How you interpret the story of Irish nationalism in the 20th century all depends on your point of view – for example, what colour flag tickles your fancy, what foot you kick with and what side your grandparents were on in the Irish civil war.
But whatever your perspective, one thing stands out as a truly remarkable achievement – that a tiny nation, riven by a bitter internal civil war, with few natural resources, economically feeble and dependent on its enemy, England for most of its trade, managed to survive and become a disproportionately significant little nation state within Europe and the world.
It nearly didn’t at times – Ireland just about failed in the 1950s. The 1980s weren’t much better. Decades of emigration, unemployment, poverty and struggle marked the first half of the century. Joining the European project was a turning point the rest is recent history. The boom of the mid 90s to 2007 stands as an untypical period in the history of the Irish Republic. We are back to struggle, high unemployment, emigration and general gloom.
The difference this time however is that the vision that sustained Ireland through the tough times in the past has disappeared. It was a fusion of ‘faith and fatherland’ – of Catholicism and nationalism – that bonded people together to work for the success of ‘their’ nation. A D Smith, one of the great writers on nationalism puts it this way
‘Greater social cohesion and harmony to counter outside threats .. to infuse in members of their community greater self respect and restore a sense of dignity by a return to an idealised past … to remind members of the fraternal ties in the great family of the community. Cohesion, social harmony, self-respect, dignity and fraternity: these are the ends sought by every nationalist and ideals of every nation.’
My point? Both bonding forces of the past have lost their power.
In light of the abuse scandals Irish Catholicism is increasingly seen as an embarrassing and horrible ‘mistake’ – something ‘we’ no longer want to be associated with.
And the social cohesion wrought by nationalism has collapsed in the wake of greedy, corrupt elites bankrupting the nation. Haughey and Ahern stand out to me as two leaders who not only betrayed Fianna Fail ideals, but betrayed the Republic. Brian Cowen is at sea – faced with overwhelming problems and with no vision at all of how to inspire people together to tackle them. His days are numbered.
The unifying vision of old Ireland has been replaced by icons like the shell of the Anglo-Irish Bank HQ, the fiasco of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, public vs civil servants standoffs outside the passport office, the Gardai effectively threatening strike action, wild celebrations that both money can be made and lots of drink taken on Good Friday, one banker being interviewed and ‘not remembering’ details about a transaction of 7.4 BILLION, of mis-management, greed and waste on a heroic scale at public bodies like Fas, of a corrupt culture at the heart of the political process as exposed by one Tribunal after another ..
And I’m afraid that I could go on and on with not much effort or research needed. All this is the stuff of daily conversation – there is an endemic and pervasive cynicism in the air.
There ain’t much dignity around in public life in 21st Century Ireland, nor much social harmony. The Republican ideal has been lost in a fog of self-interest and greed.
The HOPE of the past has been replaced by a general sense of hopelessness.
– A lack of hope that justice will be done; pretty well no-one expects the rich and powerful to face meaningful justice, nor that the vast majority of victims of abuse will see justice.
– A lack of hope in any leaders – whether political, church, unions, financial etc etc .
– A lack of hope for the future – the financial problems are so enormous that we are back in ‘failed state’ territory, like Greece except they have better weather. A whole generation is again facing emigration.
– A lack of hope spiritually – neither religion nor mammon have proved too reliable.
The gospel is a message of hope; Christians are called to be people of hope; churches are to be communities of hope.
A challenge for Christians in such a culture is not join in with cynicism and despair – that is to reveal that our hope was in the wrong things. That the world is broken should not be a surprise.
Rather, Christians are to be salt and light – offering the good news of the gospel by word and being good news in deeds, individually and in community.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. [2 Thes 2:16-17]