The Cosy Sectarianism of the Great Irish Writers

How cosy and quaint do the petty sectarian bigotries of 20th century Irish writing seem today.

I’m not referring to the civil war in the North of Ireland, usually euphemistically referred to in a diminished manner as the ‘Troubles’. I lived through most of that, and it was extremely unpleasant indeed.

Rather I mean the slightly earlier period of the early and mid-twentieth century, when Irish writing bestrode the world in the forms of giants like Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Behan.

What’s interesting, considering just these four (though we could add many other lesser names), is the varying personal reactions to the sectarian divide in Ireland. For the Protestant-raised, middle-class and cosmopolitan Beckett and Yeats, minor distinctions in flavours of Christianity was an irrelevance at best.

Yeats in later life veered into mysticism, theosophy, magick and the occult. Beckett by contrast tended to dismiss Christianity if not all religion entirely, referring to it as “all balls”, though conceding that it amounted to more than merely “convenient mythology”. Raised in the era they were, both Yeats and Beckett imbibed plenty of Christian dogma in school and wider culture however, and both demonstrate in their writing an easy and deep familiarity with Christian writings and the Bible.

Beckett, probably not considering conversion to Catholicism

By contrast, the Catholic, lower middle-class/working class Joyce and Behan seemed unable entirely to shake off the tribal Catholicism of their backgrounds and education. I was reminded of this recently when I re-encountered Behan’s hilarious take on Anglicanism:

Don’t speak of the alien minister,

Nor of his church without meaning or faith,

For the foundation stone of his temple

Was the bollocks of Henry VIII.

Behan wearing a rosette proclaiming what is undoubtedly the greatest sporting chant ever.

Behan was a self-described “daylight atheist”. This is often presented online in the form of a quote: “I’m a communist by day and a Catholic by night”. However, I’ve not found a reliable source for this variant. Anyhow, Behan clearly had not managed to transcend the petty sectarian rivalries which beset Ireland, and in this he echoes Joyce, who in the highly autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man describes his alter-ego protagonist Stephen Dedalus refusing to consider conversion to Protestantism:

– Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a Protestant?

– I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

We might consider this passage as a depiction in mature adulthood of his prissy adolescence were it not that it is echoed elsewhere in his work, such as the short story ‘Grace’ in Dubliners.

Joyce in his lengthy European exile.

It’s worth remembering too that Joyce and Behan both escaped the confines of petty Ireland if anything more completely than Yeats ever did, the latter becoming a senator in the newly independent Ireland whereas Joyce relocated permanently to Europe, while Behan spent much of his time in London and America. (Beckett like his mentor Joyce went to Europe and never looked back.)

So then, what fuels this seemingly pointless animus? The grounds of objection from both Joyce and Behan relate to an apparent illogicality inherent to Protestantism. Notably in both instances, there is no defence of Catholicism offered, merely a snide (and in Behan’s case, very funny) dismissal of Ireland’s second-largest faith.

And unlike Yeats, neither sought to construct a religious faith of their own, though in Joyce’s case at least there was an astonishing attempt to replace the religious impetus with an aesthetic one, succinctly underpinned as Joyce said, by “silence, exile and cunning.”

I think Behan’s piece (a translation as it happens from 16th century Irish) gives the game away here. In many locations, the first line of his translation is misquoted as referring to “your Protestant minister”. But Behan like his source material makes clear that while Anglicanism is being referred to, the issue is less the protest against Catholicism underpinning it than its alienness, that is, the fact that it was the faith of the foreign (ie English) overlords who governed Ireland from the time of bebollocked Henry to their present day.

In other words, it was an atavistic political tribalism rather than a theological objection. We still have those tribalisms in Ireland today, primarily in the North where those overlords remain in position, likely against their will and desire, due to the complexities of establishing a permanent and lasting peace. In the 26 counties of the Irish Republic however, these passages stand out as glaring anachronisms now.

And even in the North, the late great “famous” Seamus Heaney (like Yeats and Beckett a Nobel laureate) is best described as sociologically post-Catholic rather than a devotee of the creed of his birth. This runs counter to the opinions offered by some of his most astute critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Edna Longley in particular of course, but is it unfair to point out that both critics came from Protestant backgrounds and hence saw the cultural references to Catholicism in Heaney’s work as more significant than it was simply because those references were alien to them in the same way that Protestantism was to Behan?

So, will you be converting to Protestantism, Seamus?

In other words, the sensitivities may be reversed here. Perhaps it is as readers that we detect these curious emphases. Perhaps we misconstrue the petty cultural rivalries of sectarianism in mid-20th century Ireland because religion played such a larger role in cultural life in those days, in ways that anyone under 50 is unlikely to recognise in Ireland today.

The great Irish writers never stop teaching us, and one of their lessons is that we must challenge ourselves as readers with regard to what we find striking in their writing. What we notice and what we do not says perhaps as much about us as it does about them. They hold a mirror to our souls, even if, like Behan, we are daylight atheists.

The Northern Irish elections foretell the future failures of all democracies

It’s a foolish person who seeks to draw conclusions from an election where the votes haven’t finished being counted yet. But I am a foolish person, and I want to explain to you, wherever you may be, why a round of elections for a regional parliament in a small European backwater which is likely to result in no one actually wielding power is nevertheless of critical relevance to you.

You almost definitely don’t care about the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections. Why should you? Even about 40% of the people of Northern Ireland couldn’t care less about the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections, according to the turnout. But actually, these elections are supremely relevant to all of us because they are uniquely helpful in explaining why democracy is failing.

Northern Ireland is a small territory in the North Atlantic, of just under 2 million people, bordering the Republic of Ireland and administrated by Britain. The elections there are of parochial interest.

Great Britain, the reluctant ruler of the territory, casts at best a weary side glance towards Northern Irish elections, which tend to have no relevance at all to the island of Britain except about once or twice a century, when suddenly they do so crucially, out of all proportion.

Likewise, for the most part, the politicos of the Republic of Ireland, so insistant on their their shiny hi-tech cosmopolitanism and Europeanness, prefer to function mostly under the self-delusion that the problematic six counties to their north don’t exist. Nevertheless, the shadow of history and what is colloquially known as the ‘national question’ has a habit of flaring up into relevance, not least because in the most recent round of elections, Sinn Féin, a party which espouses the political unification of the island of Ireland, became the single biggest party.

Northern Ireland 2022
Republic of Ireland 2020

So if the British tend to ignore Northern Irish elections, and the Irish do likewise, and even nearly half the Northern Irish don’t show any interest, why should you?

Because these elections help to reveal a range of truths about why democracy is failing. Specifically, they show us that:

  1. Democracy is being consumed by identity politics.
  2. Democracy is promoting extremism, and extreme methods for excluding extremists.
  3. Democratic systems are essentially flawed, especially when one attempts to embed fairness into them.
  4. Political parties have natural lifespans, and run based on their positions on the challenges of the past, not the future.
  5. The really important decisions aren’t made democratically anymore.

Let’s go through this point by point. Democracy is being consumed by identity politics. This was always the case in Northern Ireland. It was created by partition a century ago to ensure a majority for the unionist, British-affiliated, largely Protestant community in the north-east of Ireland. By definition therefore, its politics have perennially been about orange and green, the vying of two identity blocs for recognition of their cultural aspirations.

This was not the case in most other places until relatively recently, with the advent of more multicultural societies, of course. But in similarly riven territories, such as Sri Lanka, societies have tended, as occurred in Northern Ireland for three decades, to descend into civil war.

What we’re beginning to see in many democratic nations is the emergence of political identity parties akin to those in Northern Ireland. In Western Europe, these tend to emerge first among indigenes on the right wing, who are ethno-nationalist and resistant to immigration. But not exclusively. There is, for example, an Islamic party in Holland. This tendency is therefore beginning to proliferate.

Likewise, we are seeing the co-option of existing political parties, or rather, their repurposing to become focused on identity politics issues rather than whatever political ideology accompanied their foundation. To this end, we can identify the move towards ethno-nationalism among long-established parties like the UK’s Conservatives or the USA’s Republicans. In response, we can see their main political rivals adopt a rival identity politics, that of an opposing ‘rainbow coalition’. But what Holland demonstrates is that such broad churches of disparate identity politics are likely in the end to splinter into more coherent, more homogeneous forms.

What results is a refutation of game theory approaches to politics. As in Northern Ireland, where unionist farmers along the border or nationalist bureaucrats in Belfast actively vote against their personal best interests and in favour of broader identity issues, we’re seeing people gravitate in many democracies towards voting for political identities which actually function against their own personal interests in many cases.

Democracy is also now promoting extremism, and extreme methods for excluding extremists, I’d argue. It promotes extremism because in a contemporary mediated world where political debate and the public sphere is being reduced to soundbites and tweets, only the loudest and simplest arguments are getting through. Furthermore, more and more of us exist in cultural echo chambers, obtaining our news and information from inside discourses we already entirely concur with. We are rendered impervious to having our minds changed because we don’t encounter alternative perspectives except in terms couched in condemnation.

In reaction to this, political establishments are forced to take more extreme measures to restrict the spread and growth of such extremism. Sometimes this involves co-opting the less extreme aspects and attempting to detoxify them. Other times it involves unstable coalitions of very odd bedfellows coming together to exclude parties perceived as extreme from holding any power. In Ireland, this manifested most recently with a grand coalition of two bitter rivals, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, to exclude Sinn Fein.

We can begin to argue persuasively in many nations therefore that democratic systems appear to be essentially flawed, even or especially when one attempts to embed fairness into them. In Northern Ireland, the Assembly is a kind of regional parliament, overseen by the British government in Westminister, but semi-autonomous in theory. Its creation was underwritten by the Belfast Agreement, in which both unionist and nationalist communities must be represented in government in an enforced power-sharing executive.

In reality, this doesn’t work very well as it creates inbuilt antagonism among people forced to share collective responsibility for political decision-making, and as a result it has collapsed on more than one occasion in the past, and is likely to collapse imminently again despite these most recent elections. So, it’s a unique system and a unique situation, not one easily mapped onto other democratic nations.

However, the strange and unstable coalitions we see democracy throwing up in recent times, often in reaction to identity politics parties, is a very similar situation. Who could have foreseen Cinque Stelle sharing power with Salvini’s Lega in Italy? Or the Republicains and Socialistes in France effectively stepping aside to permit a shiny new centrist party with a relatively untried leader to become president?

Where proportional representational models, especially list models, exist, there is a risk of opening the doors to fringe extremist parties. But in FPTP systems, though this doesn’t occur to the same extent, it prevents it solely because in itself it is less than fully democratic. Tens of thousands of voices of, for example, Green voters in the UK, simply are not represented.

More significantly, we’re beginning to see in many nations that political parties have natural lifespans, and these spans relate to the fact that they all run based on their positions on the challenges of the past, not the future. In the Northern Irish Assembly elections, formerly the biggest two parties, the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, have effectively been consigned to history, despite their estimable political lineages.

Why is this? Partly because they are not extreme parties, but nor are they, like Macron, radical centrist alternatives. (The radical centre in Northern Ireland are the Alliance Party, who just polled an historic high of 13.5% of the vote.) Falling between two stools, their time in the sun appears to have passed, their votes cannibalised by more polarising, more extreme versions of their own politics (Sinn Fein in the case of the SDLP, and the DUP in the case of the Ulster Unionists. In fact, we can already see this even happening to the DUP. Their vote sunk this time around, largely due to leaking votes to an even more extreme unionist alternative.)

The problem for the SDLP and UUP is that they campaign based on their histories, their ability in the past to come together in a functioning power-sharing executive, to represent their communities and their identities in ways which were nuanced, reasonable and accommodating.

But those were challenges of the 1990s in Northern Ireland, as it emerged from a civil war period. The future challenges are the ones which the 1990s parked indefinitely – those of the constitutional position of the territory. Sinn Fein espouse unifying Ireland. By constrast, the DUP vehemently oppose anything they see as undermining the union with Great Britain. To this extent, they are still fighting future challenges.

But in reality, with the partial exception of the Greens, none of the parties in Northern Ireland even have policies on the REAL major challenges likely to face the territory in years to come. And this is also true of most parties in most democracies too.

Which mainstream parties anywhere have policy documents on issues like automation or roboticisation of the workforce? Or on the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence? Or on the dangers of autonomous weapons? We’ve seen parties around the world mostly fail at addressing the recent Covid pandemic. What are their policies should an outbreak of Ebola occur globally, or even just in their nation? We’re seeing most of them fail right now at addressing energy provision and future security. How do they actually intend to transit to a renewable future energy economy?

Actually, what are their policies on the real challenges of the climate crisis? Not just things like recycling, but how to prevent the great die off of our fellow species on Earth, or the likelihood of conflict over water or food resources? The answer is that almost all political parties have little to no coherent positions on such issues. But these kinds of issues are the ones most likely to impact most people over the next few decades.

Finally, we many conclude that all the really important decisions aren’t made democratically anymore. In Northern Ireland this is utterly self-evident, because it is a regional parliament overseen by Westminster. If, as could well happen, this Assembly is unable to form a functioning executive, it will merely revert to the ministers, or to London, to run the place.

But likewise we can see in many democracies that increasingly national parliaments either do not or cannot invoke agency or power over issues of significant national interest. This is partly because of the growth in power of corporations, which often can flex more economic might than those nations.

Even where nations, or supranational blocs like the European Union, do have such might, they appear all but impotent in the face of even exacting reasonable taxes from such corporations. Meanwhile, those corporations fund squadrons of lobbyists in every democratic nation in order to bend parliamentary decisions to their interests and not those of electorates. And that’s before we even address issues like the democratic deficits embedded in so many democratic systems, from the 2 party monopolies in Britain or America, to the technocracy of the EU.

So the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections are simultaneously historical and meaningless, for a number of reasons. We might be inclined to dismiss them because of that. But actually that’s why we should be paying close attention, because they help to reveal the huge systemic flaws in all democracies.

They help explain the rise of ethno-nationalism, the prevalence of unstable and unlikely coalitions, the temporary ‘radical centre’ solutions, the apparent failures of agency, and most of all the utter failure to address the real challenges of the future.

We don’t know them so well

I was somewhat surprised to learn this morning that one of the earliest chess world champions was a chap from Belfast called Alexander McDonnell, whose day job was lobbying in parliament on behalf of the slave owners of Guyana.

This job paid £1200 per year, the equivalent of £150,000 today, and allowed him plenty of time to practice chess when parliament wasn’t sitting. He held ownership of plantations himself, and was the author of such dubious tomes as “Considerations on Negro Slavery.”

Not a lot is known about McDonnell. There appears to be a few errors on the brief wiki page dedicated to him, including the name of his father. He was renowned as a surly and taciturn man who took up to 90 minutes per turn at the chess table, and would often later spend his evenings pacing up and down in his room replaying the games in his mind.

His opponent in his most famous match, a Frenchman called Labourdonnais, by contrast had lost all of his money in property speculation and was forced to make his living from chess. While McDonnell paced his room, the Frenchman would continue playing all-comers for a sixpence a game late into the evening, all the while fuelled by endless pints of brown ale.

Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais - Wikipedia
Labourdonnais, no doubt looking forward to a few beers. No image of McDonnell exists.

The match was abandoned with Labourdonnais leading, when the Frenchman had to urgently return to Paris to deal with his creditors. Alas, it never resumed, because McDonnell suffered from acute kidney disease and died soon afterwards. In fact, both men died young, and are buried in graves, now lost, in Kensal Green cemetery in London. ABBA should do a musical on that match.

On not reviewing Branagh’s ‘Belfast’

A few people have asked me if I’d seen Branagh’s sepia-tinged movie about Belfast. I haven’t. I also don’t intend to. I’m sure it’s great, but it’s not for me.

Kenneth Branagh racconta 'Belfast': "Ci ho messo due mesi a girarlo e una  vita a concepirlo" - la Repubblica
Branagh on set.

I grew up literally one street away, the other side of a fence we euphemistically call a peace line. That fence is there today. It wasn’t there in the Seventies.

“Peace” line in North Belfast.

In this Google Maps image you can see where my house was (those ones are new). You can also see KAT (standing for ‘Kill all Taigs (Catholics)’ written on the wall. That’s today, nearly three decades into a peace process. If you can’t imagine what it was like at the height of a civil war, there’s plenty of archival news footage available.

I expect Ken would have made a very different movie had he grown up in the city at that time, as I did. Actually, I expect he’d not be making movies at all. So no, I haven’t seen it and won’t see it. It’s not something I care to revisit, in Ken’s sepia tones or in any other format.

It’s not a tribal thing. I’m proud of Ken and always have been. I’ve loved his work since the ‘Billy’ plays. But Ken’s Belfast and mine, though they almost overlap, are hugely different. When the civil war euphemistically known as the ‘Troubles’ erupted in 1969, Ken’s family quite sensibly emigrated.

What they left behind, and what my family moved into (after being threatened out of their home in a different part of town), was a North Belfast that quickly became a patchwork quilt of paramilitary loyalties, rival tribalisms, brute violence and war.

I really admire Branagh for never shying away from his origins, and also for the sensitivity he has always brought to the topic. But, to use a word in today’s parlance, I find this somewhat triggering. More pertinently, I’m not the intended audience for this.

Making Space for Peace

It’s my first publication of the year, and it’s a doozy – my review of Richard Howard’s amazing book on the Northern Irish SF superstars James White and Bob Shaw.

Liverpool University Press: Books: Space for Peace

It’s in Fafnir, along with a lot of other highly intriguing pieces on, inter alia, AI, aliens, Neil Gaiman, Afrofuturism, you name it. The great thing about Fafnir is, it’s free. No journal article access fees or any of that malarkey.

Congrats to Dennis Wise and the team for putting this out.

The cyclical nature of etymology

There is, sometimes, a weird cyclical pattern embedded in etymology, the linguistic science of what we might otherwise call the glacial process of Chinese Whispers. Allow me to offer one particularly colourful and occasionally literary example.

The (somewhat uncommon) Irish surname Prunty originates from an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Irish surname Ó Proinntigh, meaning ‘descendant of Proinnteach’, which in turn was an archaic Irish forename which meant literally a banqueting hall. The idea underpinning this is that of a generous person who feeds his neighbours and kin.

As often happens with surnames, pronunciation of vowels or consonants slides a little over time and usage. So Prunty also becomes Brunty in some cases. Brunty as a surname retains its Irish origins but is very rare indeed. Nowadays it is mostly found in the United States.

Probably the most famous Brunty in history is Patrick, an Anglican clergyman who was born as the eldest of ten children into a very poor family in Rathfriland, county Down, on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1777. Why is Patrick famous? Because of his immensely talented children, particularly his daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who are all now renowned as famous Victorian novelists.

Patrick Brontë - Wikipedia
The Reverend Patrick Brontë

However, the sisters did not publish under the name Brunty. Rather, given the sexism of the era, they initially released their books under the male names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In reality, their surname had become Brontë by then. How had this happened? It’s unclear why Patrick changed his surname, but a desire to distance himself from his impoverished Irish origins after his graduation from Cambridge no doubt is part of the reason.

bronte home
The Brunty homestead, now in ruins, still stands in county Down.

Another reason, it has been suggested, relates to a desire to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had been given the title of Duke of Bronte by the King of Naples, whom Nelson had restored to his throne. Bronte is the name of an Italian estate in eastern Sicily, close to Mount Etna which was also granted to Nelson by the grateful King.

We now relate the name Brontë to his famous daughters, the authors of books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively. The parsonage Patrick oversaw for many years in Haworth in Yorkshire, which inspired many of the scenes in his daughter’s books, is now a museum in their collective honour.

The Brontë Sisters: How Emily, Charlotte & Anne Changed The World -  HistoryExtra
The Brontë sisters

But Haworth is not the only location which honours the Brontë sisters. There are many such locations, given their collective fame. One such place is the little town of Bronte in northern Central Texas. Ever since an early oil boom subsided, it has been a relatively impoverished place, not unlike Rathfriland, with a stable population around the 1,000 mark.

Back in the early 20th century, this was one of the small Texas towns that was briefly home to Isaac Howard, a semi-itinerant doctor who wandered with his wife and son from town to town working as a medic, and occasionally losing his money on get-rich-quick schemes, much to his wife’s frustration. Isaac’s son was a big reader, and, encouraged by his mother, began writing his own stories from an early age. We now know him as Robert E. Howard, the progenitor of the ‘Swords and Sorcery’ genre of fantasy fiction, and author of the Conan the Cimmerian stories in particular. Howard was particularly interested in Irish and Scottish mythology, and many of his characters, including Conan, display this interest.

Professional photograph of Robert E. Howard wearing a hat and suit.
Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the Barbarian.

The Texan town of Bronte has had its pronunciation amended by new world accent to /bɹænt/, or ‘brant’, over time. This is of course a homophone for a genus of goose, the Brant or Brent goose, which migrates in winter to Ireland and Britain. The Brent oilfield in the North Sea takes its name from this goose.

It is a smallish bird by geese standards, but nonetheless, in the era before the new world turkey took primacy as the quintessential Christmas dining food, the Brant goose (whose name derives from the pan-Nordic brandgás, or ‘burnt’ goose due to its black colouring) would have been one of the more common feast dishes provided by generous hosts in Ireland at the midwinter feast.

Due to a widespread medieval myth, which persisted in Ireland into the 20th century, that these geese were somehow related to barnacles, they were permitted to be eaten by Catholics on a Friday, when meat other than fish was otherwise prohibited. In other words Proinnteach the medieval Irishman got his name due to feeding this bird to his friends and neighbours.

Such is the cyclical nature of etymology.

The War on Abstraction

War on terror can mean devastating Middle Eastern countries on fabricated evidence, or simply comforting a child having a nightmare.

War on drugs could mean burning poor farmers crops in Colombia and Afghanistan, incarcerating ravers, introducing CBT counselling for people stranded for decades on SSRIs, or murdering addicts in the Philippines.

War on crime can mean targetting gangland bosses with tax legislation, incarcerating youth for minor offences, or overpolicing black neighbourhoods in America and Catholic ones in Belfast.

What we REALLY need is a war on policians using abstractions.

The next time a politician says he intends to tackle homelessness, we should make him play soccer with some rough sleepers. Ninety minutes of getting kicked about the pitch might not change much, but it would at least be less corrosive than whatever he actually intended to do.