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Histories of the Irish Future

Bryan Fanning
Bloomsbury Academic


Chapter One: Modest proposals and Irish futures

This is a book about shifting understandings of the predicaments facing Irish society from the seventeenth to the early twenty-first centuries. Histories of the Irish future, like the science fictions of yesteryear, can be mined for insights into the hopes and fears of the times when these were written. Twelve interpretations of the forces shaping Ireland and related efforts to influence its future are presented as a series of documentaries on Irish intellectual history. The bigger picture that I address is a history of understandings of the crises that the Irish, however defined, have faced. Over the course of almost four centuries intellectual, ideological, ethnic and religious vantage points inevitably shift. What is meant by Ireland changes over time. The crises facing Ireland as understood by eighteenth-century Protestant patriots inevitably differed from those perceived by subsequent Catholic nationalists. The intellectual vantage points through which Irish crises were defined and contested also shifted over time. The very taxonomies that might be used to classify the writings of the twelve protagonists that I examine were also in flux.

Some of these are widely acknowledged as major intellectual figures outside Ireland. William Petty is regarded as one of the founders of political economy and economics as well as an important figure in Irish history. Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus and Friedrich Engels were internationally influential thinkers who wrote insightfully about crises affecting Ireland. Each placed Irish dilemmas in wider contexts. It would be implausible to write John Mitchel, James Connolly or Conor Cruise O'Brien out of the history of debates about Ireland's future. Cases are made for the inclusion of William Molyneux, Richard Whately and Jerimiah Newman as key figures in the history of the ideas and debates that shaped Ireland. Of these Molyneux was arguably the most influential. He became a totemic influence on the Protestant patriots of the Irish Ascendency. Whately and Newman respectively articulated anxieties about the decline of Protestant power during the nineteenth century and about the decline of Catholic power a century later. Both left extensive bodies of writing about the dilemmas, as they understood them, arising from the waning power and influence of the churches they represented.

The subjects of this book have been for the most part politically engaged intellectuals who left significant bodies of writings on predicaments facing Irish society. For much of Irish history women were mostly invisible within public intellectual life for the same reasons that they were also marginalised in other domains. Writing was integral to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's activism more so than for other iconic early twentieth-century feminists and Republican women. For this reason she has been selected for inclusion here. In addition to decades of journalism and some pamphlets she left an extensive personal archive. The choice of which living writer to include on Ireland's most recent crisis was not difficult. More so and better than any of his contemporaries, Fintan O'Toole has written about the shortcomings of Irish public morality that precipitated Ireland's near economic collapse.

With a few exceptions I was not drawn to ideologues that became dogmatically fixed on some political position or set of beliefs and thereafter ignored other perspectives or changing circumstances. Like politicians who are always 'on message' such figures reveal little of their personal understanding of wider dilemmas or of their own inner complexities. Cardinal Paul Cullen, the nineteenth-century architect of Catholic power fits this profile, but his nemesis Whately, who presided over the decline of the Established Church, does not. Bishop Jeremiah Newman exemplified twentieth-century Catholic orthodoxy but continually engaged with social change. Patrick Pearse, for all his importance as a cultural nationalist intellectual and revolutionary, falls into this camp but Connolly, who struggled to reconcile socialism and ethnic nationalism, does not.1 Many of their efforts to influence the future ended in apparent failure. They made history but not necessarily in ways or at times of their own choosing. For example, it proved difficult to advance universal ideals such as socialism, republicanism or feminism (as the cases of Connolly and Sheehy Skeffington reveal) in an Ireland divided along religious and ethnic lines.

In making sense of their writings I locate the twelve within or in opposition to three traditions or sets of thought about politics and society. Viewed from the twenty-first century it is useful, I argue, to categorise Irish thought within conservative, liberal and republican traditions as these have developed, warped and shifted over time. For example, Edmund Burke, since regarded as a conservative philosopher, was in his time a Whig opponent of absolute monarchism, not a Tory. The nineteenth-century Liberal Party that grew out of the Whigs came to be intertwined with Catholic nationalism yet late-nineteenth and twentieth-century cultural nationalists were often explicitly opposed to liberalism. Hopes for a universalist Irish Republicanism were stymied by sectarianism. While republicans archetypically stood for a secular state republicanism in the Irish case was often a byword for Catholic ethnic nationalism, particularly in Northern Ireland. And any given time these traditions often intermingled like sets on a Venn diagram.

Ireland drew many of its intellectual ideas and debates from other countries, most notably republicanism from France and America, liberalism and conservatism from Britain and Catholic conservatism and the nationalisms within which all these ideas might be packaged from continental Europe. However, Irish experiences of colonialism, penal laws, famine or sectarian conflict have lent Irish writers some distinct vantage points. For many nationalist and Catholic intellectuals the new science of Francis Bacon came to be implicated in post-Elizabethan colonialism. Jonathan Swift lampooned, with serious intent, the scientific Royal Dublin Society positivism of Petty and Molyneux, the subjects of the next two chapters. Nineteenth-century critics of colonialism such as Mitchel influentially opposed liberal political economy ideas of progress. After independence some isolationist nationalists saw Ireland as locked into an existential conflict between culture and economy.

The efforts of various Irish intellectuals to conjure a nation state into existence followed the playbook of nationalists elsewhere. Shared national identities were made possible by mass literacy and the promotion of national literatures. As elsewhere intellectuals projected the Irish nation back into history, depicting it as a primordial entity, one now to be recovered, as a nation once again when in fact what was being proposed was something new. Thomas Davis's Young Irelander movement was inspired by Giuseppe Manzzini's Young Italy. The romantic nationalism that fuelled the 1916 Rising had been a European-wide phenomenon. Gaelic revivalism coincided with ideals of a Catholic restoration that would somehow undo the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Irish Utopias were not so much built on belief in progress as on hopes for religious and cultural restorations that might somehow turn back the clock on the influence of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

In the decades before and after independence the presiding genius of Irish poetry who channelled the Geist of Irish nationalism was W. B. Yeats, an anti-modernist who professed to despise the filthy modern tide. Yeats appears in a number of chapters, whether for a poem that conjures up the spirit of Mitchel, as an object of obsession for Conor Cruise O'Brien or, in the concluding chapter, as an intellectual force in his own right. O'Brien like Yeats played the role of iconoclast to the hilt but, in his obsessions with nationalism and its discontents, swam in the main current of twentieth-century Irish intellectual life.

Irish nationalisms cannot be really understood without considering the influence of a range of conservatisms. Some figures examined in this book might be categorised as conservatives but what they stood for and against was by no means homogenous. Burke feared the destructive influence of the French Revolution. He advocated progressive constitutional politics of the kind subsequently realised by Daniel O'Connell as the means to Catholic emancipation. In no sense did Burke call for the restoration of some bucolic past state of affairs. Mitchel from the mid-nineteenth century depicted the emergence of liberal political economy as the last conquest of Ireland. Its enemies were his friends. He was a reactionary conservative who championed slavery in America and the social order defended by the Confederacy. A century later, Jeremiah Newman, the then-leading Catholic conservative intellectual, was preoccupied with the decline of Church power.