where all the real business is transacted. But it doesn’t really worry anyone that much because, you see, it can be circumvented if this place is your ‘home’. Now, because I ‘belong’, I am shown how to circumvent the parking regulation. This is because a relative of mine knows Peadar, who knows Pádraig, who knows Noel, whose wife, Trisha works on the till in Supervalu next to Maura, whose husband does the ticketing of the illegally parked cars. He has been warned that ‘Pastor in Valle is coming home’, and the Pastor is duly told what to do to avoid a ticket. The Pastor did as he was told, and though other tickets flew around like tickertape on others’ cars, his car was never ticketed. If you ‘belong’, you won’t have a problem. It’s us against them; ‘them’ being the hostile powers that be.
Now just as this sort of behaviour was gall and wormwood to the Irish RM, so it is gall and wormwood to today’s Irish governments, both local and national. Yes, they are Irish, of course, but they have failed to connect with Ireland, though they connect very warmly with Brussels. My relative’s local council are dismissed by her and her cronies as ‘hooks’ (=crooks). ‘Lazy articles altogether, and they and their whole families have been for the last fifty years or more’, she thunders. And out will come a store of reminiscences to back this up, for every one of these families are known in this society that continues to be so remarkably stable. ‘And’, she concludes devastatingly, ‘you never see them or their children in the chapel’ (=Catholic parish church). This is the surest and most damning bit of evidence that they do not ‘get’ the society of the town. They do not fit, and ultimately they, by their own actions, do not belong, and deserve their by-laws to be circumvented at every step. And the more they make themselves foreign, the less will any of the community participate in the political process, for they know that they will have to surrender something of themselves and their community in order to do so.
Now, you see, I think my relative has put her finger on something. There are serious big interests trying to remake Ireland in a different way—more like the rest of Europe, in fact. But while their authority is still being circumvented, all the authorities can do is to tear their hair and jump up and down like the poor old Residentiary Magistrate. So—and here comes the conspiracy theory— Irish society, in the view of some, has to be broken up and remade. Big new housing estates must be built on the edges of towns. Old communities and bonds must be broken down by allowing streets of old houses to become derelict; a crucial part of this campaign is the imposition of hourly parking charges even for residents of terraced streets (=standard Irish town style) who have no hope of providing off-road parking for their cars. They will have to move. This will have the added advantage of forcing town centre small shops, a system which still survives magnificently in Ireland, to close down in favour of out-of-town supermarkets. As people are forced to move into new areas, old networks will break down and finally the local and national governments will be really in charge.
However, here they have been only partially successful. Great estates have indeed been built at crippling cost, part of the huge bill that the government is now preparing to pass on to the Irish taxpayer (€22,000 per taxpayer apparently), but vast numbers of these new houses are standing empty because people don’t actually want to move into them. For a start, people don’t want to leave their homes and networks, second, if not in their ancestral homes, (or, more importantly, on the ancestral land) Irish people prefer to live in the country with a little bit of land, where possible and anyway, now, they have almost no chance of getting a mortgage to buy one of these new people’s palaces.
A crucial step in the remaking of the country is that the Church must be brought to heel, and, if possible, discredited.
Here, the Irish media are firmly behind the new order. Irish reporting of the Papal Visit to the UK was accompanied, for instance, with incessant reminders of the abuse crisis; far more strongly than in England. Abuse was the only important theme of the visit, according to the overwhelming majority of the media. The only possible motivation for this, I suggest, is to discredit the Church in the eyes of the people. They know, of course, that if you sling mud long enough, some of it will stick. And if there happens to be truth in some of the mud, so much the better. They are helped, I think, by the fact that nobody really wants to go back to the time when the Parish Priest ruled a town like an oriental despot. That truly is best left in the past, I and most people think.
In this climate, the very last thing the Irish government wants is to risk a Benedict Bounce in Ireland. They know very well that the welcome Pope Benedict would receive in Ireland would make the UK visit look positively lukewarm. In their eyes, that would undo decades of their work. Back in 1979, when Pope John Paul visited Ireland, State and Church were still at least co-operating (I think that contraception was still illegal, even). That isn’t the case now; the government would dearly like to make abortion available in Ireland as in the rest of Europe, but they know what they are up against. It is still one issue that will bring out the voters. I listened to a very ordinary chat programme on one of the Irish radio stations the other day; it was clearly another attempt to promote a liberalization in these matters. But the case came up of a 14 year-old ‘forced’ to go to England to get her ‘human rights’ to an abortion because contraception, according to her parents, was not freely available. Clearly we were all intended to be horrified at this hard case. But even the young (male) host was deeply shocked at an abortion being practiced on a 14 year old, and could not hide (despite apparent efforts) his horror at the parents’ attitude. In the end, he put on a record and changed the subject.
I have often been tempted to despair about Ireland, from what I read in the media. But then I go home (yes, home), and I realize that the real Ireland is still very much alive. It is used to being governed by other powers, and is still finding its own way of dealing with them. But I guess it can’t hold out for ever.
Long live circumvention, satyagraha, whatever you want to call it.