Patrick Kavanagh and Ireland’s public sphere

That time has come around in Ireland again for another treaty, another vote, and supposedly another debate. There has been some discussion about the fact that Ireland once again is to do Europe’s bidding, and certain parts of the “no” camp are saying our sovereignty is under threat (to which I might flippantly point out that the Troika don’t have tanks or an army, so that’s not strictly correct). It is to be noted that different countries have different relationships to thought. This is popularly accepted, thought it might be demode to point this out. It does, however, manifest itself to an extent in the guild mentality of various centres of philosophical study. Thus, Britain and America are known for a certain tradition, wary of speculation, aiming we are told for a practical focus: empiricism, logical positivism, analytic schools, ordinary language philosophy, etc. On this point, Ireland remains straddling a number of boundaries, as ever. Trinity College Dublin is regarded as broadly in the Anglo-American tradition, University College Dublin is renowned as a centre for continental and phenomenological thought, and Maynooth is a hybrid of medieval scholastic philosophy and the overlooked phenomenologists such as Edith Stein and (to a lesser extent) Hannah Arendt.

This is an expression of our piebald cultural identity, as a mixture: post-colonial and yet Western European. Conscious of our history of rich and valuable contributions to world culture, perhaps beyond the influence that our geographical size and population might imply. This is the ‘land of saints and scholars’ spiel found in tourism brochures. I am not going for the opposite viewpoint, that this is rather the land of shite and spite. I would like to interrogate it a while though, given that often it seems that we rest on these cultural laurels with such soporific enthusiasm in a manner that short-circuits thought. Our history is a rhythm of occasional convulsions of revolt, followed by expended periods of repression and conformity. In the early modern period, the Flight of the Earls and decimated the officer class of the country much as Katyn later did in Poland, and the Penal Laws clamped down on the native intellectual traditions, leaving behind.. what exactly? What was left? Was it just the stony grey soil that Patrick Kavanagh wrote about?

Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?

Or why do we stand here shivering?

Between the above, from “The Great Hunger” and “Stony Grey Soil” Kavanagh diagnoses the problem:

You flung a ditch on my vision.

Of beauty love and truth.

Oh stony grey soil of Monaghan

You burgled my bank of youth!

Both these poems, long and short, might stand as the preeminent myths for modern Ireland. It seems that we are stuck in a cognitive rut. We continually give in to the hermeneutic temptation, circling the drain of The National Question. It doesn’t matter what the question is, but it’s always in capitals, towering over us, torturing us because of our lack of imagination, our inability to think out of the concerns that have dragged along with us for so long. The Hunger, the Treaty, the Troubles, the Church, the Banks – these are all nouns as fetishes. They are something on which it is incumbent for Irish people to have an opinion, lest the bar-stool public sphere go silent.

The cock-eyed myths and ideals of Ireland are distracting and useless. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about Kathleen ni Houlihan or the “highly educated workforce” that civil servants and government are so fond of touting – they are equally myths, one for the revolutionary nationalist era, and the other for this digital age. Neither of these are useful as national ideals, because they do not commit us to anything real. Let us ask the question “what is it to be Irish?” The answer we give should articulate something about where we believe we should be going.

We might define being Irish as being a citizen of Ireland, that is in constitutional and legal terms, but this is tautologous. Pointing to birth, passport, place… these are contingent, accidental. They are not something we control (though many would like to control all of the above in a yet to be fully articulated outburst of “Ireland for the Irish”). Extending ourselves discussiong the ‘worth’ of being Irish, the ‘ideology’ of Ireland is latched on to in certain quarters, but the fact remains that cultural or historical notions of identity rely upon popular myths and temporal fallacies. 800 years of so-called political oppression in Ireland is an historical interpretation open to discussion, but it is not a political fact in that it no-longer affects its citizens. Hypersensitivity towards perceived past ills conceals a near heroic unwillingness to do anything now.

Yes to Nice, no to Nice. Yes to referendum A, no to referendum A… it is misleading to regard these as national debates, as conversation. Such perspectives studiously avoid the point, which is that such votes are decisions, but they are not debates. The debate is whether we are going to get to a point where the terms of the decision required are not imposed on us by external sources and circumstances. Is it possible to get to a second republic whereby public sphere of discourse is at a level of optimistic engagement, where we begin to actively respond to our difficulties, rather than merely reacting to them. If we could move beyond the default of what Kavanagh calls tragedy.

It may seem incongruous to reference Kavanagh, but a reading of his poem calls us back to an examination of our notions of Ireland. He described “The Great Hunger” as tragedy, and then went on to say that Tragedy (note the capitalization) is underdeveloped Comedy (again capitalized). What “The Great Hunger” illustrates is the inability to move from small-t tragedy to Tragedy. This is the trauma of the poor people in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, that by taking away the fiction or ideal of the noble peasant which was found in the literature of the Celtic Revival, there is a lacuna which cannot be filled. It is fascinating to read this now, post-Tiger, and indeed post-Celtic.

But the peasant in his little acres is tied

To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord

Like a goat tethered to the stump of a tree –

He circles around and around wondering why it should be.

No crash,

No drama.

That was how his life happened.

No mad hooves galloping across in the sky,

But the weak, washy way of true tragedy –

A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.

The “sick man of Europe” is a title passed around from country to country, most recently bestowed upon Ireland by The Independent. Kavanagh had already likened us to a decrepit nag, and this is closer the mark. One of Kavanagh’s targets in this poem is de Valera’s idyllic Ireland. Antoinette Quinn’s biography notes that “Kavanagh, conscious from bitter experience from bitter personal experience of the gulf between this politician’s rustic fantasy and the grim struggle to wrest a livelihood from a few stony or boggy acres, was particularly incensed by his rural programme.” [Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh, p. 181] The great hunger referenced here draws upon the historical resonances of the Famine (again with capitalization) but more likely is the intellectual and imaginative starvation of generation after generation.

Again, I know it may seem incongruous and weirdly disconnected to attempt to bring this poet to bear on contemporary concerns, but with the recent collapse of Ireland as we know it, what are most of us but peasants tied to our little quarter acre, or 1000 sq/ft? This Irish version of the Hollow Man has our world ending not with a bang, but a whimper on the phone to the bank. Just as the Famine was supposedly the worst of 800 years of imperial oppression telescoped into one event over a few years, similarly, the banking crash has become our contemporary tale of Ireland in the post-colonial, globalized world which pervades all. “The Great Hunger” is somewhat programmatic, and sought to rewrite and reconceptualize rural life at a particular stage in Irish history by effectively unwriting the coagulation of national myths.

It would appear, however, that Kavanagh did not succeed, and his powers of interrogation far outstripped the practical imagination required:

But there is nothing he can do.

Is there nothing he can do?

Is there no escape?

No escape. No escape.

This despair engenders a fug of inertness which belongs as much to today as it does the ‘lost generation’ of Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, and Kavanagh. It is the pathetic counterpoint to the disconnected optimism of the Celtic revivalists. It would be the work of the rest of his life to make comedy the stance which would steer him away from this, to let him live with the fact that after this work of poetic nihilism, his goal in life was to have no purpose at all. We are not in this position, as we have seen opportunity in our time, though perhaps we didn’t make the most of it. Tommy Tiernan disagrees.

The myths as ideals have passed. Kavanagh’s Maguire died a long time ago. An alternative ideal is required, one which speaks to what sort of country we can now become. The ongoing inflammation at the hands of history can be left to one side, because what actually affects us are the social conditions of Ireland, our level of political freedom, or economic ‘prosperity’. These are the factors that once led people to come to Ireland, and now compels more to leave. Habermas would define such motivations as ‘pragmatic’, and not without a note of disdain. In response we might quote Karl Popper: “If I were to give a simple formula or recipe for distinguishing between what I consider to be admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints I might say […] work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods.”

Kavanagh did away with the pastoral ideals of the Ireland, its land and its people. The encore un effort for us now is to pass beyond some more of the ideals and myths that we used to fill the lacuna his poetry excavated, be it the sick-man or sick-horse, the digital economy or anything else. If there is to be figurative thought in our public discourse, then let there be analogies that might bring us somewhere, and not just plugging the gap. Rather than simply excuses to leave things as they are, reacting to external circumstances, blandly hoping it’ll be grand, might we find a way to respond to the world, to begin to speak with the voice of the present, without cacophonous screams from the past.

1 Karl Popper, “Utopia and Violence” in Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 2002), p.485
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