On (Not) Saying What You Mean

Colm Tóibín reports from Dublin

I came to live in Dublin when I was 17, in October 1972. It was very exciting. The annual fee for an arts student at University College Dublin was £100. Someone from home told me that he wandered into Theatre L one morning as Denis Donoghue was lecturing and noticed me staring at Donoghue with my mouth wide open, as though I was hearing an amazing piece of gossip for the first time. Donoghue was lecturing about the short poem in the 16th century. I did not know up to then that there were short poems in the 16th century. I knew there were sonnets and plays by Shakespeare and The Faerie Queen, but even saying the phrase now – ‘short poem in the 16th century’ – makes me wish I were writing about the work of Fulke Greville or Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Thomas Wyatt.

I studied English and History. In English we were told almost immediately by Seamus Deane that we must bring nothing of ourselves, of our personal experience to a poem when we read. A poem was a verbal structure, and our job was to define the nature of its structure. Thus a poem could be read in the same way by a student in Kenya, at Oxford, in Philadelphia, in darkest Australia and here in Ireland. A poem was a pure, timeless object; reading did not require a cultural context. In History, the physical force tradition in Ireland was never dealt with directly. In three years, there was no lecture about the Famine, the Fenians, Young Ireland, the 1916 Rising. Even poor Michael Davitt and his Land League only got a look in because they represented a headache for Charles Stewart Parnell. History was Daniel O’Connell, Parnell and John Redmond, who led the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster after Parnell. My grandfather had been interned after the 1916 Rising, and sometimes when the older generation in my family gathered they talked about the Fenians and evictions, Black and Tan raids and the 1916 Rising. Now in 1972, in the history department of University College Dublin, this was unmentionable and not worth studying. And there was something else going on: the voices giving the lectures were posh, at least to this ear from Enniscorthy, where only two to three people spoke like that and they were solicitors and high up in Fine Gael – Garret FitzGerald’s party, John Bruton’s party. (My family was in Fianna Fáil.) It was easy to see why they admired O’Connell and Parnell, and were happier reading Hansard than the list of names on coffin ships.

A whole generation, who had benefited from free education, was being re-educated. It was being made clear to them that reading Edmund Spenser in Ireland was no different from reading him in England, that the real moments worth studying in Irish history were the moments when Irish leaders had shone in Parliament. This was merely a part of what was going on everywhere. A whole society was turning away from itself. Once the Liam Cosgrave Government came to power in 1973, the Irish middle class, new and old, had, in the cabinet, voices of reason, such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald, to lead them away from a notion of their Irish heritage as something dark, catastrophic and violent towards the bright light of European Union and Anglo-Irish Agreement.

I went to secondary school in 1967, the first year of free secondary education. I remember the Budget introduced by Charles Haughey in 1969, not for the tax-free status handed down to artists, although I am grateful for that now, but for the extraordinary increases in social welfare payments, which were backdated and meant that a whole room in our house could be transformed: every single piece of furniture gone, the lino taken up, the old curtains taken down, the walls painted, the old table thrown out, even the fireplace changed. For the next few years every time I came home I was amazed at this transformation. And other things happened too: members of my family began to go on package tours to Spain rather than pilgrimages to Lourdes, books no longer arrived from the Reader’s Digest Book Club, or the Catholic Book Club, new paperbacks by modern writers were bought any time anyone from the family went to Dublin. My sister became addicted to Jean-Paul Sartre. I remember a book called Words which began ‘I loathe my childhood’; this was an astonishing idea in Enniscorthy at that time.

Not long afterwards another sister decided to build a house. There were no architects in Enniscorthy, but lots of builders who suggested that she should look at a book called Bungalow Bliss. This explained everything about the new houses which began to dot our landscape, houses with tiled roofs and picture windows. (The Irish Times, in its infinite snobbery, called it Bungalow Blight.) We went through the book and then began to drive around the countryside looking at examples of House Number Five, or House Number Sixty-Two, cheering with delight when a number which we had particularly favoured appeared in front of our eyes in the townlands around Enniscorthy. Thus Bree, Marshalstown, The Milehouse, The Still, Browneswood, Davidstown Boulavogue each glowed with shiny new examples of what was to become indigenous Irish architecture. You selected your number and sent a small sum of money and the plans arrived. The builder knew exactly what to do. There was no damp in these wonderful new buildings, and there was nothing to remind you of where you had been brought up. The windows were a new shape, the layout was like nothing you had known before; they were like houses in America. Now you could stay in Ireland and be warm and comfortable and proud.

In the early Seventies, as the car-bombs went off in the North and the debate raged over Section 31, which banned Sinn Fein from the Irish airwaves, and the nature of Irish identity, for me and my associates the name John Banville began to have a strange, heroic power. His novel Birchwood, which appeared in 1973, remains the most extreme and perhaps the most persuasive work of Irish revisionism. In this book Irish history was a huge joke: the Famine and the war of independence were mixed with a circus and various Gothic horrors as parts of a sour dream, pieces of a narrative invented to amuse us. Banville’s earlier novel Nightspawn was set in Greece and his next, Doctor Copernicus, in Mitteleuropa. It would be hard, it seemed to me, to write a novel set in the past in Ireland without somehow taking Birchwood into account. It was the attitude that mattered most – the prose glistening with irony, the tone sophisticated and knowing. The idea of viewing Ireland as a joke and the outside world as somehow real was hugely liberating if you were a student in Dublin in the early Seventies in a world dominated by Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Daithi Ó Conall and Seán Mac Stíopháin.

I had come to see Irish nationalism as dreary and irrational: it left no room for variety and dissent. I argued with my brother about it and when he mentioned how many times Ireland had been invaded and attacked I was able to say that our family name was Norman and that we had invaded Ireland, and if we wanted to be Irish as well – and we certainly did, my uncle, after all, was a founding member of Fianna Fáil – we would have to accept the idea that we had invaded ourselves. Scoring a point like this seems a crucial part of the early Seventies.

I remember constant arguments, days spent discussing whether Conor Cruise O’Brien was right or wrong, whether the IRA had any legitimacy as a defence force, whether the IRA was like or unlike the old IRA. I remember that each time I went home there was something new in the house – a fridge, a telephone, a stereo record-player, new draught-free doors and windows. To announce one weekend that you no longer supported the prisoners in Long Kesh, and you felt that the Unionists had a point when they dismissed the Republic, was to become another new, strange object that had been brought into the house, part of the constantly changing domestic landscape. I wished all the time that I could possess the distance that Banville possessed in his books and his reviews, the Olympian, Nabokovian grand view. I wished I was French or English. I hated the arguments. I always saw both sides and then could see above the whole thing, see how inevitable the mess had become, once that vast plain in the south of England, those huge fertile fields, began to produce a surplus and there was money for expansion, and Ireland, the place the Romans called Hibernia, was so obvious and difficult a prey. How could they have stayed away?

The outside world was glamorous. Ireland was Liam Cosgrave in 1974 voting against his own government’s bill to slightly legalise the condom. Ireland viewed itself as rural and Catholic, Dublin was in some way a foreign city, and its heritage meant nothing – buildings were not there to take pleasure in, they were there to make money from, to be comfortable in. All sorts of pasts were being taken away: the past that I believed in so firmly as a child was no longer real or good or even true, the past in which Ireland had bravely struggled against the invader and won her freedom, which we now enjoyed. And the other past: that backroom in Enniscorthy, the old fireplace, the lino on the floor, all that gone too, thrown out, good for nothing, not a stick of furniture inherited or handed down. And Dublin slowly moving in front of your eyes. I wanted to get out, to go somewhere stable and free of all this. I would have gone anywhere. I applied for a job in Algeria and was turned down. I went on a course for prospective members of the British Civil Service and was so bored that I never thought of going back there. In the end, I went to Spain. I arrived in Barcelona 20 years ago, in late September 1975. I chose it because I knew people who had lived there, and I loved when they talked about it. I saw it as warm and glamorous, and because it was not a capital city I saw it as a place where I could be free. But more than anything I saw it in black and while. Franco, the police and the apparatus of the state were evil: the dissidents were good. It would be easier than Ireland where these lines are never clear.

I was looking for a mainland, somewhere whose narrative I could follow with respect and wonder. I did not know what was going to happen. I did not know that Franco would die in November. I did not know, nor did anybody else, that the new king was a democrat and took the view that democracy should not be introduced slowly but in one fell swoop. I did not know that within a year of Franco’s death the names of the streets in the old city would be put up in Catalan, the language he had banned, that many street names would be changed, that there would be free elections, a new Constitution, that there would be an amnesty, there would be autonomy. If we were to concentrate on change in Spain in those years I would be able to tell you that the way people walked in the street changed, the way they smiled and laughed changed. I would be able to talk, I suppose, about moments of supreme happiness in that city in those years, realising that the Catalans were not going to throw bombs or shoot policemen, they were going to make pacts; they had spent the years of the dictatorship educating their children and making money and now they were ready to inherit the earth and reap their rewards. They moved into positions of power as though power had been made for them. The climate changed, and yet certain things remained steadfast. The same people owned the same things. The Catalan middle class in the city of Barcelona, who had been affected by neither world war, and had remained aloof during the Spanish Civil War, became one of the few untouched bourgeois classes in the world. All of the men and women who hold power in Barcelona now come from that class. You watch change and then you watch the notion of change crumbling in your hand.

I came back to Ireland in 1978. And I found that if you listened to the language politicians used and public discourse in general with the trained ear of a literary critic, you found out more than any number of political scientists. Both Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald made elaborate overtures to young people in their speeches in the early Eighties. Young people were always, according to them, our greatest national asset. Soon, I understood that this meant something entirely different from what it said. It meant that a great national tragedy was about to recommence in Ireland, that by the end of the Eighties, fifty thousand young people a year would leave Ireland looking for work. And everybody, it seemed to me, understood the hidden meanings in the words the politicians used. I began to notice that if you put the word ‘not’ in the sentences used in public life in Ireland which did not already have it and deleted the ‘not’ in the sentences which did, then you would get a much clearer view of what was going on. I had always been puzzled by the overwhelming support in the referendum of 1972 for the deletion of sections of Article 44 of the Irish Constitution. The main section read: ‘The state recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.’ It was deleted by 721,003 votes to 133,430. In the Eighties I realised that it was deleted because it was true. Therefore it did not need to be said. Most things in the Constitution were simply not true. For example: the Irish language, according to the Constitution, ‘is the first official language’. Add ‘not’ and you enter the real world. Or: ‘The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ The state recognises no such thing. In the same way it was easy for the electorate to put a clause into the Constitution protecting the right to life of the unborn in 1983, just as the figures for Irish women who sought abortions in England were approaching the European average.

The ‘not’ factor explained things like de Valera’s extraordinary speech on St Patrick’s Day in 1943. He said that Ireland would be

a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the rompings of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live.

All you have to do is place a ‘not’ close to the verbs and you get sense. And de Valera knew this, as did his audience. The rest of us who have been attacking the speech and making fun of it over the past ten years have almost wilfully misunderstood it, and accepted the letter of the speech as a way of attacking the Catholic Right in Ireland.

This attitude to language in the Republic of Ireland infuriates and alienates the Unionists in Northern Ireland more than potholed roads or statues of the Virgin Mary. They call it hypocrisy. A community which longs for the Bible to mean exactly what it says feels that it has nothing in common with a group of people – Catholics – who believe that the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ while at the same time knowing that it does not. When the Unionists use ‘no’ and ‘not’, as they do much of the time, we underline these words rather than delete them. The Unionists mean every word they say, unfortunately. In the late Eighties they discovered that they could get incredible mileage out of claiming to misunderstand the ‘not’ factor, just as I and a number of my friends have been doing with de Valera. They began to demand that Articles Two and Three of the Constitution should be repealed. Article Two of the Constitution reads: ‘The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.’ Article Three claims jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. Everyone in Ireland knows that these articles are not simply meaningless, but are best understood as signifying the exact opposite of what they say. The Government of the Republic has accepted the existence of Northern Ireland as part of Britain in every possible way. But the Unionists decided to test these articles in the Irish Supreme Court in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Since the early Sixties there have always been one or two brilliant individuals on the Supreme Court who understood that some articles in the Constitution meant the opposite of what they said and have handed down judgments accordingly. This time, however, they decided to take Articles Two and Three seriously and stated that they represented a ‘constitutional imperative’. The Unionists went back to Belfast screaming blue murder, pointing out that things were worse than they thought. But they knew, as did everyone else on the island of Ireland, that the said articles do not represent a ‘constitutional imperative’. All the Unionists had to do was add a ‘not’ to the judgment and things would become perfectly clear.

This way of reading Ireland covers a multitude, but it does not offer blanket coverage. There are very interesting exceptions and it is easy to detect them. The ban on divorce in the Constitution (‘No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of a marriage’), oddly enough, means what it says. It is a fact, unlike the article which recognised the special position of the Catholic Church, which was merely a claim. And this is why it has been so difficult to remove and why the referendum failed in 1986 and why the result will be so close on 24 November. (I am writing in the week before the referendum and keeping my fingers crossed.) No one possesses the verbal instruments to handle plain talk; people are much better at handling aspirations, half-truths and lies.

In recent years four new players in Irish public life have invented forms of rhetoric which have to be read in a new way. These are President Mary Robinson, Provisional Sinn Fein, John Hume and the British Government. The ‘not’ factor does not help us to read Mary Robinson. She is a political idealist, and saying the opposite of what she means would not appeal to her. This does not mean that she says exactly what she means. She never says exactly what she means. She makes herself clear by implication. She uses symbol and suggestion with enormous zeal and cleverness, and people have learned to decipher her codes without any difficulty. If she shakes hands with the Queen of England, then everybody knows that she wants greater reconciliation between the two countries. If she shakes hands with Gerry Adams then she signals that we will have to learn not to marginalise Sinn Fein, but include them in our lives, all the better to tame them. At the beginning of November she said to NBC that she was aware of the ‘extraordinary changes in marriage law and the judicial separation that exists. So that, in a way, the divorce issue has now become an issue of whether the Constitution will be changed to allow the right to remarry in Irish society.’ The anti-divorce people recognised immediately that this was a speech in favour of divorce and they went mad, calling the remarks an ‘unwarranted intrusion’ into the debate. But supporters of divorce claimed that the President was only stating the facts. Both sides are right, but the pro-divorce side is being disingenuous. When the President states facts she is always pushing her audience towards a conclusion. Her audience know this and they love the stealth of it and the absence of the open hypocrisy they are used to, and this is why she always gets high ratings in popularity polls.

Provisional Sinn Fein adopt a different approach. They deal in euphemism, and everybody understands them too. Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mitchell McLaughlin love the phrase ‘the peace process’ and they use it over and over again. In Northern Ireland, if you ignore the punishment beatings, peace has broken out. To keep calling it a ‘process’ is to suggest that it might end, and since the only people who can end it are the Provisional movement themselves, you know that when they use the phrase it includes a threat. When they tell us that the ‘peace process is in danger’ they mean that some of their supporters will start bombing and shooting again. We understand this, and so do they.

In recent years John Hume’s rhetoric has taken its bearing from the language of prayer and chant. As though butter would not melt in his mouth, he equates Nationalist compromise with Unionist compromise: in other words, he wants the Unionists to compromise what they have – a majority, Britishness – in exchange for Nationalists compromising what they want – a united Ireland. He has invented a mantra, and it is immensely powerful and persuasive. We are ‘a divided people’ and we must have dialogue so there can be ‘an agreed Ireland’. No one can disagree with him. His words, like all good prayers, work wonders. He is a saint.

The British have now joined the Southern Irish establishment in saying the exact opposite of what they mean, and it is this more than anything that makes the new Unionist leader David Trimble look so angry. When John Major told the House of Commons that it ‘would turn his stomach’ to negotiate with Gerry Adams, he meant exactly the opposite, and when this became clear, there was a fuss, but no one really minded too much because everybody, even the British electorate, who usually take things literally, understood him in the first place to have meant the opposite of what he said. Similarly, when the ceasefire began, the British said that they would not speak to Sinn Fein until the IRA stated that the ceasefire was ‘permanent’. Soon, it became clear that the opposite was the case. So, too, with decommissioning. Every time I hear Sir Patrick Mayhew or John Major speak about Northern Ireland I place a ‘not’ where there is none, and I delete ‘not’ when it is there.

The discussion about how much Ireland has changed has replaced discussions about the North and violence and identity. No one knows. There has not been a revolution and yet nothing is the same. Maybe I have witnessed great changes and simply not noticed them, maybe a scene occurred in front of my eyes which was important beyond belief and I did not notice. Maybe I was looking for the wrong things. We became so involved in watching the monoliths of the Catholic Church and the Fianna Fáil decline that we may have missed what was really happening. Maybe if we start viewing Ireland through the eyes of marketing people, rather than literary critics, we will see things more clearly. A man called Peter Prendergast is unique among marketing people in Ireland in recent years in that he is responsible for two marketing coups. Peter Prendergast sold yoghurt and then Garret FitzGerald to the Irish people.

I wonder how many people in Ireland can remember when they first tasted yoghurt. I can remember the strange taste, like sweet thick buttermilk. I can remember an aunt visiting and being told about it and shown it. It was the early Seventies. There were ads on television for yoghurt, and it was available in the local supermarket. We had a fridge by this time. My aunt wanted to know if you could buy it without having a fridge. If you consumed it as soon as you went home, we told her, but otherwise you’d need a fridge. And just as you needed a fridge to have yoghurt, you needed yoghurt to feel part of things. I don’t know how it was done. Although Coca-Cola was advertised, we never had it in the house. Most other new products we completely ignored, but this was different. This was, in some way, a quality product, good for you, and brand new like the carpet and the curtains and the stereo. It cost money, but somehow it was worth it. It was real, and pure. But not too real or too pure. It was expensive but not too expensive. Someone got its image just right; someone packaged it perfectly. It entered the folklore of marketing in Ireland; it is the sort of product you can sell to an insecure middle class, and it spread like wildfire. In a short period of time, it boomed. The brand name was Yoplait: in 1971 it sold 650 tonnes in Ireland; in 1972 the figure had gone up to 1230 tonnes; by 1978 it was selling 5938 tonnes. The marketing was done by Peter Prendergast.

When Garret FitzGerald became leader of Fine Gael in 1977, Prendergast used the same technique to sell Garret FitzGerald to the Irish middle classes. Once more he had a quality product, new to politics, and somehow outside politics, in a political world where women and young people were becoming serious consumers. Garret was open and friendly, but not too open or too friendly; also he was an economist who could rattle off figures. He had a posh voice, but he cared. He was Europe; he was new without being too new. He had the same fascinating ambiguities as a container of yoghurt: modern, fresh, a cut above the rest, but good for you, would suit all your aspirations and impress the neighbours, would look good in your shopping basket; the image spelled out a bright future. The selling of yoghurt and Garret FitzGerald showed that large numbers of people in the Republic of Ireland – this place which was meant to be atavistic and backward-looking – would switch to a product which promised brightness and modernity and poshness, would even pay more for it, and feel good having done so.

During the late Eighties I had occasion to sit a number of times in the boardroom of Independent Newspapers, who produce the three most widely read newspapers in the Republic. I was amazed the first time I went in there to see that the portraits on the walls were not of Tony O’Reilly, the president of Heinz who owns the newspapers, or his family, but of William Martin Murphy and his family – the man who gave us the 1913 lock-out, one of the great demons of Irish history. It was like going into the house of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and finding a portrait of General Franco. I was interested in this because I was, at that time, writing part-time for the Sunday Independent, which was seeking to hold its own, or even increase its circulation, in a shrinking market.

It is very difficult to increase the circulation of a newspaper which already has a large circulation if there is any serious competition. If you go downmarket and introduce too much sex and screaming headlines, you lose conservative middle-class readers. If you go upmarket and have longer articles and more considered coverage, you lose readers who are easily bored. Also, it is possible that making changes will make you lose readers and gain none. Looking for a greater share of the market can be very dangerous. There were certain golden rules governing what the Sunday Independent would print in the late Eighties – they were unwritten rules, but were clearly understood by anyone who wrote for the paper and by many who read the paper. The paper was opposed not just to the IRA but to the ideology of nationalism, even constitutional nationalism. The paper was generally anti-clerical, so that if you wanted to have a go at a bishop, then the paper would, as no other newspaper in Ireland, print your views. There was nothing cynical about this: those who held editorial power in the paper were in general both anti-nationalist and anti-clerical themselves. But they also believed, I think, that such an editorial slant would work wonders in the Ireland sought by advertisers, that line that runs from Malahide in the north of Dublin to Delgany in the south, Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. But these were the people who read the paper in any case; so to increase circulation you would have to go after blue-collar people, who read the Irish tabloid paper the Sunday World, which gained a huge circulation in Ireland with the slogan ‘Are you getting it every Sunday?’ and maybe the British tabloids, or the ailing Sunday Press, owned by the de Valera family, and if you did that there was a danger of the Sunday Independent becoming naff, an item of merchandise you couldn’t be seen with on the way home from drinks on a Sunday morning in the Dublin suburbs. So they made the paper both more and less posh at the same time, and they allowed opinions to be expressed which seemed to outrage middle Ireland (an attack on Seamus Heaney or John Hume or Jack Charlton), but served to amuse people, or confirm their own hidden views on topics like the whining voices of Northern Catholics, or the need for much more sexual liberty in Ireland, or the need for lower taxes. As the circulation went up, no middle-class or upper-middle-class readers left. Instead, people with lower incomes began to read the paper.

It survived happily, upmarket and downmarket at the same page, this strange Ireland of consumers, all of whom, irrespective of class or creed, can be reached by the same newspaper. It could not happen in any other country. The stories of yoghurt and Garret FitzGerald tell us how important class aspiration is in Ireland, how people will buy an image if it promises them a bright future. The story of the Sunday Independent tells us a more complex but equally important story: that no one much in the Republic has arrived any place which is stable and fixed; that there is some basic part of everyone in the middle classes which can be addressed in the same way as people on lower incomes; that we got the fridge at home and the stereo and the books by Jean-Paul Sartre but something in all our families has remained stable; that the moving from one class to another has not changed our appetites or the way in which certain images and packages will attract us. So the power of the Church has lessened, and anti-clericalism is all the rage, and Fianna Fáil may never again get an overall majority in Ireland, and nationalism has been educated out of us, and we have invented and taught the English a set of political signs which have become our first official language (just as they gave us the short poem in the 16th century), but what we buy and how we buy it can still, under certain circumstances, show Irish society, at least in the Republic, to be a monolith, unshakeable and strange.