Monday, 15 October 2007

Luck & The Irish.

If Ireland were ever to spend some of its recently acquired vast fortune on a ‘Museum of National Treasures’, Roy Foster should be asked to open it. This occasionally angry, sometimes whimsical and frequently hilarious account of the Republic of Ireland’s ascent from gombeen-land to the happiest place on earth (according to the Economist in 2004: ‘Gratifyingly for many Irish people, the UK languished at twenty-ninth’) is exactly the kind of sharp affectionate smack across its purring head that the Celtic tiger needed from the premier historian of the place it used to be. Foster is however clearly with the ‘Boosters’ of the new Ireland rather than the ‘Begrudgers’: for all his criticisms (and there are many in the book) in the end ‘it is hard not to ... recognise that in several spheres, not just the economic, a certain amount of good luck was maximized by good management’.

Like the good historian he is, Foster traces the changes further back than is usual: to the first stirring of a new economic order in the late 1950s; to the passing of the ancient regime of Church (Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) and State (President de Valera) in the early 1970s; to the energies unleashed by entry into the Common Market in 1973; and then finally (perhaps even above all) to the opening up of this luckily English-speaking (despite their best revolutionary efforts!), well-educated people to foreign investment at exactly the moment when not having had an industrial revolution became a strength rather than a weakness. In five substantive and elegantly written chapters, which carry off the trick of being able to appeal simultaneously both to those who know nothing and to those who think they know everything, Foster weaves all the various threads into a tapestry of great beauty before ending on the celebratory note that he is right to intuit that this remarkable tale demands. Warnings can come later; for now, ‘understanding the future requires an expanded sense of what has just happened, and a map of the landscape receding so bewilderingly behind us’.

Though sensitive to deep structure, the book stocks its chapters with a pleasing array of heroes. There is Michael Killeen thinking about external investment at a time when ‘inward capital investment [was] viewed with deep suspicion’. There is Mary Robinson courageously taking on reactionary Ireland from an absurdly young age, and not letting go until her work is done. The decent Fianna Fail leader Jack Lynch – modest, and on Northern Ireland way ahead of his time – is justly reclaimed from a party that has airbrushed him from history. Even Bob Geldof is given his due, in a marvellous final chapter on culture and literature, as ‘the late-twentieth-century Irish icon who achieved global status by using his formidable abilities and influence to attack global issues’. But above all this book is an understated paean of praise to Garret Fitzgerald, the man who saw it all first: the need for economic progress; for constitutional change; for conciliation with the Unionists in Northern Ireland; and who then had the tremendous courage to come out of his ivory tower so as to fight to give Ireland what he knew was her due. This included the at the time seemingly startlingly bad-tempered Dáil speech with which he greeted Charles Haughey as Ireland’s new prime minister. Haughey, ‘an odd combination of Napoleonic enigma, Ascendancy hauteur, Gaelic chieftain and Tammany boss’ is the true villain of this book – the man himself and the crooks and blaggards that surrounded him, feeding their own villainy out of the trough of corruption that under Haughey was always sure to be overflowing.

Ireland has survived him, just as it has survived ‘the troubles’ in the North: Foster is tough on but understanding of John Hume, while reserving a contempt for Gerry Adams which borders on the personal. Above all Ireland has survived the extreme version of Catholic authoritarian fundamentalism from which it seemed until as late as the 1980s it could never escape. In a magnificent reply to critics of his earlier revisionist work on Ireland, Foster ends his chapter on the Catholic Church by observing that ‘if one looks at the Republic of Ireland over the last thirty years in religious terms, it is hard not to think of that standard exam question for students of Irish history: “Why did the reformation not succeed in Ireland?”’ And answer: “It did, but it took four hundred and fifty years.”’ Foster should not be opening our hypothetical Irish museum of national treasures: he belongs in it himself.

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