The Blanket

Remembering the Future

Ciarán Irvine

Radical changes in the political sphere have a way of sneaking up on us. Who in 1929 could have envisaged that within a mere decade the globe would be engulfed in the fire, atrocity and horror of the Second World War? And if anyone had been foolhardy to suggest, in 1980, that within 10 years the Berlin Wall would come down, Eastern Europe would throw off the Stalinist yoke, and the Soviet Union would be on the verge of peacefully dissolving itself, they would have been laughed out of court.

Likewise who, during the triumphal 1903 Irish tour of Edward VII, would have predicted that a mere 18 years later a Treaty would be signed granting 26 counties freedom from the British Crown?

I have a suspicion that those who suggest that any change in the constitutional status of Ireland is decades off, if ever; and that any such change will be driven in the end by the (in my view morally and intellectually bankrupt, not to mention sectarian) “demographic argument” may well find themselves standing stunned as the tide of history sweeps by unheralded and unlooked for.

It has always been my view that, when viewed against the vast sweep of Irish history - 8,000 years of it - the centuries of the Occupation are but a blip, a passing phase, a temporary (if unpleasant) phenomenon. And it is my firm conviction that this is precisely how future generations of Irish men and women will view the whole sorry episode. Even if the nay-sayers and pessimists are correct, the Occupation is unlikely to reach the grand tally of 900 years - in 2070 or thereabouts. And barring some catastrophic natural disaster, I think even the most pessimistic of us would concede that Ireland, and the Irish, have a good deal more than 68 years remaining to them!

Everywhere I look I believe I can detect the faint (green!) shoots of a New Spring in Ireland, a new cultural renaissance, a renewed national self-confidence. The grim decades of self-loathing inflicted on us by the Revisionists are over. The highly insular - even incestuous - and claustrophobic clerical society of De Valera has crumbled. And the people are beginning to quietly reclaim their own heritage. Of course, these three phases of any post-colonial society were well described by Frantz Fanon and should come as no real surprise to any student of our own colonial conflict.

Having survived the contrived, defensive, ersatz paddywhackery of De Valera’s Ireland, and the blindly destructive backlash of Revisionism, we are now in a position to construct (better, reconstruct) Ireland with a fuller, more complex and yet much more satisfying understanding of who and what we are. And of necessity this mature understanding has to come to terms with the presence of those Children of the Occupation amongst us. For they are Children of the Nation too.

When, as John Waters puts it, “remembering the future” - as any postcolonial society at this phase must do - we could do a lot worse than to leave aside the Occupation blip for one moment, and consider the other 7,000 years of history, culture, and politics on this island. Could there be some benefit to considering how our illustrious ancestors - the educators of Europe in the Dark Age, the oldest literary tradition in Europe, the proud originators of the second-oldest Code of Law in human history - organised their affairs? Some small insight that may be of use to us in reconstructing Ireland, in remembering the future?

Far from the myths of the 19th Century “Celtic Twilight” writers, Ireland has always been a diverse island - in its landscape and its peoples. The notion of an ancient pure Gaelic race, sole rightful heirs to the whole island, is nonsense. Most modern scholars tend to think that the Milesian Gaels, who became the dominant culture to such an extent that “Gael” is now synonymous for many people with “Irish”, actually only arrived here shortly (in historical terms) before the time of Christ. And the peoples they found were hardly a homogenous lot - a blend of tribes, different types of Celt, many of which spoke different forms of the language (the P-Celtic and Q-Celtic forms), who had begun to arrive in Ireland scarcely 3-400 years before the Milesians; and also the descendents of the ancient Mesolithic race who built Newgrange, those small dark folk known to legend as the Fir Bolg.

The long-running wars in Ulster, from roughly 400 to 1000AD, between the Milesian Uí Neill, their P-Celtic vassals of the Airgialla, and the Q-Celtic Cruthinic Ulaidh tribes will perhaps be the example most familiar to many readers. On occasion these wars are elevated to a spurious mythic status in a vain attempt to “prove” that “Ulster” has always been “different”. But such dynastic struggles went on in every corner of the country, for example the long struggles by the Milesian Eóganachta in Munster to subdue the likes of the Déisi, Múscraige, Corco Duibne and others and assert the primacy of Milesian rule.

And so, what initially appears to be a bizarre political structure - the entire island divided into anywhere between 80 and 150 tuatha with a weak and largely symbolic position of Ard Rí - is in reality no more than a highly sensible solution to the problem of a hugely diverse population, especially where differing populations tend to be geographically concentrated. The common thread was the fénechus, the common law of all Ireland, that ancient, hugely complex, and progressive codification of the rights, responsibilities, privileges and duties off all Irishmen (and, notably, Irishwomen) that has become known as the Brehon Law.

This system was both highly tolerant of local peculiarities, and highly flexible. It withstood all shocks thrown against it (not the least of which was the arrival of the Milesians!) and more-or-less calmly took all in its stride. When the Norse and Danes started to settle and build our costal cities, the Brehonic system adjusted the boundaries of various tuatha, and the brehons went to work incorporating Viking trade custom and law into the fénechus. To claim there was no friction would of course be lunacy - the point is that the system was more than capable of handling the change. Only with the rise of Brian Borúma were the tensions inflamed into all-out war - and Brian is an exception, a unique event in Irish history. Nonetheless, when the dust had settled at Clontarf things went on much the same as before, much as they had done after any other dynastic or political struggle between Irish kings in the past. Whatever else Brian may or may not have achieved, “driving the Vikings out of Ireland” was not one of them.

After the initial shock of the Norman invasion, much the same happened. Within a few generations, as every schoolchild knows, the Normans had become “more Irish than the Irish” and had largely adopted the Gaelic system (with, naturally, a few modifications of their own in the areas they controlled). In fact, it was not until the overwhelming military might of the Crown was brought decisively to bear that the ancient system, which had survived all crises for thousands of years, finally crumbled after the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Think about that for a moment, in light of the full tapestry of Irish history. 1607.

I think anyone who has been following my more recent ramblings will see where this is going. We need a system of Government, post-Occupation, that can easily cater for the differing identities of the rich tapestry of the Irish peoples. We especially need a system that caters for situations where particular distinct groups are geographically concentrated. We need a system that affords a common rule of law, a common definition of citizenship, a common understanding of the basic rights and wrongs of society but which allows local customs, beliefs, traditions and downright peculiarities space to flourish. And a system that is flexible enough to run itself over the long term. Who amongst us wants to keep re-visiting constitutional, institutional and cultural issues, problems and conflicts ever few years because the system we choose is rigid, inflexible, incapable of accommodating change?

We need all of this, and the conventional wisdom, the “what everybody knows”, is that it isn’t possible, it can’t be done, it’s too complex.

Funny thing is, we already have it. It’s right there in front of us, always has been. Sometimes we humans have an amazing tendency to overlook the elephant in the living room. Our ancestors specifically designed their system to cater for all these very problems.

Now, obviously the world has moved on. I am not some misty-eyed sentimentalist mourning a mythical Golden Age, nor some extreme form of Luddite that wants us all to return, Pol Pot-like, to Year Zero and forget everything that has happened in 800-odd years. But neither is the past ever a truly foreign country, and many interesting things can be learned there. Our ancestors were no fools - but we would be, if in some mad dash towards a shallow, consumerist “modernity” we spurned the opportunity to learn from the past, and build on what has gone before.

Éire Nua? I think I’ll pass. Ireland Renewed (or Éire Nua a Fhail?) on the other hand….




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To accomplish great things,
we must not only act,
but also dream;
not only plan,
but also believe.
- Anatole France

Index: Current Articles

30 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Remembering the Future

Ciarán Irvine


Behind the Scenes at the World Cup
Billy Mitchell

Conformity - A Disease

Anthony McIntyre

Aldergrove Solidarity
Davy Carlin


28 June 2002


The Pity of War

Billy Mitchell


Dispute At Dunboyne School

Wealth Before Health

Anthony McIntyre

Belfast: Political Sectarianism and the Left
Davy Carlin




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