In Bernard Shaw’s great play John Bull’s Other Island, an English liberal character who at first seems a silly-ass Englishman but who later emerges as a more Machiavellian one, exclaims enthusiastically at one point: “Home Rule will work wonders under English guidance.” This is a surefire laugh line in the theater. It is also a prediction of something that finally happened on Friday, May 25, with the landslide passage of the referendum to liberalize Ireland’s abortion law more or less in line with English precedents. And it symbolizes the end of a 100-year diversion in Irish history from West Britain to a prickly independent Catholic Republic back to West Britain again.
That something this important was at stake was realized very early by William Butler Yeats, who had commissioned the play from George Bernard Shaw to open Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Yeats rejected the play and gave several reasons for doing so, but his main motive was almost certainly that it was alien, both politically and in literary form, to the kind of Irish national theater that Yeats was trying to establish. Shaw thought so and many years later described the incident as follows: “Like most people who have asked me to write plays, Mr Yeats got rather more than he bargained for. . . . It was uncongenial to the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which is bent on creating a new Ireland after its own ideal, whereas my play is a very uncompromising presentment of the real old Ireland.”
So the play was presented in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1904 and published with a new introduction in 1912. These were the years, especially after 1910, when the Irish party held the balance of power in the House of Commons, when the demand for Irish Home Rule became a (perhaps the) major issue in British politics.
Home Rule meant that Ireland would be governed by an elected Irish parliament exercising sovereignty over most matters except defense and foreign policy, which would remain with the “Imperial parliament” in London. Ulster Unionists, overwhelmingly Protestant, objected to Home Rule, and prepared to fight it, on the grounds that it would prove to be “Rome Rule.” That dispute has rightly dominated the accounts of most historians of the period.
But there were other disputes occurring at the same time — one between literary nationalists and Catholic nationalists (who were famously shocked by a frank discussion of underwear in J. M. Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World, on its first night at the Abbey Theatre), for instance, and another between Home Rulers who were content with the devolved Irish parliament and those who wanted a more decisive break with Britain and its liberal commercial civilization.
West Britain was the name given to an Ireland that, whether ruled from Dublin or Westminster, was part of a larger political and civic culture shared with England and the rest of Britain. It was the Ireland we encounter in James Joyce’s short stories, the plays of Sean O’Casey, and the comic songs of Percy French. While Ireland was culturally as well as politically united with Britain, its great figures included people such Parnell, Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, and, earlier, Burke, Sheridan, and Thomas Moore, who moved easily between Dublin and London and who shaped the politics and culture of both. If Home Rule had been achieved before 1914, that shared culture would presumably have continued against a slightly different political background of U.K. federalism.
If the Great War had not intervened, Ireland would have had Home Rule in 1914.
That was not what some wings of Irish nationalism wanted. In addition to seeking a more fundamental political break with Britain, they wanted an Ireland that would differ from Britain in a range of cultural matters: in language, in sports, in literature, and above all in religion — in short, the ideal of a Catholic and Gaelic Ireland evolving away from Britain in every respect possible. To accomplish such a revolutionary change in manners and mores, however, they needed a revolution. Simply establishing a devolved parliament wouldn’t have done such a colossal trick. They thought that they needed a revolution on more-immediate grounds, too: namely, because Britain would never concede Home Rule.
My own view is that they were wrong on that. If the Great War had not intervened, Ireland would have had Home Rule in 1914, and if the revolutionaries’ Easter Rising had not occurred in 1916, thereby precipitating an Anglo–Irish war and later an Irish civil war, Ireland would have had Home Rule in 1919, not least because Irishmen had joined the colors in large numbers to fight for King and Empire. But the Easter Rising and, no less important, the execution of its leaders in 1916 by the British destroyed the Home Rule cause, made a complete political break with Britain inevitable, and provided Ireland with the “blood sacrifice” that the more mystical revolutionaries such as Patrick Pearse always believed essential to a break with English civilization.
And that is what Ireland got by degrees after the civil war ended and a stable democracy was established. Éamon de Valera was the dominant political leader of the years, broadly 1930 to 1965, when Ireland was reshaped as a distinctively Catholic state and society. It was he who introduced the 1937 constitution, which gave the Catholic Church a special place in the society, declared that women should not be forced out of the home “through economic necessity,” prohibited divorce, and claimed sovereignty over Northern Ireland (aggavating the already bad relations with both London and the Ulster Prods). That constitution, with its flaws and merits, reflected a wider social reality, in particular the overwhelming social influence of the Catholic Church.
This was so massive that bishops were able to order without legal authority the cancellation of Saturday-night dances, on the grounds that they might deter attendance at Sunday Mass. Other expressions of this social power included the excommunication of Catholic students who went to Burke’s Trinity College without episcopal permission, a stipulation that persisted well into post-war Ireland (in earlier times Trinity had itself banned Catholic students); the decision of the cabinet not to attend the funeral service for Ireland’s first president, a Protestant, in Dublin’s Anglican cathedral but instead to wait outside in carriages; a long-lived and embarrassingly crude literary censorship; the semi-religious celebration, on holidays and official occasions, of the 1916 Easter Rising as the foundation of the state; official sympathy for the Church’s rules on Catholic–Protestant marriages (“Ne temere”) that disadvantaged Protestants who feared losing their children; and the widespread effective incarceration of girls and young women in laundries run by religious institutions (but often supplying services to the state) for breaking the period’s outwardly austere moral code. This last was the “Magdalene Laundries” scandal, which continued to the 1990s. Since then it has been thoroughly exposed and perhaps exaggerated.
Many of the new rules were felt by citizens of all denominations to be burdensome: for instance, making the Irish language compulsory both for passing examinations across all subjects and for entry into the civil service. Even the bishops thought that de Valera was too rigid in insisting on it, and its impact was to make the Irish language widely unpopular. Taken together, however, the rules also amounted to a soft but persistent discrimination against Protestants, especially poorer ones, that made them feel they were only half-members of the society. Accordingly, there was a steady exodus of them from the Republic to Northern Ireland and Britain.
Now, one shouldn’t exaggerate the oddity or scandals of those times. The 1937 constitution had some distinctively liberal clauses protecting the rights of Jews and Protestants — not trivial considerations in 1937 — and was passed in a referendum by quite a modest majority. It was also the first written constitution to include the word “dignity.” And it puts parents rather than the state in charge of education. Though there were some very real cases of oppression in those years — the Magdalene inmates and some displaced Protestants, for instance — the atmosphere of Irish society was often more relaxed than its formal rules and regulations.
An idealized portrait of that Ireland can be seen in The Quiet Man. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a total fiction either. After all, de Valera’s Ireland was a society made in the image of most of its citizens, who therefore felt comfortable within it. It was also popular with socially conservative foreigners, English as well as American, who liked the calmer social atmosphere reminiscent of their own countries in earlier days. And de Valera’s Ireland turned many a blind eye to those who quietly non-conformed, and when blind eyes are exercised in this way, they will often improve their vision. Mark Steyn tells the story of the director Hilton Edwards and the actor Micheál MacLiammóir, who were for many years the most famously gay couple in Dublin, and who together ran the Gate Theater (leading local wits to name their Gate and Yeats’s Abbey theater as “Sodom and Begorrah”):
At MacLiammóir’s funeral in 1978, the Taoiseach and half the Irish Cabinet attended, and at the end they went up to Edwards, shook hands, and expressed their condolences — in other words, publicly acknowledging him as “the widow.” This in a state where homosexuality was illegal and where few people suggested that it should be otherwise. The Irish officials at the funeral treated MacLiammóir’s relict humanely and decently, not because they had to but because they wished to. I miss that kind of civilized tolerance.
If your discomfort with de Valera’s Ireland went too deep to be assuaged by this tolerant hypocrisy, however, there was always the Dublin–Liverpool boat to take you to the actual Sodom and Gomorrah over the Irish Sea, for a modest fee. (My father was the purser on it; I don’t think he felt particularly wicked.)
It was the nearness of Britain, however, that weakened an already shaky social experiment. What de Valera, universally known as Dev, wanted was to impose on the Irish people a cultural transformation that neither the Soviets nor Kemal Ataturk, with far more effective instruments of persuasion to hand, succeeded in imposing on their own populations. The great majority of Irish people no longer spoke Gaelic, and they resented being forced to do so in school and elsewhere. Marriages broke down in Ireland as elsewhere, but the only recourse for unhappy Irish couples wanting legal separations was to catch the Liverpool boat. Literary censorship was very easily evaded by the same method. British newspapers with any mention of contraception were removed from newsstands by the censors, but their more indirect influence on morals and politics was harder to recognize and prevent.
And since the Irish at home were notably reluctant to marry (the average age of marriage in rural Ireland for a man was as late as the mid 30s), a lot of young Irish people married their historic enemies, the English, as my father did. Those marriages meant that large numbers of Irish and British people had cousins across a very small pond whom they visited regularly through childhood and later. My sister and I spent every day of our school summer holidays in Dalkey, eight miles south of Dublin, rushing to greet the same friends on the same day year after year. Our Irish cousins returned these visits from time to time, and many stayed on in Britain. At least half of them have spent their adult lives living and working in the U.K. In retrospect, it is surprising that de Valera’s Ireland, sapped by so many English temptations as it was, lasted as long as it did.
The social power of the bishops took a series of massive hits, one after another.
Seeing its fall was like watching an impressive sandcastle, replete with towers and battlements, gradually yielding to the incoming tide until it suddenly collapses entirely and leaves only memories of its impressiveness behind. One can easily enough list the separate influences that undermined it. The economic prosperity that began under Dev’s successor, the practical-minded Seán Lemass, and accelerated later in Celtic Tiger days enabled Irish people to vacation abroad more easily and Irish emigrants to return to good jobs at home, bringing more-liberal attitudes with them in both cases. As the “Troubles” in the North revived and wore grimly on, the “physical force” tradition of Irish republicanism seemed less and less heroic, more and more vicious, not what a modern and progressive society should celebrate. Entry into the European Union meant surrendering Irish sovereignty to a political entity that wanted more control over Irish life than London had enjoyed since the 1910 election had put Home Rule into play.
And the social power of the bishops took a series of massive hits, one after another. The first was from television: A popular broadcaster, Gay Byrne of RTÉ’s Late Late Show, had asked a newly married woman what she wore on her wedding night. “Nothing,” she replied, to the consternation of the bishop of Limerick, who phoned in to complain. Parishioners were told not to watch the show the next week. Then a thunderbolt struck: Its ratings went up. Indeed, it’s still on air.
That was the beginning of the end. What little social power the bishops still retained was thoroughly destroyed a few years later when a series of grave sex-abuse scandals, both heterosexual and homosexual, hit the Church. And then the Magdalene Laundries scandal added another torch to an auto-da-fé run by a hostile secular establishment, as did scandals involving other institutions, left over from Victorian times, that had lasted longer in Ireland than in Britain. In a very short time, the Church in Ireland, as elsewhere, went from a dominant and revered institution to one distrusted by its lay members and despised by politicians and journalists who had previously feared it.
An Irish identity built on the Catholic Church had collapsed, and the nation — or, rather, its cultural elite — was looking for a new identity in which Catholicism was treated as something between an embarrassment and a threat.
I remember my surprise when I realized this was happening in 1996. At the first night of Riverdance in Manhattan, I was invited to the backstage party (by, interestingly, an old friend from U.K. politics, the former Tory-party chairman, Cecil Parkinson, who had invested in the show). Talking to one of the dancers, I wondered why the Church had played so little part in the show’s history of Celtic and immigrant America. “Oh,” she replied. “We think that Ireland is about much more than the Catholic Church, and the country is moving out of that kind of repressed world.” (Not an exact quote — I wasn’t taking notes — but a fair summary of a longer conversation.)
In short, an Irish identity built on the Catholic Church had collapsed, and the nation — or, rather, its cultural elite — was looking for a new identity in which Catholicism was treated as something between an embarrassment and a threat. That process has continued ever since, accelerating recently, until Ireland voted by a margin of two to one to liberalize abortion law on lines similar to those of U.K. law and, still more significantly, celebrated that result in wild public rejoicing. Three years before, Ireland had voted in favor of same-sex marriage by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, becoming the first country anywhere to introduce gay marriage in this way. Ireland’s 100-year experiment in self-conscious cultural transformation had proved to be a mere detour: from Britannia West to Cathleen ni Houlihan to Britannia West again.
It’s hard even for a natural West Briton like me to be happy about this. If Home Rule had not been derailed by the First World War — with a whole series of historical “what ifs” following on from that — I think I would have found that era’s West Britain a very tolerable place. There would have been no Easter Rising, no partition, no Irish civil war, no cultural-cum-political break with Britain, and therefore no building of a fortress Catholic Republic by Dev. Of course, the Catholic Church would still have been a highly influential force within the somewhat more liberal environment of a Home Rule Ireland constitutionally linked to Britain. Catholicism might also have been more influential throughout Britain as a result. But the Church would not have been able to exercise the kind of unaccountable authority that it had enjoyed and misused for the better part of a century.
Accordingly, it would not now be suffering the malign consequences of that abuse in unpopularity, rejection, contempt, and a law that will provide abortion on demand in practice. Since I share the distress of my NR colleagues including Michael Brendan Dougherty (and of Ireland’s own doughty No campaigners such as Declan Ganley and David Quinn) at the enthusiasm for the legal change, I can hardly welcome Ireland’s cultural embrace of West Britain that is a much less congenial place morally and politically to conservatives than it was in 1912. But there is one consolation for us. In the coming battle to preserve the right for doctors and nurses of conscientious objection to abortion — and similar protections for the rights of yesterday’s religious majority — the more robust and diverse liberal tradition that West Britain implies should come to our assistance. Ireland is unlikely to go back to being a one-ideology society any time soon.
The minority that looks to Brussels for its politics and morals is disproportionately influential and politically powerful.
The Irish nation is able to accept this reversion without much, if any, loss of face because Britannia West comes in the fashionable guise of Europa. Dublin is not rejoining Britain, goes the official mantra, it is enjoying the fruits of its commitment to the European Union and its corporate liberalism. This is not entirely self-deception. True, most Irish people look to London rather than Brussels for their careers, markets, and social models — the patron saints of West Britain are Sir Terry Wogan, the Irish broadcaster who became the most popular man in Britain (and a British citizen), and Conor Cruise O’Brien, the biographer of Burke and the Burke of his own day, who became editor in chief of Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, the Observer. But the minority that looks to Brussels for its politics and morals is disproportionately influential and politically powerful. It has embarked on another cultural transformation of Ireland, both for its own class interests and in order to maintain a sense of separateness from Britain: Ireland is to be a new model European republic inside a federal European Union. Whether Brexit occurs or not, that identity would continue to distinguish Ireland from a Britain that will always be a reluctant European. It’s a dream, of course, and a different one from Dev’s dream. But as the heavy bill paid by Ireland to remain in the euro zone (and to save German banks) demonstrated after 2008, it’s likely to prove an equally demanding dream.