Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an essay on Irish political identity from the novelist Lisa McInerney
I mentioned in my introduction to this section a new creative energy at play in Ireland today. Politically things are different. There are many forces at work internally and externally. For all of the country’s recent transformation into a socially liberal state, I am also aware that there are many issues that are not ideal, that are in fact shameful and need addressing. I’m a huge fan of Lisa McInerney’s work – do read her novel The Glorious Heresies, it’s a wonderful book. She has very kindly contributed this essay on the state of our nation, in which she talks a fierce amount of sense.
– Cillian Murphy
It’s not going out on a limb to say that we Irish are partial to upheaval. Plantation, partition, famine, migration: We’ve been through so much upheaval that we define ourselves by O’Casey’s “states o’ chassis”. We can cope with chaos. We feel formidable for coping with chaos. Like Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle, we like the misery. So on August 6th, when, at the Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” and a “new constitution”, he might have been labouring – or buckling – under the misapprehension that everyone would think this overhaul a woeful prospect altogether.
Reunification will happen only by consensus in the North and in the Republic, but it doesn’t have to be a condition of our forging a new Ireland. As a thundering nationalist, it’s my duty to realise that Ireland is far from perfect, that she might benefit from a spit and a polish, if not a gutting and refitting.
It bothers me that ‘nationalist’ is an ugly word now. As I understood it, growing up bouncing between Galway and Cork in the ’90s, it was the softer form of ‘republican’, meaning that you were passionate about all 32 counties of your country, but not to the point that you’d get lairy over it. It meant self-determination, being smug about our collective soundness, knowing the words to A Nation Once Again, and never giving Le Royaume-Uni douze points in the Eurovision. It didn’t mean building walls or breaking unions or obsessing over flags. It was positive, community driven, rather left-wing.
Recent political trends recommend lexical redefinition. Frowns skitter across pals’ faces if we talk about notorious amadáin Trump, Farage, Orbán, Salvini or Le Pen. What use have we for the word ‘nationalist’ in the age of Brexit and climate change and refugee caravans? There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in terms if the left-wing, inclusive, comforting nationalism we espoused could have anything to do with this far-right screeching. To be united by fear or hate is to not be united at all, and unity is the cornerstone of nationalism, is it not?
This definition is colloquial, of course. When your country is divided, the nationalist goal tends to be the romantic one, and that nationalism can also be used to promote the divide et impera tactic doesn’t make a lick of sense at all.
It’s easy to be romantic about Ireland. Likely this is the case with any underdog country. Ireland has not invaded or enslaved and till very recently had no wealth to speak of, and is, therefore, not grabby about resources. When recent history is characterised by casting off shackles and facing fearlessly the mistakes of the past, it’s even easier. In particular, there were the marriage equality and abortion referendums in 2015 and 2018, each won by a landslide. Of the abortion referendum result, Varadkar said, “I believe today will be remembered as […] the day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows, into the light.”
Leo Varadkar should be the perfect Taoiseach for today’s Ireland. Young – our youngest ever, taking office at the age of 38 – openly gay, the son of an immigrant, educated and accomplished, he is also quite right-wing, quite cold, slow to show his hand… a bit of a cute hoor, we’d say. “You all must love him,” I’ve been told, abroad, and it’s sad that I’m compelled to let our admirers down by retorting, “He’s an awful bollocks.” (Now, the Irish will call anyone in a position of authority or influence ‘an awful bollocks’: The parish priest, the bank manager, Bono, Maura from Love Island… I’ve even heard one heathen say it of our patron saint, Michael D Higgins.) It’s a tough task to be fair, for Ireland’s problems are many and no one Taoiseach can be expected to triumph over them all. Any one of those problems could have been the breaking of Leo, if Brexit hadn’t trundled in and driven us to distraction.
Possibly our friends in the UK are sure that it’s only their social problems that are ignored thanks to the rabid elephant in the room, but it’s the same this end. Brexit has profound implications for Ireland’s economy and our fragile peace, and so rightly it takes up our public servants’ attention. Varadkar could be otherwise engaged; his counterparts in the north should be otherwise engaged. Ireland is suffering the same greed-driven housing crisis as many of our European neighbours. As a result of this, and of our underfunded mental health services, homelessness is on the rise. The Republic’s health executive is a bloated, bureaucratic nightmare. The citizens of the six counties of Northern Ireland don’t have access to abortion services, nor do they have the right to marry someone of the same sex. Power-sharing in the North has collapsed. Prejudice is grand so long as the target is a member of the Travelling community. Asylum seekers in the Republic are stifled by the system of direct provision, where the state provides for basic requirements while curtailing access to work and third-level education. “The whole system is designed to remove one of the core human needs – imagination, the ability to dream,” says asylum seeker and LGBTQ+ activist Evgeny Shtorn, who fled persecution in Russia.
Despite, or perhaps because of all of this, political disengagement is common. When nationalism either means ‘frothing bigotry’ or ‘solidly performs Come Out Ye Black and Tans at parties’, it’s easy to disregard the concept of public duty, to absolve yourself of your obligation to act on what’s going wrong. We Irish are susceptible to inaction, not so much because of frothing bigotry, but a little because of Come Out Ye Black and Tans.
Romanticised nationalism, the kind you hear in song, is the kind that comes from enduring life in the shadows. The Irish inferiority complex is the reason for our collective pessimism, suspicion of authority, begrudgery, love of a good lie, capacity for schadenfreude, tolerance for shifty politicians and intolerance for those who develop ideas above their station. These characteristics are symptoms of an illness contracted from occupation, the tyranny of doctrine, generational poverty and inequality, emigration-as-culture, the loss of a language. The Irish – in the North and in the Republic – have a propensity to form an unhealthy relationship with their own state, enabling and enduring in cycles, because the Irish haven’t yet shaken off the suspicion that whinging is all we’re good for. The Irish employ black humour because the Irish are scarred. The Irish laugh because otherwise we’d never stop keening.
So we’re frustrating en masse, but in smaller numbers we’re astounding. So much progress is driven by individuals, community groups and grassroots activism. All over the island, campaigners throw their energies into beautifying their cities, fundraising for mental health services, supporting people living in direct provision, providing for the homeless. And if there’s anything that’ll make you weep into your cup of Barry’s tea, it’s the spontaneous #HomeToVote movement, where Irish citizens living abroad came back to vote in those historic referendums, because they knew their own power, and recognised their duty. Perhaps it’s a case of divide et impera strangely being the right tactic to deal with our inferiority complex. In Ireland nothing ever works how you think it will.
By rights, our politicians should be motivated to perform with that individual energy. If the grassroots movements are indicative of national reimagining, Leo’s feared gutting and refitting has already begun. Let’s see Ireland 2.0., Ireland stepping into the light as a nation of doers rather than bitter worriers, of nationalists in good deed as well as romantic thought. Our politicians, north and south, should get on board before the ship leaves the harbour.
This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here