Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change c.1970-2000 
by R.F. Foster.
Penguin, 228 pp., £8.99, July 2008, 978 0 14 101765 5
Show More
Show More

Ireland today is the place you are most likely to be happy. Your desire for a robust and rising standard of living, political freedom, strong bonds with your extended family, a marriage that survives, even a decent climate – all these wishes are most likely to be granted in the Irish Republic. At least this was the case in 2005, when Ireland came top – the UK was 29th – in an Economist survey of ‘quality of life’ in more than a hundred countries. The key to Irish happiness in this account lies in the way the country has managed the transition to a late capitalist economy without – yet – dissolving the traditional bonds of society. Or rather the ‘traditional’ has been pared down to just the right, reassuring dose of community life. Marriage, stripped of its sacramental quality and more recently robbed of many of its tax advantages, has become increasingly irrelevant: in 2002 one sixth of Irish couples with a child under five were unmarried, though a good proportion could still count on a family member to help out with childcare. For all the soulless appearance of the new towns mushrooming outside Dublin, and the endless traffic jams, the Irish still spend less time commuting and more of their social life with their families than people who live in countries with longer histories of industrialisation. (Those of us for whom Sunday lunch with the in-laws is the stuff of horror fiction must assume for the moment that this is a good thing.)

On the other hand, if you hanker after the kind of contentment that results from a slow-moving, patriarchal and religious way of life you will be largely disappointed. As the collective Irish mind concentrates on getting and spending, social life has become almost crusadingly secular. The break-up of the institutional power of the Catholic Church, the advent of mass media, the transformation in attitudes towards and opportunities for women are all consequences (and in some cases also causes) of Ireland’s status as one of the most globalised economies in the modern world. On a number of counts – levels of foreign trade and investment, use of the latest technology, and travel and communication outside Ireland – the country’s economy is now among the most open there is. The familiar portrait of Ireland as a land of emigration has been reversed. In the last ten years, and particularly since the expansion of the EU, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants has risen steadily: roughly 10 per cent of the current population was born elsewhere. Ireland can now lay claim to ethnic diversity, along with some less attractive features of rampant capitalism, including a widening gap between rich and poor. And the rhetoric has changed too. For much of Ireland’s post-independence history politicians could appeal, for good and ill, to a common vision of the country’s destiny: Catholic, rural, non-materialistic (hence de Valera’s insistence that the Irish enjoyed not a lower but a ‘less costly’ standard of living) and soon-to-be-united. Now, as in most countries, politicians are elected on the basis of whether they can manage the economy. Ireland today – at least according to Irish development agencies – is like everywhere else in Europe and North America, only better.

In 1980 the news magazine Magill published a report on Irish poverty which stated that just under a million people (out of a population of 3.2 million) were living below the poverty line. Unemployment and emigration soared in the mid-1980s, and the economic crisis went hand in hand with a conservative backlash against social liberalisation. In 1983 the target was abortion; in 1986 divorce. Until 1985 the right to contraception (won in 1979) was limited to married couples. Northern politics suffered from the continuing fall-out of the hunger-strikes and Unionist resistance to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the mid-1990s the picture couldn’t have looked more different. Ireland’s embrace of the globalised corporate order had brought annual GNP growth rates that touched double figures; in 1992 the gruesome X case, in which a 14-year-old who had been raped was prevented from going to England to terminate her pregnancy, precipitated a change in the law on freedom to travel and access to information about abortion; in 1995 divorce was legalised; in 1998 came the Good Friday Agreement and what looks like peace in Northern Ireland. Though each of these reversals is of a different order, it’s hard to deny that economic prosperity has gone hand in hand with sexual tolerance and political progress.

It is the baffling, ‘fast-forward’ nature of these changes that Roy Foster seeks to capture in this pacey narrative, which brings his 1988 history, Modern Ireland 1600-1972, up to date. Rather than offer a straightforward narrative account, Foster tracks the transformation of contemporary Ireland in a series of essays, originally given as the Wiles Lectures in Belfast in 2004. The format allows him to range beyond a dutiful treatment of politics and the economy to discuss the mass media, the Church, social life and developments in music and literature. In each area Foster’s attention is caught by the speed with which the country has put its mind to catching up with – or outstripping – the rest of the West:

Much as the sheer lack of accumulated industrial encumbrance enabled the Irish economy to leapfrog into the microelectronic age, the sudden embrace of revised moral codes allowed the new Irish laws on homosexuality to become, at a stroke, more liberal than those in Britain. Perhaps because so much of the Irish stereotype (and the tourist brand-image) conjures up an unchanging land where time stands still, the Irish faculty for changing practices or expectations with bewildering rapidity has been underestimated.

Yet it is one of the strengths of Luck and the Irish that Foster tells the story not as a cheerfully rising graph – increasing prosperity in the South, and the gradual end of war in the North – but as what he calls ‘a series of interconnected crises’, and interconnected liberations. He traces a number of overlapping movements: some, like the Celtic Tiger, seemed to happen incredibly quickly; others, like the peace process in the North, were slow and halting, and bought at immense cost. The outcome of last month’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty could be seen as another symptom of these lags and dislocations. In part a protest vote against the venality and slipperiness of Ireland’s political class, who lined up to recommend acceptance, it also suggests that the battle between pro-European modernisers and the defenders of various versions of Irish distinctiveness is far from over. Voters no longer feel the need to barter their difference, whether it is understood to lie in a commitment to neutrality and anti-militarism, to the right-to-life, or to a buccaneer corporate tax regime, in return for the collective strength of the EU. Given the Irish reputation for nursing long memories, it must be vexing to the eurocrats in Brussels that they seem so quickly to have repressed their memory of the lavish subsidies that got them underway.

The story of the new Ireland is often told as one of long-delayed emergence from darkness into light: pretty much unrelieved stagnation until the 1970s, when a moribund society was finally kickstarted by EU structural funds and US corporate investment, lured by enticingly low tax rates and a highly educated English-speaking workforce. But the roots of today’s social dynamism stretch back further, to de Valera’s Ireland, to the impact of 1960s international radicalism, youth culture, television and the expansion of education at all levels. Changes in law and policy have been fundamental, but to understand the impetus behind them we should look to social and cultural shifts that were far from unique to Ireland. The reversal of reproductive legislation was brought about not just by the feminists who campaigned for change and the women journalists who kept the issues in the public eye, but by the ordinary women (and men) who visited family planning clinics, and practised what the preachers preached against. It’s possible, too, that the massive emigration of the 1950s, which has done so much to copper-fasten the idea of the stagnation of de Valera’s Ireland, also functioned in the long run as a source of dynamism. Foster is very good on the series of time warps which resulted from this juddering progress, enjoying the ironies of a political and social life that were often out of sync. Take Ian Paisley: ‘widely perceived in the South as a hilarious survival from another age’, he presaged the Northern future.

Yet a distinction between darkness and light underpins Foster’s story. His opposition is between a pluralist, outward-looking, secular society, no longer obsessed by the national question, and the patriarchal, nationalist and anglophobic society which has lost out to it. There is no simple before and after here: instead a continuing struggle is variously played out between politicians such as Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey, the conservative Church and the women’s movement, or (less convincingly) the ‘big, mad children’ on both sides in the North and the grown-ups.

The opposition is clearest in the contrast between Haughey and Garret FitzGerald. FitzGerald (‘Gladstone to Haughey’s Disraeli’) is in many ways the hero of this book. He is presented as the true heir of the pragmatic, far-sighted policies of Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch (hinting that, contrary to expectations, Foster has a sneaking regard for Fianna Fáil). Lynch in particular is credited with forestalling a full-blown civil war by standing up to Haughey during the arms crisis of 1970, when members of the government were implicated in importing weapons destined for the North. That realism and, to use Foster’s word, political ‘sophistication’ re-emerge under FitzGerald’s leadership, which was marked above all by his understanding that the liberalisation of social law in the Republic was a necessary part of any realistic accommodation with the North. In general, Foster’s position is that Haughey did far less than he claimed for the North and for the economy, and Lynch and FitzGerald far more. By a curious sleight of hand he suggests that while Haughey and his henchmen weren’t responsible for the current economic miracle, Haughey is nevertheless answerable for the worst excesses of money-grabbing modern Ireland.

Haughey’s reputation for corruption and ostentatious consumption prove irresistible when Foster draws the comparison with FitzGerald. While FitzGerald’s interest in France derived from ‘a keen appetite for philosophical discussions with Catholic intellectuals’, Haughey’s derived from a keen appetite for fine food and wine indulged in during ‘lavish visits to Paris’. Haughey is compared to Hitler (for his relations with Iveagh House), to Nixon (for his phone-tapping), to Don Giovanni (for his swagger) and to royalty (for his ability to get people to serve him) – all in one paragraph. Elsewhere the ‘sulphurous’ Haughey is described as ‘an odd combination of Napoleonic enigma, Ascendancy hauteur, Gaelic chieftain and Tammany boss’. Foster is a master of the flick-knife aside (elsewhere we get Seán MacBride as Bela Lugosi, and Ted Kennedy as ‘a notoriously slow learner’).

Foster argues at several points that Haughey’s Ireland needs its Balzac, and this book is best read as a satire. He puts himself on the side of the ‘boosters’ of Ireland’s economic miracle, those who argue that economic progress will improve social equality, rather than the ‘begrudgers’, the much smaller group critical of neoliberalism and its human cost. And indeed it would be hard for him not to approve of the economic and cultural reversals that have come about since the publication of Modern Ireland. This is not only because they are self-evidently part of a shift towards the tolerant pluralism that any self-respecting liberal must welcome (and even any self-respecting conservative – it would be hard to find anyone in Ireland advocating a return to the days before legalised contraception, for example). It is also because a secularised Irish society, accepting of difference, is what Foster has been arguing for all along. Naturally he welcomes the ‘expansion of the Irish national narrative’ which has been enabled by the expansion of cultural and political as well as economic resources. Yet what also comes across strongly is his ambivalence about the outcome. If he’s got so much of what he wanted, why isn’t he happier?

He is in no doubt about the positive effects of secularisation, or about the great crop of prize-winning poets and novelists Ireland is (once more) producing. And there is not much doubt about political progress in the North, though he is caustic – surely too caustic – about the ‘Animal Farm dénouement’ of the Good Friday Agreement which saw ‘Martin McGuiness and his Sinn Féin colleagues taking office as ministers of HM the Queen’ and gloomy about the way the agreement, in prescribing a mechanism for the extremes to work together, has ‘reinforced ethnic chauvinism’ rather than expanded the middle ground. (It’s possible this underestimates the extent to which the extremes now occupy the middle ground.) That ‘obdurate Unionism’ and ‘uncompromising Republicanism’ have found some sort of accommodation can’t be lamented, but Foster is quietly acid: ‘The border had not floated away like a redundant sticking plaster. Jack Lynch’s prophecy in 1970 that the IRA would find violence “was not advancing their cause but rather retarding it” was proved true.’

Where he is in two minds is on the consequences of globalisation, without which, as he concedes, other kinds of progress would not have been possible. To reach for a Foster-like comparison, his attitude to Ireland’s gold rush has a Yeatsian ring – something between astonishment and disdain for the filthy postmodern tide. The focus has shifted from distrust of Catholic nationalist revolutionaries to suspicion of the 4x4-driving, bistro-going middle classes: a natural shift if one considers that the power of the Catholic Church, and the hegemony of what Foster calls ‘old-style’ nationalism have given way to that new locus of the miraculous, the market.

Some aspects of Ireland’s newfound wealth creation he finds nauseating, others simply bizarre. He can enjoy the weird coincidence of Bono and the disgraced Irish tycoon Ben Dunne staying in the same LA hotel. But he is disgusted by the juxtaposition of the Famine memorial and the Irish Financial Services Centre. Hyper-alert to anything that smacks of the manipulation of the past, he is scathing about the heritage industry, through which, he argues, the Irish now experience their culture, and even their economy. As the Industrial Development Agency seeks to brand Ireland ‘a creative economy’ (‘attributing to the Irish workforce an innate mindset reflecting literary and artistic genius’), everyday life in Ireland, he believes, is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. The Irish now build their suburban homes from plans whose names conjure an idealised rural past; they spend their leisure time in faux Irish pubs; they experience their heritage through folk parks. He quotes Declan Kiberd to the effect that now, as at the turn of the last century, the task is that of distinguishing what is good in nationalism from what is bad. But the real difficulty seems to lie in distinguishing what is good from what is brand.

Parallels between the Celtic Tiger and turn of the 20th century cultural nationalism scarcely favour the current phenomenon. The Revival occurred at another fast-forward moment in Irish history, driven by a mixture of politics, economics and cultural innovation. And it thrived on its own version of the time warp – the fusion of the folk nationalist and the modern. If Ireland is to do the time warp again the icons will not be Yeats or Patrick Pearse but the Pogues, Riverdance and Enya, all offering different combinations of Celtic nostalgia and postmodern technology and commerce. What bothers Foster about all this is exactly what bothers him about the tourist and development brand Ireland. The global success of Irish popular music relies on the exploitation of a hand-me-down Celticism; the music is inseparable from the marketing of Irishness.

But what is so disturbing about Irish kitsch (and is it worse than any other variety?). How pernicious is Riverdance, or new houses with names like Inishlacken or Inishfree? Though Foster could never be accused of holding a candle for ethnic authenticity, it is hard not to imagine that he feels some regret at the commodification of Irish distinctiveness. He presents new-style nationalist Irishry as a postmodern version of ‘old-style’ nationalism, with all its ideological implications. But I suspect that the real root of his dislike of kitsch is that he believes Irish culture is more susceptible to it than other cultures.

Brand Ireland is a consequence of the global market: the more a country becomes like any other, the more it needs to stamp itself as different. And part of the reason Irish branding has caught hold so quickly is that it has been going on for a long time. A small English-speaking country, squeezed between Britain and the United States, Ireland has always had to find ways of establishing its distinctiveness. Catholicism served this purpose for a while, but it won’t do any more. What is happening now to Irish culture in Ireland is a version of what happened to that previous incarnation of the global Irish – the diaspora. The Irish in the United States, in particular, cultivated outsize forms of Irishness as a way of maintaining a sense of identity, and, unbelievably, they became fashionable. Ethnic commodities like St Patrick’s Day and the Irish pub are now being exported back to Ireland. As the Irish have become more cosmopolitan, Irish identity has been packaged for the market. The danger may be that in the process more open definitions of Irishness will be closed down.

Irish ethnic branding exhibits a strange mix of insecurity and confidence, but confidence is certainly part of it. Foster makes a strong case for the period from the 1970s, and particularly since the 1990s, as the moment of a second Irish literary revival that is the fruit of that assertiveness. It is not just that Ireland is producing fine writers, but that now they can stay at, or return, home. Tracking the relationship between creativity and commerce is never easy, but the (Haughey-inspired) tax breaks for artists have undoubtedly played a part, as has the fact that Irish writers write not only for the book-buying public at home, but for a huge diasporic audience.

Whether the w0rk of Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín, Patrick McCabe and Dermot Bolger constitutes a ‘new direction in Irish fiction’ is less certain. The major trope of Irish fiction is certainly no longer Modernist paralysis but change – Tóibín’s second novel, The Heather Blazing, is a very good example of this. But, as the novel also shows, that change still turns on the contradictions that lay at the heart of Catholic nationalist Ireland, and the long historical shadow cast by the revolution.

The novelist who explored this period with the greatest acuity was John McGahern, a writer who (contrary to Foster’s view) was intensely alive to the contradictions and compromises of Irish postmodernity. His last book, That They May Face the Rising Sun, is set in a time warp, the characters caught in a strange limbo between a revolutionary history that won’t go away and the new world of the returned emigrant. These periods blur in the graceful, repetitive movements of the novel, making it impossible to gauge exactly when the story is set. This, it seems, is what Foster is getting at in his nicely imprecise subtitle: ‘c.1970-2000’. Seamus Deane tells a winning story of how, as a bookish child much given to reading the encyclopedia, he became fascinated with that place called Circa, where so many interesting things had happened, and over such a long period of time. In the curious fast-forward place that is contemporary Ireland, everything has happened, and all at once.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences