The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Hiroshima non amour: Desmond Fennell’s predictable dissent

Seaghán Ó Murchú

For many Irish of any ideological bent, Desmond Fennell’s regarded as a crank. His last appearance circa 1996 as the designated media puppet for the reactionary Gaelic-firsters, on The Late Late Show, resulted predictably in his heckling as Gaybo sat idly by. Now Fennell writes from an exurb north of Rome. Another prophet without honor driven from the ‘monster rally’. Reading Toner Quinn’s collection of various voices raised in favour and in protest against Fennell in print and person, you can see why his jeremiads jab the complacent. At least the television audience bothered to react to him, even if he never got to talk about his latest polemic (Uncertain Dawn). Having appeared only few years ago, I couldn’t find a copy. As with most of his forty years of work, it lurks out-of-print. His other titles? Tell me if you find many on a local corporate purveyor’s ‘Irish interest’ shelf.

Local plus corporate: one of the afflictions Fennell diagnoses. This reifies his marginalisation--not only by the press, but by the professors. Rare for a festschrift, all Quinn’s introductory essayist criticise Fennell. By that I mean “constructive” criticism. Stranded in the wake of deconstruction, belletrists who dare to consider the person along with his page remain few; while half of the eight contributors list their academic posts, their examination of Fennell’s positions remains blessedly free of jargon. Certainly unfashionable: this author expects that a common reader of the Sunday paper (for which he long wrote, near the belly of the metropolitan beast: cf. Joyce’s ‘Aeolus’ chapter) understands his arguments as well as the pointy-headed dreamers and faction-fighters among us. (Find his journalism collected from the Sunday Press, 1969-71: ‘Build the Third Republic’ compressed in columns, the blueprints gathered; their applications, as we will see, barely tried. For better? Worse?)

This appeal to actual experience grounds Fennell’s attack. All of the West’s remedies for what ails us post-Hiroshima have failed. Consumerism poisoned collectivism. Pragmatism doomed idealism. The chainstore plagued the cornershop. Ireland’s what Connolly warned: new boss same as the old boss. Fittingly, his collected longer essays bore the title of “Heresy.” Who cares about ethics? Individual desires overwhelm any collective effort. The ideals of the Easter Proclamation echo only as tinny rhetoric. O’Connell street sells lingerie across from the GPO. Better, as John Waters observes, that the media prop up Fennell as the stock reactionary wheeled out against Dublin 4’s repertory of sensible liberals and sensitive hedonists.

For RTÉ’s never neutral. No more than any of us. We all need a schoolmarm now and then to call us on it. While many of the contributors to Quinn’s book delineate their own erasures and corrections to Fennell’s sketches of a new Ireland, they agree that he challenges them to reevaluate their own (often sensible liberal) assumptions. For Fennell damns our culture as one of lies. Not that the previous culture of Catholicism, authority, and coherence lacked in abuses. But that what, after half-a-century of sport within the ruins of WWII, we have substituted has left us so bereft of a moral or spiritual compass. We, raised in the only playground most of us have known, now cavort among not flowers with friends but near lorries and alone. In the rubble, we wander. Recall Johnny Rotten’s sneer: ‘we’re the flowers in your dustbin’. Not that the Queen noticed. And we don’t care.

1999’s The Postwestern Condition summarises his assault upon our soundbite appetite. Our post-modern ennui may titillate glitterati and tenure literati, but among average folks--unanchored, regarded only as cash generators and vote producers by the conglomerates-we supposedly blessed of the free world have thrown away our pearls and turned supersized swine. Crowding like the Gadarene pigs over the cliff, we flee the corrective voice. (My gospel allusions underline Fennell’s post-Vatican II stint as theological editor, following university in Bonn and foreshadowing his 1989 return at the GDR’s collapse: in a forthcoming essay I will give his Euro-Christian foundation for his nationalist/republican critique more attention than Quinn’s brief collection grants.) Our postwar generation finds not a socialist paradise or a democratic amity but a ‘black hole of amorality’ left by the bomb: we know we’re being lied to and don’t give a damn anymore. Still, we refuse to deny any gratification. What should we do?

Here, Fennell’s own attempts in the 60s and 70s show how difficult it is for Irish nation-builders to divert the capitalist bulldozer. The Cearta Sibhialta movement in the Cois Fharraige gaeltacht, inspired by “blow-in” Fennell, showed both gains (RnG, An Spidéal’s economic tourism, a renewed musical and cultural vigour, and confidence among native speakers) and losses (more “blow-ins,” holiday bungalows littering the coast between Barna and Carna, Fennell’s own marital separation, and a sense that his neighbours and he would never ‘only connect’.) Bob Quinn, another newcomer who stayed, comments tellingly that when he asked Fennell why he (in the early 80s) was leaving Conamara after fifteen years of agitation, he responded only: ‘too much sacrifice makes a stone of the heart’.

The human cost of political struggle continues in other contributors’ reflections. Risteárd Ó Glaisne pinpoints his friend ‘Deasún’s’ stances made him ‘weary of predictable dissent’. For readers of The Blanket, the relevance of our journal’s existence as a vehicle of ‘protest and dissent’ merges with critique by — and of — Fennell. Ó Glaisne frowns on Fennell’s over and underreliance on defining his offensive against consumerism. Superficiality and hypocrisy — if Fennell cares so much about Gaelic, why so little has he produced as gaeilge? — weaken his prophetic power. No wonder, then, that he becomes only another raving John the Baptist. As an Irish-speaking Cork Protestant, Ó Glaisne rejects Fennell’s reflexive genuflections to “true” Christian ideals as if found only within a Euro-Catholicism — this vanity, Ó Glaisne relates, reveals his longtime comrade’s intellectual and emotional immaturity: a voice crying to nobody much in the wilderness.

Certainly rare for such a collection celebrating the thinking of one’s friend. But consider that seven contributors all point out Fennell’s shortcomings — and that Fennell himself has been generous in admitting his own tentative and evolving viewpoints. Here again, a connection to The Blanket. How many of you have defied the orthodox, the conformist, the popular platitude? How easily have we all surrendered to the path of least resistance? After decades, like Fennell, of taking up arms against the foe, how long can we hold out? How tempting, we all know, to give in to the majority view, the popular vote, the spotlight. Who of us would want to be booed off Gay Byrne? Not having our ideas taken seriously, our essays ignored, our voices caricatured: isn’t our effort here-differing ideologically as it is with Fennell’s to be sure-part of the same hoarse protests against the emperor’s court?

Mary Cullen’s suggestion to Fennell enriched by her feminism can help us too. If any progress towards a more equitable republic still beckons, she counters, we must reject our oppressors’ spin doctoring. Confronting the adversarial media model that ridiculed Fennell, she proposes:

For dialogue and debate to have a real chance of influencing the value systems and thinking of society we need forums where as many perspectives as possible are assured of being listened and responded to, though not necessarily of winning assent; where argument and disagreement are not seen simply as battles between sectional interests but as part of a process that hopes to develop a form of consensus which could actually contribute to public policies which genuinely tried to further the interests of all the people. (Cullen, “Making Argument Work: The Case of Feminism.” In Toner Quinn, ed. Desmond Fennell: His Life and Work [Dublin: Veritas, 2001], p. 103.)

Now, isn’t Cullen’s prescription only another nostrum among those touted by Dr Fennell’s traveling media show to skeptical crowds? Well, perhaps her alternative medicine provides the holistic cure. If our moral stance will outweigh the mass of the consumerist leviathan, we must find — like Archimedes looking for the fulcrum point to so as to force his globe-tipping lever — our own platform from which to strain and push.

As Fennell told his students: ‘Pray to God for an obsession. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got something to write about’ And work for. But, will others listen? As his own 2000 combative radio interview with the RTÉ’s Carrie Crowley documents at this collection’s close, his own prickly nature leaves him perpetually unwilling to give ground to the opposition. He gained infamy for his 1991 scolding (revised in Heresy) of Séamus Heaney’s gnomic cosiness instead of making of his poetic power a fulmination against injustice in the North. Now, this is dangerous, as literary critics (post-Hiroshima at least) have been schooled: the authorial fallacy of mixing creator into creation, author into text. Heaney chose after 1975’s North to retreat, literally and poetically, away from direct confrontation with the overtly political. Fearing the label of Ulster poet and the limits of regionalism, he moved to Dublin and later Harvard. And in 1991, recall, Fennell could not predict his own defeat and exile a few years hence after his latest attempt to publish his own mixing of American diary and anti-WTO screed. Compare Fennell’s repeated and corresponding lack of acclaim with the audience largely gained by Heaney’s Wordsworthian craft. While I agree with Fennell that other more deserving Celtic bards lack the plaudits too quickly awarded the Derry oracle, I add that Fennell’s naysaying perhaps lost him typically more readers than Heaney gained in the exchange! Séamus would be much more welcome than Desmond on the RTÉ soundstage: Fennell’s grudge?

While not a laureate but a critic, Fennell sounds guilty of protesting too much here. Still, I admire his willingness to again speak truth to power, when it emanates not only from Dublin 4 but the well-endowed chair of rhetoric at Harvard. Christopher Hitchens, in Letters to A Young Contrarian, opines that those in power really don’t need to be reminded by the hoi polloi about the truth. They already know better, and do worse. So, back we are again at scratching the surface of ivory towers. Fennell’s hop up again onto the weary nag for another assault may be more an atavistic reflex than a strategy by now. Maybe the plains of La Mancha and Sperrin mountains (from where Fennell’s grandfather, a native Irish-speaker, emigrated to Belfast) have more in common than we learned in geography. Perhaps they raised stubborn holdouts, crusty visionaries pelted lifelong by the boors. Let me explain.

For, Bob Quinn muses, maybe his fellow Dubs shouldn’t have been so surprised by Fennell’s spat with ‘famous Séamus’-who has been known to be less than amicable himself, from Quinn’s testimony [among others as I’ve heard tell!]. Perhaps Fennell’s Belfast infancy and frequent trips back from his parent’s adopted Dublin to his grandparents’ home on the Upper Newtownards road, Quinn wonders, mirror stubborn localisms even within their one island. Fennell never backs down — an honest Ulsterman squaring off against the emperor’s Spenserian ‘rugheaded kern’ tamed as its patronised poet — and that’s why he remains himself. Some of the O Neill’s gave in to the first Elizabeth, some refused, some kept switching sides. Fennell refused even a token submission. Sure, maybe mistaken by the crowd as a jester rather than its soothsayer, but irredeemably a creature loyal to his native habitat. This matches Fennell’s attraction to the immediate rather than the intangible. Striking back against empire. Small is beautiful.

Remember what this collection nearly overlooks: his campaign as “Freeman” in An Phoblacht in the early 70s for Eire Nua. His assistance in drafting this controversial policy and advertising it throughout Ireland has been neglected, even in Toner Quinn’s collection. It does, however, include his influence among those eager to decentralise and collectivise the rural west against Dublin. We see in today’s plans to place town hubs around the island a fulfillment of his recommendations for preservation of our Irish past and a revitalisation for its livable future. Fennell, perhaps too much, cherishes ‘all the children of the nation equally’. For this he has received the equal disdain of all of them.

In Beyond Nationalism and The Revisionism of Irish Nationalism he took on the revisionists while elaborating upon his 70s thinking. In the 90s, perhaps exhausted by preaching to too few even in the choir, he expanded into reassessments of the West’s malaise. Fennell always tries to integrate his diagnosis of Ireland’s malady into an analysis of the wider symptoms afflicting not only the West but the East. He began his career with a 1959 travelogue, Mainly in Wonder: Berlin to Tokyo by way of Belgrade and Burma. His latest work returns to this panoramic view. What to do once provided for even from cradle to grave — as for the lucky of us in a Euro-American multinational slumber — inspires The Turning Point: My Swedish Year and after. Comfort discomforts him. He replaces rhetoric with the real, and then he seeks to reconstruct from his local observations a broader framework. While his draftsmanship often meets with disdain, he eschews the party line for the possible dream. For republicans and loyalists, his pioneering analysis of a federalist system in which both ‘Ulster British’ and ‘Six County Irish’ could cooperate — while derided by the Adams camp [see my review upon Moloney’s attention in his A Secret History of the IRA to this scheme] deserves respect for its attention to both communities within an Irish polity at a time (1973) when both peoples’ aspirations had been hijacked by opportunists and nicked by the unscrupulous.

Against such destruction, contrast Fennell’s championship of the underdog. Too often the legacy of Tone and 1916 we hear honoured by their supposed successors in speeches not. deeds. Fennell dares to remind us Irish of this. He dedicates Heresy to Bernadette McAliskey, and for its colophon quotes Pearse’s reminder that in love of humanism beats the heart of a sincere nationalist. As if this isn’t damaging enough against the media norm, Quinn gets in another dig. ‘Fennell’s roots are in the plain-spoken, confrontational North’. No wonder the South’s ‘dissembling’ attitudes produced hecklers.

Still, for the professional protester, as Fennell’s many quixotic jousts (born 1929, writing since 1958) have shown, one tires when the windmills still stand. We need to learn from Fennell’s example the strategies which produce results for the everyday Irish and those which will not move more than the fanatical or the deluded to pointless efforts. The Blanket — we all agree — exists to direct debate. It shares the constructive manner of those colleagues of Fennell who admire his visionary creations while they lament their elusive slip beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals. Fennell, like many a past critic of Ireland, lives now in self-exile. His neighbours, those to whom his exhortations are addressed, still remain on his island. For all of his concern for reassembling a better Republic, its implementation, even by an educated Dubliner fluent in Irish (among five languages!) charged with the enthusiasm of the 60s trying to motivate his neighbours to collective efforts, failed. Grassroots directions even as carefully drawn in Eire Nua could guide those ‘of little property’ very little towards an Tríú Réabhlóid.

Like Pearse once out the door of his Ros Muc cottage, those Fennell sought to unite regarded their patriot with more distance than warmth. In Carna, Bob Quinn witnesses, the natives regarded his rejection of the fatalistic and the slapdash as ‘un-Irish’. Nevertheless, Fennell’s dogged pursuit of the ideal plan and the practical exertion from which to excavate a fresh Irish nation endures. Quinn’s quintessential image of his friend? Chipping away at the Conamara granite soil, for hours, to dig into its implacable face a channel for a bit of water preserved to sustain Quinn’s thin garden.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

9 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Pressure on Sinn Fein Grows
Tommy McKearney


Hiroshima non amour: Desmond Fennell’s predictable dissent

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Bush and Blair are going for it: Time to Act
Davy Carlin


Lied His Way In - Lied His Way Out
Anthony McIntyre


Six Soldiers
Annie Higgins


Imperialism - It Hasn't Gone Away, You Know
Brian Kelly


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


The Letters page has been updated.


5 January 2003


Hammering Dissent
Anthony McIntyre


Maria Duce non Dulce (et decorum est)

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Amnesty International & Israel: Say It Isn't So!
Paul de Rooij


A Northern Majority for Irish Unity is Not Too Remote to be of Relevance
Paul A. Fitzsimmons




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