In Towards 2000 Raymond Williams considered a socialist future in which old notions of territory and sovereignty might be undone. Francis Mulhern justly observes that, although the significant societies of today are either larger or smaller than the nation-state, it nonetheless persists as the site of despatch. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, more and more nations have clamoured for the right to recognition which is embodied in some form of state. This is but one sense in which Mulhern’s present lasts a long time. The current situation persists, but only as a travesty of William’s imagined future. The most one can do is survey the botched narrative with pessimism of intellect, optimism of will. Such stoicism makes for a remarkable diagnostic coherence in these disparate essays, which trace the history of intellectuals in many places, most notably Britain and Ireland.
If some things never change, others have been transformed beyond recognition. Over the past three decades the welfare state in Britain has been dismantled as a touchstone of political legitimacy, much as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has been shattered in the Republic of Ireland. That analogy is not as far-fetched as it might seem, since the Church was used by an impoverished, insecure state to provide social services and thus a political stability beyond that state’s own material potential: but Mulhern prefers to think of Irish clericalism as uniformly reactionary. He emigrated to Britain just before a gospel of liberation theology was imported back to Ireland by nuns, priests and lay workers. He has accordingly slender knowledge of the ways in which his own devastating critique of Celtic Tiger economics has been endorsed by those clergy who form the core of current oppositional thought in Ireland. Instead, he must write that ‘the oppressive clericalism of official Southern culture has confirmed, by negation, the value of development in itself, the general critical appeal of the “modern”.’ That sentence might still say something valid about the conservative nostra of Northern Irish Catholicism (whose archbishop recently denounced the speaking of eulogies by lay persons at funerals) but it would hardly fit the Southern community which, as far back as 1972, voted to remove references to the special position of the Catholic Church from its Constitution.
The truth is that the island has long been a two-stroke society: and it is in Northern rather than Southern Ireland that the present lasts longest of all. With the ceasefires by the IRA, there is at last the chance of reopening the civil rights agenda of 1968—a thing worth doing, for which Mulhern advances a strong case here. But meanwhile, in the South, a strange version of the revolution longed for by Williams has already been achieved, two years short of 2000. In May 1998 over 94 percent of the electorate in the Republic voted to endorse the Belfast Agreement, which effectively overrode the 1937 Constitution from that moment on. In doing so, the people did what no other people in modern history has done: for the sake of good relations with their Unionist neighbours on the island, they voted to reduce the extent of their national territory, rescinding the claim made in 1937 on six northern counties. If constitutions are written in the language of the nineteenth century, revolving around concepts of sovereignty and boundaries, this was a gesture out of the twenty-first century, a recognition that identities are overlapping and dialogic and that it is now possible to be ‘Irish or British or both’. One of the problems faced by the framers of the Belfast Agreement is that there is no readily available language in which to give legal expression to these insights other than the constitutional discourses of the nineteenth century: but they did their best in the circumstances. Other eventualities may flow from their formulation: the possibility that people in Northern Ireland might vote representatives to the Dáil as well as Westminster and even, in due time, remit taxes to their chosen state.
Williams’s hopes for the denationalization of identities have been realized in the Republic, but without any triumph for socialism. Instead, as Mulhern acidly remarks, the new post-nation is imagined less as a domain of cultural sovereignty than as a market. What socialism couldn’t bring about has come instead through capital: ‘The nation as market, the market as youth, youth as the spirit of the new nation: this festive ring-dance of meanings is Irish capital’s rite of spring.’ And the vibrant, cash-rich South uses gloom-laden memoirs of the mid-twentieth century much as British welfarism once employed The Uses of Literacy—as a way of marking off its modernity and of preening itself on just how far it has come in the few short decades since the days of Angela’s Ashes. For nothing ever seems more remote to the Irish mind than the recent past. The beehive hairdos of the 1950s are as anti-aphrodisiac as the dog-collared bucolic priests of Mulhern’s Northern youth, yet somehow necessary to prove that the place in which they are still found is really and truly modern. In that sense, there is a useful corrective to Celtic Tiger euphoria in Mulhern’s title.
His diagnosis is often persuasive, his remedies less immediately clear. Those critics who have tried to construct a method calibrated to Irish conditions have long ago been written off by Mulhern as little more than old-style nationalists in drag. Their project he deems futile (though it is the project underlying the series in which this volume appears): ‘Ireland is different. But in relation to what putatively normal society? There is none. Ireland is different, and in that respect the same as anywhere else.’ Yet, though that sounds clever, it is hardly true to experience: for many decades everyone in Ireland was brought up to regard English culture and society as some kind of human norm, against which they were the errata, the oddities. The Leavisian programme worked far better in Ireland than it ever did in England (which may explain why Mulhern was enabled to write the best book on the ‘moment’ of Scrutiny). It is only in very recent years that Irish intellectuals have broken out of this perceptual prison and made a wider set of comparisons, in terms of which England is shown to be a strangely stressed society, exhausted by the burden of empire and its aftermath. Far from being normal, England was very odd.