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Off the Shelf: Class of Republicans

A man competes in the Irish National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, Ireland, in 2016. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
Social class is a greater factor in Irish history and society than in English.

‘Culchie” is a pejorative for a person who lives in rural Ireland. Sometimes it is said affectionately. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

After he shut down his own business, my father took work as a driver. He drives VIPs to and from the airport constantly and is often at the periphery of the big events in Ireland — concerts, conferences, and so on. It is a job that he thought was bound to agitate his class-consciousness: he, the working man; they, the upper crust. But the actual effect is probably deleterious on his socialism. He’s gregarious. Always up for a chat. And most rich people, especially rich Irish Americans, are at ease with gregarious Irishmen.

But this week, the job takes him to a class that, in his mind, is beneath and below. The big event in Ireland in early September is the annual Ploughing Championships. This year they’re in Tullamore. It’s a giant expo for farmers and agricultural products, with all manner of competitions.

“No respectable Dub would admit to being here,” he texted me along with a few snaps from his phone. When he’s playing up his Dublin street cred like this, I like to play against him and talk up the virtues of country living. I said that my household would love to see the Culchie Olympics, particularly the tractor football matches. My father can’t quite bring himself to really treat culchies as foreigners. His enforced time in rural Monaghan, and his previous driving jobs, mean that few accents are so different from his own.

My book project and personal life both have me reading about Ireland this week. Again, despite my promises to you, dear readers. I returned to C. S. Andrews’s memoir Dublin Made Me. “Dublin has always given itself a reputation for wit,” he writes, “In fact the wit, as practised in Dublin, was and is essentially no better than ‘jeering’ and has its basis in envy and a desire to denigrate.”

It’s an apt observation from a memoir that with great insight describes the distinct class and religious sediments that made up Dublin in the early 20th century. It’s also apt because it cuts slightly against the author himself, who comes from a part of the middle class that openly loathed displays of wealth and all finery, and disdained drinking to excess. Andrews was, especially in his youth, a die-hard republican.

The opening of the book is especially engrossing sociology.

At the top of the Catholic heap — in terms of worldly goods and social status — were the medical specialists, fashionable dentists, barristers, solicitors, wholesale tea and wine merchants, owners of large drapery stores and a very few owners or directors of large business firms. These were the Catholic upper middle class; they were the Castle Catholics (the Castle being the seat of Government). Their accents were undistinguishable from those of the Dublin Protestants, who held the flattering belief that they spoke the best English in the world. The Castle Catholics played golf, rugby, cricket, tennis, hockey and croquet and dressed as these games required.

Americans tend to associate explicit class differences with English society. Maybe they’ve picked up some of the slang about toffs, chavs, or whatever. But in my admittedly limited experience of both islands, social class is far more present moment-to-moment in Irish life than in English life. It’s as if class distinctions allow certain groups of English people to smoothly avoid each other, whereas in Ireland class distinctions allow people to experience undiluted resentment and/or superiority at close proximity, almost any time you walk into the street.

“Ah, you live up the hill?” a man says in my father’s town. A smile creeps across that man’s face by the end of his sentence, at the revelation of his own superior rank. And his opposite smiles too, knowing with Catholic or, more likely, ex-Catholic certainty that in the grander scheme of things the poor are more favored by God.

The only book I’ve found of more recent vintage that describes an Irish social class with acuity is David McWilliams’s book The Pope’s Children: Ireland’s New Elite. Imagine David Brooks at his best, but in Ireland. McWilliams is quite right to see how the introduction of a more meritocratic and abundant system of credit changed Ireland in this lifetime. But like Brooks he finds the signs of the social changes in a certain section of the newspaper:

More than any other vignette, the Irish Times wedding column is a deep and subtle gauge of the next privileged class. It is not bohemian, cool or street. It indicates submission, resignation and narrow ambition. You will find the next senior partners of law firms there. It is the insiders’ club and the ultimate stamp of respectability any couple can bestow on their fornication. It is a siren call for a successful, fertile, solid future. So Trinity marries UCD, lawyer beds down with doctor, AIB marries Anglo-Irish, Beauchamps marries Arthur Cox, Southside marries country, Blackrock marries Mount Anville.

Faltering old money marries rampant new money and both parties are delighted with the deal. The mergers and acquisition page is genetic self-selection of the most perfect form. Good schools, unimpeachable genes, strong bones, thick hair, white teeth, vitality and solidity get thrown together in a flawless system of social fingerprinting.

I still think that Andrews’s century-old types leave their mark on the present. The Castle Catholic type has a descendant living in South Dublin today. This type is parodied well in the column and podcast of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the fictive, rugby-loving, and hopelessly parochial South Side Dublin persona invented by writer Paul Howard. Everything — the accent, the taste in beer, the anxieties about his children, his at-hand reference to Angela’s Ashes when the city of Limerick makes a rare appearance on his mental horizon — is perfectly rendered by Howard.

Anyway, back to Andrews, where class differences were also markers of political differences. His type of republican politics grew out of a class underneath the Castle Catholics, a class that prized sobriety in almost all things. Andrews looked down on drinking to excess, just as he looked down on anyone (above him) who wore plus-fours.

Still, though, Andrews, like many of the hard-core Irish republicans, never could take socialism seriously, possibly because it denoted a higher class than his own. He liked the socialist Peadar O’Donnell, however, during a military class he was running.

I think even at that time I knew rather more about the Russian Revolution than Peadar, but I never mentally associated the mechanics of Socialism with Ireland nor, while I was familiar with the great Dublin strikes of 1913 and the origin of the Citizen Army, did I think they had any lasting significance for the country. So much for the influence of Connolly on the thinking and motivation of the IRA! What I heard from Peadar depicted in my mind at least an alternative future for Ireland which someone might want to create. While it lasted and while Peadar’s spell was on me, I was fascinated by these ‘new ideas.’ Alas! When I said goodbye to Peadar at Letterkenny the vision he had evoked for me vanished. I reverted to the ‘Aisling’ which Pearse had created for the nation.

I have no ability to relate to Andrews’s attitude toward the political leaders of his republican moment, whom he adored until their disagreements appeared at the Anglo–Irish treaty and he found himself in the anti-Treaty camp of the civil war.

The first I learned of some of its principal terms was when my friend Paddy Kerrigan brought me a copy of an evening paper on the evening of the 7th. I was in bed recovering from an attack of quinsy. The news had obviously been hurriedly put together for inclusion in the ‘Stop Press’ column but there was one clause, the purport of which there was no mistaking, beside which the remaining terms could be of no importance to me. It provided for an Oath of Allegiance to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors. I was shocked and hopefully incredulous. I thought something must be wrong with the newspaper report. [Michael] Collins could not have agreed to this. It was hard to believe that any of the other Irish representatives could have agreed to it either. Next morning I waited for the papers to come. The whole terrible truth was confirmed. . . .

I could not think that the leaders of the Movement were capable of fundamental differences on matters of national policy. I certainly thought of all these men as Knights of the Round Table. We knew nothing of the dissensions that had developed in the Irish Delegation in London leading to Barton, Gavan Duffy and Childers quitting their official headquarters in Hans Place. Nor could we have imagined that Griffith was having meetings with Lloyd George without the knowledge of his colleagues. Nor were we aware of the lionization to which Collins was subjected by London socialites. Nor did we know that there was heavy drinking at Hans Place. Nor did we know of the role of the IRB. It took a little time for all this information to percolate down to my level.

Not enough has been written about how a certain type of modern and self-conscious republican politics can lead to a political sectarianism not so different from that found in Communism. I want more on that, but in the meantime, did you notice his suspicion about heavy drinking? Worse, it was done within the corrupting influence of a palace.

I was thinking through this during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings this week, and the endless think-pieces about the bottomless depravity of people who went to prep schools. I went to a local parochial school on my mother’s small salary, then to public school when the rise in the mortgage precluded such a luxury. I notice that I instinctively view these environments with a kind of envy and disdain.

Despite the superficial partisan agreement, I instinctively recoil from the prep-school type as well. But it bothered me throughout the week, in the absence of a substantial charge, that political opponents of Kavanaugh appealed so nakedly to what I know are prejudices. Oh, you know the type, they’re always committing monstrous rapes. Just part of their pathological culture. Really? I’m more open than ever to hearing testimony that would incriminate him. The attempt to exonerate him on Twitter this week seemed to substantiate Professor Ford’s charges rather than rebut them.

Back to Andrews once more. He eventually learned to like nice suits and enjoy the discreet pleasures of success that came with his career as a Fianna Fail man in Ireland’s civil service. He was also an unbeliever who obviously disliked shallow religiosity. But he could appreciate the real thing in his own grandmother, who is described so beautifully in his book, which I’ll quote at indulgent length:

If it is possible for one human being to possess the theological virtues of faith, hope, charity, and the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, my grandmother possessed them. Outstandingly, she possessed charity, faith and fortitude. The loss of her husband and the death after prolonged illness of one of her sons, together with the many family disappointments which she had to endure, were borne without complaint and accepted as the will of God. To her the will of God was not an empty phrase, but the dominant reality to which she submitted in the certainty that she would be fully rewarded in the next life for her patient endurance of the vicissitudes and tribulations of this one. She lived until she was eighty-six and in her seventies she survived a bad bout of pneumonia, then usually a fatal complaint for old people. When she was convalescing she told me how disappointed she was at her recovery. She said that she thought Almighty God was at last going to call her to her eternal reward; but she supposed ‘He had his own designs and we had to be patient’.

The only books I ever saw her reading were her missal and the Imitation of Christ. She lived out the advice of Thomas à Kempis by placing such complete trust in God that she had no need for the comfort of men. One of her favourite sayings was from the Imitation: ‘Would to God that we might spend a single day really well’. She knew her Scriptures well and had many favourite quotations from them: ‘Every idle word that men shall speak they shall give an account of them.’ Not that there was any shortage of idle words in Summerhill. Another was ‘Wide is the gate and broad the way that leadeth to destruction.’ This was applied as a mild rebuke to some of the alcoholic excesses which were only too common in Summerhill. But her great virtue was charity. She was kind to everyone. My father and his brother, as young and motherless neighbours, were given the run of the house and were mothered and virtually reared by my grandmother. The Longford nephews and nieces and the Wicklow and Tullow cousins were always made more than welcome and there was neither fuss nor restraint on their comings and goings. She was uncensorious and for her they had no defects, only foibles. They loved coming to stay in Summerhill where living was so relaxed compared with the rigid and narrow life of the country where respectability was everything and people were constantly under the surveillance of their neighbours.

Anyway, with that beautiful and consoling passage, I ready myself for more of the news cycle, which I suspect will degenerate further with the debauches of relatively privileged teenagers in the 1980s.

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