Friday, September 12, 2008

Modern Ireland

The Autumn issue of Studies is now out and I have a book review. As the reviews are not put on line, I am posting it here. However, do not let that stop you from going to to see what else is on offer. As always the editorial by Fergus O’Donoghue is well worth reading and it is to be found in its entirety on-line. “Where do we get a sense of belonging and what are our sources of self-respect? In a very sudden shift, we discover that property can be a burden and that very large cars invited contempt rather than envy,” he asks.

Anyway, here is my review:

Bryan Fanning’s The Quest for Modern Ireland: the Battle of Ideas 1912-1986 (Irish Academic Press, 2008) does exactly what it says on the cover; it is a study of debates in which Fanning plots the intellectual course of five journals. The publications in question – The Crane Bag, The Bell, Studies, Christus Rex and Administration – will be, for the most part, familiar to readers. Certainly, The Crane Bag, The Bell and Studies will undoubtedly be recognised by people with an interest in the goings-on of Irish intellectuals while Christus Rex was more the preserve of academics in social sciences and Administration of meditative mandarins of the Civil Service.

What Fanning has done is gone into the trenches and read the issues copy by copy to chart the development, discourse and dispute that occurred within their pages. One cannot but marvel at the amount of reading that Fanning must have done to cover over 70 years of thought in five journals. That in itself is no mean feat and the leg work involved is testament to the best of academic endeavour – reading all the source material meticulously before offering an opinion.

That said, meticulous reading would be for nought if the material itself were not well presented. In this regard too Fanning succeeds. This is a dense book – dense in the sense that it demands careful reading. Essentially, Fanning gives a detailed examination of the ebb and flow of argument within each journal. What he reproduces in itself is startling but, just as startling, is the way in which his studious interrogation rebuts the clichéd and incomplete understanding of Irish intellectual history.

I will quote the book’s blurb as it offers a much more succinct summary of what Fanning achieves than I can: “Bryan Fanning brings to life the battle of ideas and intellectual debates that shaped modern Ireland. The quest depicted here was one by Irish civil servants, clerics, economists, historians, poets, politicians, sociologists and writers to understand and face up to social, economic and political dilemmas. Though often presented as such, this was never a Manichean battle between authoritarians and liberals, conservatives and progressives or between religiosity and secularism. The Quest for Modern Ireland offers a unique and nuanced insight into Irish social, cultural, economic and political development through its focus on debates fostered by five influential periodicals.”

Reader, that is no lie. And nuanced! Nuanced! There is a word that we do not see often enough when dealing with important matters. Fanning lets the (male) writers speak for themselves. Not everything said will chime with a contemporary sensibility but what strikes one the most is the honest endeavour with which intellectuals undertook to debate the national issue, partition, poverty, the Irish language and the role of religion in Ireland.

While reading Fanning’s book, I was reminded of Brian Fallon’s An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960. Fallon, a former Irish Times journalist (who was still there when I started in the paper but whom I never knew), gave a more anecdotal account of Irish culture. One critic, Marie Arndt, noted of Fallon’s book: “Fallon proposes that the high feel-good factor in the Ireland of today has increased the urge by the Irish to damn the past in order to disconnect from it, and to prove themselves as members of a modern society in the eyes of the world. He further argues, that the black picture of Ireland as an intellectually backward bog is an exaggeration; he concludes that Ireland was not really any worse in that respect than other western countries at that time, and that there were more foreign ideas influencing the Irish cultural scene than has generally been acknowledged. He does not denounce completely the existence of restricting forces in Ireland, but claims that they were not as paralysing to Irish cultural life as is most often suggested.”

Fanning is writing in a similar vein but has put meat on the bones of Fallon’s arguments. The assertion that Ireland was “an intellectually backward bog” does not stand up to scrutiny in Fanning’s work. It is simply impossible to read material from these journals – much of it philosophically informed – and not be impressed by the breadth, range and clarity of thought.

That is not to say that there were not arguments, unpleasant opinions or censorship but that seems to have been part and parcel of Western European life during the 20th century and was nothing compared to that of Eastern Europe under Stalin and the Soviet system. Indeed, the experience of our neighbours in Britain provide examples of, say, public outrage over literature (think Lady Chatterley’s Lover), dreary provincialism (think Philip Larkin in his library in Hull) and deference to authority (to Royalty rather than clergy) that places the Irish experience in some sort of context.

Put simply, if you have not read The Quest for Modern Ireland, do not even think to offer an opinion on Irish ideas of the last century.

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