Ireland needs new stories for a stable social compact in a protean digital era

Good to see Fintan O’Toole dig a little deeper into the narratives which have helped construct Irish public life and, more importantly, sustain its public imagination and self-conception. This from the first in a series that assays some seriously under-regarded ground:

…people do need a sense of collective purpose, a sense that there is something that they belong to and that belongs to them. All the evidence is that if one set of stories no longer makes sense, people do not simply become realists. They become prey to any old story at all, especially one that has a potent contrast between Us and Them: Take Back Control, Make America Great Again.

If there is no positive Us, there is always its evil twin: Not Them. There is no reason to think that Ireland is immune to this temptation, especially as it faces, in addition to all of the disruptions and inequalities of hyperglobalisation, the specific uncertainties of Brexit, an unfinished peace process and an incomplete transition from a monolithic to a multifaceted culture.

If a benign story cannot be convincingly told, a malign alternative will surely emerge.

Indeed. Earlier on in the piece, he names some of the narratives as SurvivalMOPEThe ScatteringThoroughly ModernTop O’ the World, Ma! and Who’s Sorry Now? Most are so familiar they barely need an introduction. But mapping these stories and separating the live from the dead ones is an invidious task.

Take the idea of the incomplete peace process? In almost all material aspects, the peace process is actually complete [except the bit where we all accept Gerry and Martin were right all along? – Ed]. What’s being held up, right now, is what must come after peace, as the poet Michael Longley correctly identified when he noted that “peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization”.

Common purpose is something we’ve touched on on Slugger before. It has, perhaps, been most eloquently outlined by Bryan Delaney:

The Greeks had two separate terms that combine to create a single narrative, the telling (diegesis) and the action (mimesis). So useful have these ideas proven that they are a ubiquitous presence in modern literature and film. Most modern cultural forms comprise both.

Mere telling rarely accounts or allows for the admission of change. Yet too many of our politicians have got hooked on the telling, and the spin. Nearly ten years ago, Danny Finkelstein speaking on a BBC Radio Four Analysis programme said:

…the only way that people will know who you are is through the transformation that takes place in your character through a real narrative, going from a situation where the party is disunited, going through the challenge of an election, and ending with a united party, with the party being transformed in between.

Transformation is a key component in some of the most resonant stories in the human psyche. But a diegetic plot which cannot be acted out reasonably can neither validate itself through en-action nor the deliver the promises it offers without bending the rules of morality and/or physics.

In today’s piece, Fintan notes the lag between modern Ireland and its current realities:

Ireland’s distinctive demographics act, then, as a protection against a very negative kind of identity politics. But they do not in themselves create a positive identity. They make a pluralist notion of “us” even more necessary than it already was.

But it is by no means obvious that either society or official institutions have even begun to think through what a multi-ethnic, even multi-racial, Irishness looks like.

There is a vague and benign commitment to mutual respect. But what will the Irish “us” be when, as seems certain, more than a quarter of the population puts a hyphen before or after it, when old terms like Anglo-Irish and Irish-American are joined more forcefully by Polish-Irish, Irish-Nigerian, Syrian-Irish?

This question is all the more pointed because the Irish part of any hyphenated identity is itself highly unstable. Its old markers – land, nationality and religion – don’t map the landscape very well when society is overwhelmingly urban, when nationalism has become complex and ambiguous and when the dominance of a single church is over for good.

Yet, as things stand, we still have key public institutions – most obviously the education system and much of the health and social care systems – that pretend that none of this is really happening.

Most primary schools, for example, still operate on the assumption that “we” are still universally either Catholic or Protestant and that “they”, the children who are neither, will be tolerated so long as they accommodate themselves to the way things are done here.

This is not, to put it mildly, a formula for the creation of a positively pluralist future.

In dealing with its oldest ‘minority’ (at least in the prospect of a united Ireland), attempts to create all-inclusive narrative tends to fail in part because Protestant experience of the long arc of Irish history is profoundly divergent from Catholic norms, and not always in antagonistic ways.

For instance, early Ulster Scots settlers in what later became the US did so willfully at a time when there was little inclination (or means) amongst the Catholic Irish to leave. So The Scattering, well and natively understood by Irish Catholics, is internalised differently.

Indeed, one reason it fits so well into the modern Irish (Catholic, and post Catholic) sensibility is that that first Famine induced wave of out-migration has been followed almost every thirty years since by smaller reverberative echoes of the scattering story.

This failure to assay for a more inclusive story is critical – not to make a united Ireland a possibility (it already is, but post a chronically underworked GFA, that’s getting farther from probable) but for the more immediate and urgent purpose of creating a stable compact between the Irish state and its rapidly diversifying citizenry in an increasingly protean digital era.

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  • Pang

    I remember a quote (can’t find it) that says something like – everyone grows old in a foreign country. The idea being that the country changes so much during a lifetime that by comparison it looks foreign. It is interesting to watch the slow motion changes from decade to decade. I agree we need story tellers – not to invent- but to report their observations.

  • ted hagan

    Bryan Delaney clip was excellent. Thanks.

  • Granni Trixie

    “The peace process is actually complete” begs questions of definition and by many people’s it has not lived up to their expectations of a process imvolvimg internal reconciliation, a vital element in my book.

  • mickfealty

    The opposite of war is not peace. And reconciliation is not a process that can be managed by some class of social bookkeeping. The answer is the resumption of custom, customs and civilisation says the poem. And I agree with him.

    Trouble is, as I’ve heard it put recently, poets are usually far more right than economists and other professionals, but poetry today is not that popular.

  • Korhomme

    Was it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”?

  • leoinlisbon

    Fintan O’Toole wrote that the ‘narrative of modern Catholic Ireland has had six different elements’. (He then goes on to outline them.)
    In fact, this is an example of explaining away rather than explaining.
    The narrative of Catholic Ireland was Catholic Christianity.
    As he goes no to say, Catholic Ireland – as it existed as recently as when Pope John Paul II visited – no longer exists.
    He now notices that this has created a vacuum. Who’d a thunk it ?
    It reminds me of GK Chesterton’s saying that before you knock down a wall, you should think about why it had been built.

  • George

    From Fintan O’Toole’s article:

    Ireland has the most unequal distribution of market income (which means income before taxes and public benefits) in the developed world.

    That may be true but looking at distribution after taxes and public benefits (in other words after the intervention of the State) Ireland moves ahead of many countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Spain, Netherlands and Japan.

    If anything is creating a stable compact it is this distribution.

  • aquifer

    And not being in the Commonwealth makes it harder to be post-colonial.

  • Damien Mullan

    I’m not entirely sure I’d be as dismissive of Soft-Catholicism, that is Cultural Catholicism, as Fintan appears to be. People derive meaning and significance from Catholic rituals and practices, whether it is regular or irregular, mere Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, or a solitary Christmas Mass on the morn of every 25th of December. These are new cultural markers that people are setting and must have some meaning as an exercise in community and identity.

    Cultural Catholicism, just as with Cultural Anglicanism, has purpose and meaning, and in the English case, is inextricably linked with English nationalism and identity.

    For all the talk of diversity transforming all and sundry, the United States still has a remarkably large cohort in the practicing Christian column, some 70%, with every other non-atheist religious faith comprising some 5.5% of the population, and irreligious comprising 20%. But what of these Irreligious; agnostics, atheists, deists, secular humanists, and general secularists, do they also irregularity partake in the rituals and practices of their religious community background. This is now such a mainstay in modern life in many western societies, these people often choose, proactively, to Baptize their new born children. I know of many non-practicing, even atheist couples, who after having had a child choose to Baptize that child. There is obviously a cultural rather than a religious drive in these exercises. This sense that one’s community and identity is bound up with the religious faith, rituals and practices, one experienced in one’s own upbringing.

    I don’t think this will quite die the death that Fintan apparently believes it will. Transform it most differently will, but undoubtedly it will retain a powerful cultural currency and potency, and a continuing elixir in community and group identity among the Irish nation and within the citizenry of the Irish state.

  • Damien Mullan

    No colonialism is South America then? After all, Brazil isn’t, nor never was, in the Commonwealth.

  • Korhomme

    The baptisms may be a way of getting the child into a ‘good’ school.

  • Damien Mullan

    I’ve never heard that as an explanation. Probably because decisions about schooling are years out from baptism. If schooling was the reason then baptisms would be occurring in the year before schooling decisions are made. I think the desire to conform to community and identity norms and practices are likely even greater. I know that my parents would never have forgiven my sister or brother had they ever even suggested not baptizing their children. That is, the willing and unwilling, dimensions to identity and community part of identity formation. It is after all a process of learning, no one picks up their identity at birth, it is imparted, voluntarily and involuntarily. I know the Lords Prayer because it was drilled into me, but the fact that I know it, even the atheist that I am, nonetheless, it culturally connects me to a whole swathe of the population of this planet, planned or unplanned, that has cultural value and meaning.

  • Korhomme

    It surprises me too; however, Atheist Ireland are always banging on about the need for a certificate of baptism as a requirement for entry to many primary schools in the Republic. Check out their website.

  • Damien Mullan

    That’s true enough. But then we’d see a discernible increase in baptism occurring much later, when the child is 3 for instance. For these parents may hold out the hope for an Educate Together place, but then realize within the year before their child attends school, that such a place is relatively unlikely given the competition for places within their locality, and thus then choose a quick baptism to avail of a place at a catholic patronage run school. For to choose baptism immediately, they give up their atheist credentials and leaning, for a convenience that might not be necessary in 3 to 4 years, if they ultimately secure an Educate Together place for their child.

  • George

    You obviously have never tried to get a child into school in the Republic Damian. You have to put them on the waiting list within a couple of weeks of birth, even for Educate Together (no baptismal certificate required).

  • Korhomme

    Without checking, I rather gathered that late baptism was a ‘thing’ amongst parents concerned for their child’s education; but perhaps I’m mistaken.

    Nonetheless, to my mind, this is another reason why education should be entirely secular, with no interference from any religious body and no requirement for any sort of religious test.

  • Korhomme

    Just incidentally; I was once told the theological differences between baptism and christening. I was told by a (protestant) Pfarrer; alas, as we had both consumed several bottles of vin rouge the specifics escape me.

  • mickfealty

    Agreed. And the cultural boundaries of the more secular forms of Catholicity encompass a lot of things that have very little to do with religion.

  • mickfealty

    It’s possibly why despite the depth of the recession Irish folk by and large kept off the streets. That and an inurement to periodic waves of emigration via to the cumulative effects of “The Scattering” narrative?

  • Croiteir

    It surprises me too for when asked for evidence that lack of baptism does not get anyone into a school the paucity of examples renders the story a myth

  • Korhomme

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    I have read this sort of thing on the Atheist Ireland newsletter and website more than once.

    It doesn’t surprise me; education in the Republic is very much under the control of the Catholic church; other opportunities are very limited.

    Try looking here:

    https://atheist.ie/

  • Croiteir

    Which polemic do you wish me to read?

  • Damien Mullan

    So that renders people immigrating to ROI with infants a desert in relation to education. Do these immigrates have to register their children weeks after birth, just in case, in the preceding 4 years they happen to immigrate to Ireland. Whether they are new arrivals or returning Irish.

  • Damien Mullan

    “I rather gathered that late baptism was a ‘thing’ amongst parents concerned for their child’s education”

    That’s exactly my point. I think that also. And it rather validates my perspective about early baptisms. If late baptisms are an effort at religious camouflage in order to gain an admissions advantage, then early baptisms must therefore be more cultural and identity in nature, more of a proactive endeavour.

  • George

    Not a desert. They just have more limited options about which schools they can send their children to. Just rule out Educate Together, all Gaelscoileanna and any of the decent denominational schools.

  • Korhomme

    I was rather hoping that you would search there. If, however, you regard articles there as ‘polemics’ there really isn’t much point, is there?

  • Korhomme

    I take your point. However, who knows what prospective parents ‘know’ about early baptism as a route to education?

    (FWIW, I understand that anyone can perform a baptism; it doesn’t have to be a clerk in holy orders. It’s only necessary to recite “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”)

  • George

    Why demonstrate when you can emigrate!

  • Damien Mullan

    So no one who has ever immigrated to Ireland, with a 2 or 3 year old, has had their infant children ultimately attend an Educate Together or Gaelscoileanna school? Because they didn’t within weeks of their child’s birth place said child on a school waiting list. I find that rather hard to believe. Undoubtedly they would have difficulty, but that no one has ever succeeded at this is quite something indeed. It must also be asked, has anyone with school going children immigrating to Ireland ever had their children admitted to an Educate Together or Gaelscoileanna school. Because presumably they have never been on any waiting list anywhere. Do these children never get into school because they have never been on a waiting list.

  • George

    Of course you may get in but you aren’t guaranteed entry. The best schools are filled up first (Gaelscoileanna followed by Educate Together followed by best denominational). Obviously if you rock up two years after everyone else has put their name down you run a strong risk of not getting your child in. It’s not rocket science.

  • Damien Mullan

    Again, I’ve attended my share of baptisms, but none with just a random ‘anyone’ performing the ritual, usual it’s a man, in the catholic church that is, in a white robe over a fountain of water. I’ve never been taken to the river I must say, but I love the theatrics of such a baptism, alas the Church of Rome has arguably since the end of the Renaissance been out of the business of theatrics and high drama.

  • Korhomme

    I agree with the theatrics. I was thinking more of a desperate situation, say soon after birth, when the infant is poorly, and when not baptised it could end up in a cillín.

  • Damien Mullan

    So getting on the ‘waiting list’ a few weeks after birth can be circumvented, its not an absolute then, of course it helps, but when you hit me with the absolutism of, ‘you have to put them on the waiting list’, I just thought, that cannot be entirely correct. Not when one contends with how people immigrating to Ireland, who have never been resident in the country during the first few years of their child’s birth, manage to get a place in an Educate Together school.

    I felt it necessary to have fleshed this out, because if I hadn’t challenged that contention, then a central element of my argument about early baptism would have been distorted.

  • Damien Mullan

    I’d say that would be more akin to the US Midwest in the 19th century, when transport and communications were more challenging, and in such emergencies a less accredited officiator might be called upon to conduct such a rite. I think that has much more to do with necessity than choice.

  • Croiteir

    not really – as they tend to contradict themselves

  • George

    It’s not circumvented, I never said that and don’t know where you got that impression. You’re on the waiting list behind those who put the names of their children down two or three years earlier. Of course you’re disadvantaged.

    Also, your contention is wrong in my view although this obsession of yours with early baptism is not really relevant in Dublin anyway as those who don’t want to baptise their children generally want a place with Educate Together or a Gaelscoil. Then if you are baptised yourself you can always get a place in the school you went to as your child will be that of a past pupil. Top of the queue for you if you can afford to live in the area you grew up in. Usually not possible.

    I know plenty of people who have returned home with children and they have had huge problems getting their children into the schools they wanted. Especially if the child is over 5. That’s the way it is. Baptism is the least of their worries believe me.

  • Korhomme

    My understanding is that is was sometimes necessary in the north as late as the 50s or 60s; the ‘officiant’ would have been the delivering obstetrician.

  • Korhomme

    That’s a rather sad viewpoint, isn’t it? Hear no evil…

  • Damien Mullan

    I’m raising the issue of early baptism, because the thrust of my argument in this entire thread, centers on cultural Catholicism. I’m not entirely concerned with school admittance policy. My contention is that people, the younger irreligious, choose, proactively, to baptize their children. That they do it not for school admittance, which as I’ve illustrated with immigrants who may never have thought about emigrating to Ireland, is not necessarily required to gain admittance to a ‘good’ school, as Korhomme put it above.

    They choose to Baptize for cultural and identity reasons.

  • Damien Mullan

    This I did not know. Very interesting.

    Was this sanctioned by any of the churches, i.e. did the Catholic Church for instance recognize this as a valid rite?

  • lizmcneill

    Happened to a brother of a friend of mine in Donegal in the 70s. I think he ended up with another baptism later to get the certificate for school.

  • Korhomme

    I don’t know; I might suspect that organised religions wouldn’t accept it.

  • Korhomme

    I gather that having a certificate of baptism, signed by the bishop, is necessary for school entry.

  • Brian O’Neill

    According to the great God Google:
    Christening refers to the naming ceremony (to “christen” means to “give a name to”) where as baptism is one of seven sacraments in the Catholic Church.

  • William Kinmont

    A generation ago almost every household on our road would have someone representing them at the local service on a Sunday. There was a sense of obligation to send at least someone . Less than half these households would be represented now and with no sense of guilt or shame . Locals will happily and openly carry out other activies on Sunday morning hobbies sporting or farming. Those who attend now I guess do so because they want to.
    All sorts of reasons exist for this change . Locally the population has expanded Greatly we are a commuter area. 30 years ago I would have been able to name the owners of most cars in the car park of a Sunday now i would have no idea. Inside would have been mainly rural farming families and a few professionals who served the local area.Now it must be a great mix of people for whom the religion and the Church attending community is what brings them together rather than the local community as a whole comming to gether at the church.
    The church itself seems to becoming more about religion and evangelical in nature (nothing wrong with that I feel), however this is causing the non attendees to be even less likely to be casual visitors at Christenings or other special events.
    I do not sense a vacuum in the local community of non attendees . They are still bound together by the rural farming activities helping each other out regularly brings them together. There has been an expansion of farming discussion groups which has brought those of different religious backgrounds together who previously may not have mixed.

  • Korhomme

    Thanks, Brian.

    I stand by my contention that anyone can perform a baptism. However, to be recognised as a sacrament by the Church, I guess that the officiant must be officially recognised, that is, a priest. (See lizmcneill’s post, below.)

  • Barneyt

    Can you separate christening from baptism? Sure the naming is incidental and christening should mean, gaining acceptance into gods Christian coloured house and having all inate evil we are allegedly born with, purged from our souls?

  • Barneyt

    But over here using the term THE LORDS PRAYER suggests a Protestant or Anglican persuasion. As does the “OUR FATHER”. It’s quite a rediculous situation. I was christened catholic only to find my parents developed their own brand of catholic athiesim just a few years later in the early 70s. You know the type? Wedding atheist and funeral Christian? Rebellion has its place. I was later sent to a Protestant secondary, and by now I was leaning towards evidentiary beliefs. I used to watch us all say The Lord’s Prayer in the morning. The few devout Catholics would make a point of going Pursed lipped just before “thine is the kingdom… “. I wondered if they ever listened in mass, as I understood these words are uttered by the priest. The more extreme Protestants, of which there were many, would scan for this behaviour. The saddest thing I took away from a so called mixed education was the measures people took to create division and culturally separate. For me, who did not blatantly define with either side, it was difficult. I could not easily be pigeon-holed. I did however find that my left leaning beliefs, support of CND and willingness to redefine myself in neither camp, generated more fear and aggression in the Presbyterian ranks than any proclaimed shinner and blatent IRA supporter could have. I concluded that folks were happier when the cultural camp was more easily identified.

  • Gary Thompson

    Sure you can, adults are baptised all the time, and, to the best of my knowledge, don’t get a new name at the same time.

  • Conchúr

    Anybody can baptise as long as they use the correct Trinitarian formula “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and triple immersion or triple pouring of water.

  • mickfealty

    It’s our (Roman) Catholic confusion Brian. It’s just a broader term for the service (https://goo.gl/NtvmkJ) which we tend not to use in common parlance:

    “Babies are baptized during a christening service just as couples are ‘married’ during a ‘wedding’ service.”

    More discussion here: (https://goo.gl/u92sSW)

  • Sean Danaher

    I was in UCD at the same time as Fintan though as a postgraduate in sciences and at the Harvard Smithsonian for a lot of the time
    Even then there were a large fraction of atheists and agnostics amongst our number possibly even a majority. The young Evelyn Cursack for example was very radically feminist for the time.

    Cultural Catholicism is very strong and most of my radical friends have had their children baptised

    I can’t speak about education as I unexpectedly ended up living in England but find Fintan almost a soulmate and was delighted he won this years Orwell prize

  • Tochais Siorai

    Where?

  • Damien Mullan

    This is a pan-western development. But as to its implications for identity, I don’t subscribe to Fintan O’Toole’s belief that it will diminish identity. Sure it was previously bound up in a strong religious adherence, but religious tenets and identity will still be a element in signifying identity.

    After all, the demise of the Irish language did not lay low Irish people in their identification as Irish, if anything, it’s demise was a significant propellant in the Gaelic Revival which birthed modern Irish Nationalism.

    It’s for this empirical reason, the demise of spoken Irish in the 19th century, that has me little worried about a diminution of identity among the Irish nation, as a consequence of less traditional religious adherence.

  • epg_ie

    We’ve seen nation states define themselves with the alternative, post-nation, socialist pluralist stories that Fintan O’Toole wants. The end result is that the fascists rise anyway because you don’t extinguish nationalism or sectarianism by pretending it doesn’t exist. The Norwegian white nationalists will still murder young socialists, Jews still flee Malmö, the Swedish far-right lead the polls, Danish cartoonists still get killed, and the Danish far-right end up sanitised and accepted, outpolling all the more moderate right-wing parties.

  • epg_ie

    Unlike most developed world countries, the southern welfare system is set up to empower single mothers to head independent households, rather than living with parents or a partner. The outcome is that about 20 per cent of kids are brought up in households including just their mother and no-one else. That may well be better than making women dependents of their parents. But it increases the number of households, so household incomes look higher and more equal in countries like Italy where those economically marginal women have to live with their children as junior members of 3-4 generation houses.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    So would you say Ireland is no longer a Catholic country but a soft Catholic country?

  • epg_ie

    It’s POSSIBLE to get admission to a good school, but a lot less LIKELY, if your child has no Catholic baptismal cert. So the incentive to tactically baptise still exists. Parents will tell you that fear of admission to a bad school is a motive.

  • A Bit Left and a Bit Lost

    I read about this theory recently and I think might encapsulate what you mean. If not feel free to tell me otherwise…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance

  • A Bit Left and a Bit Lost

    Not sure about in urban locations but GAA I believe has taken the place of the Church in a lot of the country. Particularly where clubs have invested in a large club rooms which host community events like bingo etc

  • epg_ie

    I think they can’t just form a new nationalism based solely on progressive values because they tend to be universalist and therefore anti-belonging. But more importantly, most people in the south or elsewhere don’t agree with O’Toole type progressive values at the relevant margins, where those values impinge on their own lives and property. Remember the recent story about Church playing fields being sold to compensate abuse survivors and to add to scarce housing in South County Dublin? The Irish Times and even the very left-wing “Village” magazine rose up in arms about it.

  • Damien Mullan

    It certainly does come close to a religion for many. But I still contend that Cultural Catholicism will retain a powerful identity propellant for many in Ireland.

  • Croiteir

    Hardly – it simply does not engage me – it is mere polemic. Nothing to challenge. And contradictory

  • Barneyt

    The school issue is s factor but despite belief many may still be uncomfortable stepping outside the norm. Done also just give in to perceived family pressure and cling to the schooling argument and the excuse of a few drinks.

  • Barneyt

    True but if you look at the traditional christening, the naming bit is the purpose of the event but is surely secondary from the main event I.e gaining entrance to the Christian church? No one asks, have you been named. They ask, have they been christened. This question usually has religious connotations.

  • Barneyt

    And they need to stop that. I think they are however but they will preserve the right of Protestant schools to continue with this qualification process, to protect a minority culture in Ireland.

  • Gary Thompson

    I think the confusion arises because we tend to use the two words interchangeably, but they mean different things. A baptism doesn’t necessarily require a christening as it is someone being received into the christian faith, whereas a christening almost always requires baptism as well. The name bit is christening, the water bit is baptism.

  • Tochais Siorai

    They were up in arms because there appeared to be more than a touch of vindictiveness about it – ‘You want compo, well we’ll sell off the kids sports field, that’ll show ye.’ There were lots of other properties they owned which could’ve been put on the market.