Saturday, March 24, 2012

A country of awkward hoors

Roy Keane. Didn't play in the world cup. An awkward hoor
In a lecture about the delusions of "New Atheism", John Gray, Britain's foremost skeptic in the grand traditional sense, described how that in most countries religion was on the rise in the West, that there was a backlash against secularism, against the idea of the inclusive society, against the Enlightenment ideals of human rights.

There were a few exceptions that he noted, however, and one of these was our own little rainy island, the furthest decent sized landmass on Europe's western frontier, last place before that vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean sinks away to reveal that other important continent.

This almost throw-away comment got me thinking: do we have a habit of bucking trends, of going against popular wisdom? Are we the awkward ones at the party that say, "Hold on a second ..." Or, by the same token, does this aspect to our collective character make us both maddening and desirable at the same time? Do we remind people of what they're missing, so they can wax nostalgically about some forgotten time or some forgotten future or, on the other side of the coin, go on the defensive in an attempt to maintain character?

If we are that people, then how or why is this the case? In the Middle Ages, it is understood (however rightly or wrongly) that Ireland was the place where the light of learning and scholarship survived through Europe's dark winter centuries. So the story goes.

And when the rest of the Western world was going through their own cultural revolutions, facing up to awkward pasts and misgivings (and creating a framework for future injustices, some of which we see today), we were "sort of" going through something similar. In a way, some young people who grew up in the sixties, seventies and eighties were inseminated by this germinating seed. Through the music, the hairstyles, the clothes, mass communication, we got a taste. Just a taste, mind. Because the church was still such a pervasive influence, controlling education and influencing many aspects of Irish life, with an infallability that created the space for the abuses that have been uncovered.

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin. He was sick of
the place, but yet it was all he wrote about.
Awkward hoor.
And then there was the politics, which was a hodgepodge fudgy mix infused with a "look after your own" mentality, an intense parochialism, and numerous dodgy dealings. Law was malleable, putty in the hands of those clever beggars. We made a national trait out of "chancing your arm", and under these conditions, corruption was not wrong, in the sense that it was accepted and acceptable. People speaking about disgraced Taoiseach Bertie Ahern only just a couple of years ago would say something like, "Ah sure, anyone'd do the same in his position."

Opportunism was practically made into an ideology. I sometimes wonder if this has something to do with years of being ruled by a foreign power, where a sense that you had to take what you could, when you could, and scheme and lie to get ahead, could have its roots.

Whatever the case, we had tasted the wave of liberalism flowing through the Western world. But there was no critical mass, at least not in the South of Ireland, to give it the strength it had in Britain, the US and France. In politics there were mild steps towards reform, but nothing earth shattering or world destroying. We tended to leave the war against the past to the poets and weirdos who were a little "touched."

But then, there was something quiet happening, very quiet. When it started I cannot say, but certainly I saw the shift as a young man growing up, smelt it in the air. I saw an old world become something new. We were quietly becoming a country of secular liberals, a good forty years or so after it had first taken off as a popular movement in other countries.

And now we are going through this intense phase of questioning all that came before, redefining Ireland, as everyone else is retreating to the cave as if there were some great storm underway. And there's Ireland, sitting outside the rain, having a smoke, I imagine.

Of course, I am oversimplifying to the nth degree here. But it is interesting to think that there may be something within us that inspires us to "go against the grain." When everyone else was being emancipated, we were in shackles. When everyone else discovered that there was some comfort in those shackles, we were quietly slipping out of them.

Basically, we're a country of awkward hoors.

Old picture of President Michael D. Higgins. A progressive in
every sense, he fought the good fight before most people knew
there was one. Our awkward hoor.

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