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.
In 1996 it became clear that the per capita income of Irish citizens was about to surpass that of British subjects, but the moment went largely unremarked among a people too busy for self-congratulation and among an intelligentsia too troubled by other questions. Mulhern is now a rather unfashionable figure in his continuing attempt to locate most of his analyses along an Anglo-Irish axis, yet his project has much to recommend it. One thing which it reveals very clearly is the fact that, as the Republic enters a post-national phase, England is returning to confront its long-deferred national question. Here, Mulhern’s analysis of the meaning of Leavis and Williams is wonderfully acute. Leavis resented the dissolution of Englishness into a wider British imperial scheme: he was a liberal, as opposed to a Powellite, defender of a sturdy little England, whose writers, though feminine in sensitivity, were also possessed of manly qualities of flint and iron. In a period when international writers were walking in hobnailed boots all over the English language, he tried to defend and distil the essence of that Englishness in an account of The Great Tradition. Mulhern’s is surely the most cogent analysis of Leavis, but it needs some updating. The huge interest in Irish plays in contemporary London (over twenty were on the boards in the summer of 1999) may be attributable less to the brilliance of the dramatists than to the ways in which many of their plays permit English audiences, at a certain safe remove, to explore their still-burning national question. The spirit of Tom Nairn is alive in the West End as well as at Granta Books. Mulhern, in shaking Irish dust off his feet in 1975 and decamping to a life of metropolitan Marxism, may have felt that he was removing himself from contamination by a noxious nationalism, only to find that history has given him a back-kick. He managed to escape Ireland’s seemingly unresolved national question, only to encounter England’s in its most eloquent form: the Cambridge scrutineer.
Chastened by these experiences, he offers his analysis. Like it or not, more people seem willing to die for nation than for social class, and ‘the nation-state is where all of us are all of the time’. Well, maybe, but in Middlesex more than in Moygashel. In Ireland today those who sponsor even a liberal-humanist version of nationalist narrative in the Republic’s newspapers get short enough shrift. Witness the ferocious response to the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing of 1991. It was seen as an example of one ‘backward’ narrative—the monotonous, Northern, nationalist one—interfering with a more ‘modern’ plot—the Europeanizing, market-driven consumerist option. Mulhern joined in the attack on that occasion, perhaps getting his signals a little crossed. He reprints his essays from that controversy here (but without Luke Gibbons’s rejoinders, thereby conveying the impression that he is fighting with shadows, like those revisionist historians who, in their assualts on the 1916 Rising, rarely rebut the case which the Easter rebels made but rather the one which they claim was made). Fifteen years of metro-Marxism had led Mulhern to the infallible conclusion that all nationalist projects are necessarily bourgeois. ‘The only crucial test of a bourgeois party’, he sagely observes, ‘is whether it can create a secure and fertile environment for capital.’ By 1991, however, the Southern elite was well embarked on that programme and wanted no truck with Field Day’s civic nationalism, much less its utopian socialism. The failure of its general editor, Seamus Deane, to employ a single female editor was pounced on as a pretext for rubbishing the project. A fair criticism the feminist critique surely was. But to have advanced thinkers like Mulhern throw their weight behind an even wider rejection must have left the gnomes of Dublin laughing up their sleeves at the willingness of international Marxism to proof the new consumerist order against attack from those revolutionary national traditions which it was quietly liquidating. 1991, as it happened, was also the year in which the Dublin government failed to invite the five surviving veterans of the Easter Rising to its furtive, apologetic and by then utterly perfunctory commemoration.