Ireland in the European Eye

Last week, I read a blurb for a book that purported to explain “why the immutable Germans really need to be liked this time; why imperturbable Britain still sees itself as the sceptre isle, cut away from the continent by divine will; why the rooster was chosen long ago as the national symbol of France; why the careful Dutch think [they are] bestowing lessons in correct behaviour to all; and why Russia worries some Europeans far less than the Americans” (1983). Does Ireland have its own comparable stereotype? Maybe it could be something like “why the Irish are secretly glad that the rest of the world is not paying the slightest attention to them”. But is that entirely true?

The Royal Irish Academy (evidently still royal because it also encompasses NI) has recently published a collection of essays, Ireland in the European Eye, featuring twenty-two authors, although only four are based outside Ireland (or the UK). I heard a healthy cynic say a while ago that international studies relating to Ireland always seem to be of the “[Oscar] Wilder” variety, i.e. obscurantist literature studies. There is “a bit of that” here, as the scholarship in this volume reflects the fact that many Europeans interested in Irish culture have always been linguists, but there are also (thankfully) articles here relating to film and music (themes that hold a deeper or more abiding interest for people like me) and there’s also brief contributions from Irish authors who have written about political/diplomatic history (Brigid Laffan, Meryvn O’Driscoll and Paul Gillespie, to name a few) and that would seem to be its principal merit: combining political and literary analyses on the Ireland and Europe theme. “Worth a look”, although it is perhaps a little overly historicist in focus. I’ve yet to digest my own copy, to be perfectly honest. It is quite a large book.

The online Dublin Review of Books (DRB) has just featured a review of a book by economist Kevin O’Rourke that features all sorts of “Ireland and Europe” reflections that stem not from O’Rourke but from the reviewer Daniel Keohane, who is a strategist that now evidently works for the European Movement Ireland.

I was not aware of his writings when I was writing my own book on “Ireland in international relations”, which evidently will not be published until next year for commercial rather than editorial reasons, so a paper I gave only in late May “may” actually end up being published first in a journal. A 7” single before the album, perhaps.

If there is a slight parallel in my forthcoming article and this review by Keohane it may be the idea that there is reason for Irish thinkers to be paying more attention to continental European authors that aren’t “well known here”. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I’ve become fascinated with some authors who fit the “Dutch” stereotype quoted above, although that may not fit with current trends. Indeed, I always seem to start on a way of thinking at the same time as when public opinion seems to be going in the entirely opposite direction, so maybe it is only appropriate that I seem to have become fascinated with Christian-democratic authors at a time when there is perhaps no less likely school of thought to capture the Irish public imagination “today”. It must be in my stars. But maybe it is “I” who is swimming downstream within the currents of a “secret mainstream” after all. We must all trust our instincts, don’t you know?

“Going Dutch” for a little bit longer, I can’t help thinking that a theme that “I should’ve but didn’t” amplify in my latest article was the old “big or small state” question, with the latter always being outside the loop of real “influencers”. Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius certainly exercised an influence, but his writings stemmed from a time when the Dutch were the major naval and commercial power. People still cite him in power-play studies. More recent Dutch thinkers, who were evidently influenced greatly by the post-1945 European Christian-democrat tradition, may be no less novel but because Holland is no longer a key military power who actually pays attention to them? Such is life, perhaps.

If “in the realm of ideas”, as opposed to the niche(s) of comparative literatures, Ireland is still not very much “in the European eye”, the small state phenomenon is perhaps the most logical explanation, even if one cannot help but thinking sometimes that Ireland is a country where not enough people are wearing their “thinking caps” full time. There are no references to Ireland in the most recent book I’ve read, F.A. von Geusau’s Neither Justice Nor Order but I can’t think of a more entertaining and enjoyable book that I’ve read in recent times, which is equally scholarly and moralistic. The author quotes from several human rights activists who espouse the idea that all law (“globally”) should be based on the dignified equality of individuals rather than inter-state law, but nearly all such spokespeople were semi-religious individuals who exhibited an aversion to aggressive assertions of various kinds.

In a completely unscholarly way, I tend to connect that way of thinking with an old film-noir that was initially suppressed in America (it was considered anti-capitalist in a communist-witch hunt era) but is now considered a classic there; namely, Force of Evil (1948), where it seemed to me that the key line of the film’s protagonist (played by John Garfield) was when he stated that he believes it is fundamentally perverse for any individual not to view all episodes in their life in terms of playing for an advantage or opportunities for self-assertion or advancement. Is that “evil” or is it not? Watch the film. How that question exercises an influence or not upon an individual’s temperament often seems to me to be a pivotal determinant of character, but outside the realm of such old melodramas how far does it have a currency? I really can’t say, but I suspect that is a question that shapes my own outlook or approach to life more often than I may perhaps care to admit or than is truly “of the times”. On that (dare I say) “reasonable” note, I’ll sign off from my latest historical blog and re-enter the realm of literary silence for another month.