Sunday, 7 April 2019

A Nation Once Again

Seeing a Sean O’Casey play recently, with its implicit criticism of conservative nationalism, has led me to wonder how should one rate the Irish Free State and its successor, the Republic of Ireland?

Neither was exactly a disaster, but it’s hard to argue that the country didn’t really mature socially or economically until at least the mid-1960’s.

There are many reasons for this slow start, including the war of independence, an even more brutal civil war, the violent early deaths of so many visionaries such as Michael Collins, Liam Lynch, Arthur Griffith, and Liam Mellows, a lack of capital after British withdrawal, and worldwide depression in the 1930’s. 

And yet, let me suggest three main reasons for over forty years of spiritual and economic poverty: emigration, Éamon de Valera, and the Catholic Church.

Emigration was just assumed to be a fact of life. If you weren’t “connected” and the beneficiary of the “jobs for the boys” club, then it behooved you to get lost, pronto - and we’d prefer if you didn’t make too big a fuss about it! 

London, Birmingham, New York, Boston, Sydney, Toronto await you, but please make sure to send money home regularly.

Odd as it may seem, emigration turned Christmas into a magical time in Wexford. So many fathers, brothers and sisters returned from the UK, but oh the heartbreak as the boat train pulled out in late December, the night echoing with teary promises to return for a full week in the summer. 

But at least we saw our relatives for two weeks a year. What about those who lost kith and kin to North America, many of whom didn’t make it home until old age – if at all?

Emigration has left a scar across much of rural Ireland – you can still witness its devastation in the ruins of long abandoned cottages. 

What’s less apparent is the pain of separation that so many suffered down through all the years of official nonchalance.

Éamon de Valera had one great achievement for which we can never thank him enough. Though he suffered great scorn from Winston Churchill and his ilk, the “Long Fellow” did keep Ireland out of World War Two.

However, roughly 250,000 out of our population of 3,000,000 either worked in the UK or served in the British forces during that conflict, including my father, a merchant marine.

Despite this mass migration Mr. deValera still managed to do great damage to the country’s economy with his deflationary tariff-ridden policies; while his puritanical and xenophobic views did little for a society still trying to define itself after independence.

And what of the Irish Catholic Church? Well, we’re finally seeing the hidden fruits of its malfeasance in the lurid tales of child molestation, Magdalene laundries, and medieval attitudes towards women.

And these thoughts come from no enemy of the church. I was raised in a clerical family with an uncle a priest, served as a Franciscan altar boy, and am blessed to have many friends in the religious community.

But even to a teenager it was obvious that there were deep problems within the Irish Catholic Church - that ultimately the “corporation” was far more important than the temporal or spiritual lives of its members.

Take the debacle with the first coalition government that came to power in 1948.  While the Catholic Hierarchy rarely publicly opposed the Minister for Health Dr. Noel Browne’s crusade against TB, they did little to help. 

But then in 1951 the bishops brought down the government over Browne’s proposed plan for free health care for women, and their children up to the age of sixteen. 

Unfortunately, when we got rid of the English it would seem we replaced them with a new set of homegrown masters.

One can disagree with the politics and policies of current Irish politicians, but there is at least official concern now for those who must emigrate; the long shadow of Mr. de Valera is merely a memory, and the Catholic Church is in the process of finding its proper place in a modern secular society.

There are many problems in modern Ireland but those Irish who live there have a right to be proud of their nation. 

Still, every now and again it’s only fitting that we remember the many blighted lives that were unceremoniously sacrificed on the journey. 

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