Europe and Ireland: The Cultural Deficit
One warm October day in 2008, a friend and I set out to find the house where Daniel O’Connell died – deep down in the ancient caröggi of Genoa, the narrow, high-sided streets of the medieval city which haven’t changed very much in five hundred years. The place is a dark warren of vicoli (lanes) and tiny squares, jammed with traders of every kind and, at midday and in the evening, prostitutes working from their doorways. Genoa, once the greatest trading state in the Mediterranean, is still Italy’s busiest port and ports attract such trade. Eventually we found the plaque on Via Ponte Reale. The text is in Latin and the Liberator’s name is rendered in the dative – Danieli O Connello – To Daniel O’Connell. The addition of the ‘o’ to the surname merely indicates the difficulty Italian (or Genovese) speakers have with terminal consonants. The plaque records the fact that O’Connell ended his days here on his way to Rome in 1847. He died, some say, of a broken heart – in Irish history the year is known as Black ’47, the absolute depths of the Great Famine.
We were fellows at the Ligurian Centre for the Humanities at Bogliasco, near Genoa and my friend was an Irish-American academic whose father came from near Caherdaniel in County Kerry. Not coincidentally, my friend’s name is Daniel O’Connell. He is a specialist in Joyce and cheerfully quoted Mr Bloom’s gloomy thoughts about the great Patriot:
Shades of night hovering here with all the dead stretched about. The shadows of the tombs when churchyards yawn and Daniel O'Connell must be a descendant I suppose who is this used to say he was a queer breedy man great catholic all the same like a big giant in the dark.
Our little expedition – an Irish writer and an Irish-American academic, both resident at an institute in Italy and on a quest to discover Irish connections – was an interesting metaphor for Ireland’s links to the east and to the west. On the western side, the so-called ‘diaspora’ to the USA is celebrated regularly, an easy sell because both countries are anglophone. However, in many ways our eastward connections to continental Europe are deeper and certainly of much longer duration, stretching back at least to the period when Irish monks set out to found monasteries on continental soil.
That my friend Daniel was a Joyce scholar is also interesting. Of all Irish writers Joyce and Beckett are the most European. But although Joyce’s connections to Trieste, Paris and Zurich are well known, he also had many links to North America, through Ezra Pound, John Quinn and The Little Review to name but a few. But Joyce’s work looks inward to Ireland and outward to Europe – his literary, theological and philosophical readings were all European. Any writer who dares to have his protagonist eat a Gorgonzola sandwich in a Dublin pub must be European to the core.
The Institute at which we were fellows – Fondazione Bogliasco – is multilingual and strikingly most of the anglophone fellows were monolingual. English is such a dominant language in the world that it has hitherto been sufficient unto itself. As long as the UK, with a population of sixty-eight million (almost fourteen times the population of the Republic of Ireland) was a fellow club member we could rest on the assumption that English was an essential language in the EU. Now, however, we are five million people in a population of almost four hundred and fifty million. It’s time to wake up to the fact that English is no longer central to the European project.
Ireland is now the only English-speaking country in the EU yet we are hardly invested at all in continental culture and language. My argument in this essay is that we need to engage more actively with the cultures and languages of our fellow-citizens of the European Union as a complement to our engagement with their politics and economics. But our cultural references are still dominated by England and the USA. Ultimately, this puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis our fellow EU citizens and places us on the outer rim of the continent both geographically and politically, in danger of becoming the outsiders in what is largely a multilingual club.
Ireland is deeply invested at political and economic levels in the idea of the European Union, but it has, in my view, and despite the best efforts of many notable figures in Irish life, failed to invest in the same level of engagement at the cultural level. Such a high level of cultural engagement cannot be achieved by individual effort or even by the efforts of well-meaning groups. It requires a national effort, not just the occasional European writer or musician or artist at a festival – it requires an effort on a much grander and more inclusive scale. Our cultural links need to be seen at all levels of society: European music (other than classical or opera) should be heard on our radio stations as a matter of course, European books in our bookshops, European TV series and films on our screens, contemporary European art in our galleries, European languages on our tongues! Proficiency in European languages is an issue of great concern to industry and business, but there are other more pressing reasons to put it at the heart of public policy. The teaching of European languages in an environment permeated in such a way by European culture and traditions would make of Ireland not just an anglophone gateway to Europe but a plurilingual focus at the very heart of European culture.
Ireland is in a pivotal position vis-à-vis relations between the USA and the EU, a position made all the more important because of Brexit. Formerly there were two anglophone countries in the EU, rivals for inward investment from the USA, now there is only one. This is a major economic advantage to Ireland. But for that pivot to work, Ireland needs to renew, to broaden and to deepen its commitment to the European continent. This may seem to be at odds with the obvious fact that Ireland is one of the most pro-EU countries in the bloc and is deeply engaged politically and economically, but, I suggest, being politically pro-Union and engaging actively with European nations are two different things. It could well be argued that England’s rejection of European culture played a huge part in the long withdrawal that led to that country’s exit from the Union; although no such process is at work here, it is perfectly possible that Ireland will continue in its anglophone bubble, relying on the UK and the USA for its cultural signifiers, and gradually finding itself even more isolated within the Union.
The departure of the UK from the European Union has been prolonged – arguably over forty years – and painful and promises to be even more painful in the coming years, at least for England (and I use ‘England’ advisedly, since neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted for Brexit). It is, for example, likely to precipitate the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself with the departure of Scotland and even a possible united Ireland. There are many Brexiters and Little Englanders for whom this is a cheerful prospect. A letter to The Times of London by none other than novelist Louis de Bernières exemplifies that position perfectly. “The attachment to Scotland is mostly a sentimental one,” he writes, and “it is impossible to continue to love those who do not love us.” The echoes of imperialist paternalism and rejection are obvious here. De Bernières, despite his name, is a Tory-voting little Englander who has said much the same about Northern Ireland.
Brexit has, however, concentrated minds in Ireland where the population is still overwhelmingly pro-European though frequently critical of the direction the Union is travelling in. In part, of course, pro-EU sentiment during the Brexit period was amplified by animosity towards those behind the UK’s departure and will probably settle back to a lower level eventually. Nevertheless, Ireland’s historic relationship to Europe has always been different to that of its neighbour. Where England’s press has been ferociously anti-European in the main, the discourse in Ireland is strongly pro-European. Where English politicians have gone to Europe demanding change, Irish politicians have concentrated on building alliances. In many ways the difference may be attributed to the fact of a decayed empire in retreat and hurting versus a former colony attempting to establish its position on the world stage, but there is also something more open about the Irish state of mind, a willingness to respect other ways of life, a humility not matched by the former empire. This is not to deny that racism and xenophobia are also to be found in Ireland or that we have, in many ways, been a more closed society in the past, but simply to say that when Irish society opened up it revealed a different mindset to that of its neighbours.
England tends to remember that it has frequently been at war with the continental powers. However, it must be remembered that the continental members of the European Union have been at war with each other even more frequently and yet now wish to live in peace and unity. Ireland’s role in these wars is not an uncomplicated one. In fact, England fought the wars with European powers using Irish timber and Irish soldiers and sailors as well as continental allies. On the other hand, Ireland has often looked to the continental powers for assistance and for refuge. The presence of large numbers of the Catholic Irish in the armies of the continental powers is well known. The connection is celebrated in poetry and song – from the “fíon Spáinneach” of “Róisín Dubh” to the “Seanbhean Bhocht’s” flat declaration that the French are on the sea and will be here without delay. What may be the greatest poem in the Irish language “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” concerns the murder of an Irish officer serving in the Hungarian Hussars.
If anything, during the historical period, Irish links with Europe were even more profound than now, stretching back to prehistory and including the return of learning to the Continent by Irish monks. In more recent centuries many hedge school masters were educated abroad and priests and scholars lived and worked on the Continent. For many in Ireland, the presence of Irish citizens in Europe is seen as a re-engagement, a return to previous norms, rather than something new.
But Ireland’s metaphoric view to the continent of Europe is interrupted by the island of Great Britain like a great blot on the horizon. For many English people their position between us and the continent is proof that Ireland should join them in their great escape (“I think ultimately Ireland will leave the EU too” – Nigel Farage). This has led to the sponsorship by the Brexit organisations of an ‘Irexit’ movement here. At present it seems doomed to failure with support for the EU standing at over 80% in one opinion poll after another. But the rich men who bankrolled Brexit (people like Arron Banks) and the frontmen such as Nigel Farage believe they are in it for the long haul. To many of them Ireland still belongs in “the British isles”, a term whose tendentious validity stems entirely from conquest. But for Irish people it is yet another reason to cleave more closely to the Continent. We have, as they say, been here before and have no desire to renew our once close acquaintance with the caring arms of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. The more the Little Englanders claim us as their brethren, the more strongly we protest our European heritage. Nevertheless we would be foolish to underestimate the ability of determined actors with a strong privately owned press to back them to affect a radical change in public discourse. Brexit should be a salutary lesson to those of us who support the European project, whatever our misgivings about its present politics.
But how strong is this European heritage that we cleave to in Ireland?
It is difficult, indeed almost impossible at times, to find European books in translation in Irish bookshops which remain addicted to the London-based book trade; the teaching of European languages in Ireland has never reached the levels achieved on the continent proper; films in European languages are rarely shown in general release Irish cinemas where Anglo-American cinema dominates; apart from classical and opera, European music makes little impact here.
Culture is not a one-way system. As Professor Michael Cronin said in a recent article on translation in Ireland: “Literary translation brings the world to Ireland and Ireland to the world and we need this worldly conversation more than ever.” Ireland, through various laudable ventures such as Culture Ireland, seeks to encourage interest in our culture in the continental nations – and with considerable success. As a writer with many continental connections it is gratifying to encounter such enthusiasm for Irish books and music when travelling. However, for these roots to take permanent hold on the continental soil it is necessary for our island to reciprocate in kind. While our continental neighbours, for example, listen to pop music from all over Europe and from the anglophone world, our radio is monolingual (apart, obviously from Irish). We are more likely to hear music from West Africa than from France (and I hasten to add that I am a fan of West African music). Much is made of the difficulty of teaching continental languages in Ireland and Ireland consistently scores poorly on studies of plurilingualism and we are the only EU country where a foreign language is not a compulsory part of the curriculum. Consequently, only 20% of Irish adults report being able to conduct a conversation in a foreign language whereas the EU average is 35%. The report from which these figures are extracted also states that “a lack of foreign language capacity in Ireland is impacting negatively on the country’s social, cultural and economic development”.
Paul Gillespie summed up the economic argument succinctly in a 2015 article in the Irish Times:
That bleak picture accords badly with a growing demand for greater linguistic competence from employer bodies such as Ibec. Chambers of commerce such as the German one say job opportunities are being lost, even though secondary and third level study of German is picking up from a low level.
The outgoing boss of Google Ireland has lamented the poor linguistic record of Irish graduates. Economic researchers point to this factor as explaining why the high-technology foreign direct investment flowing disproportionately to Ireland means such companies recruit fewer than 50 per cent of graduates from Irish universities.
Of course, there are student exchange schemes at secondary level and ERASMUS+ at third level, and ERASMUS is justifiably regarded as the world’s most successful student exchange scheme. But ERASMUS impacts mostly the better off because of the costs involved and the fact that university student populations are still overwhelmingly middle class. At secondary level, student exchanges are, if anything, an even more middle class phenomenon.
But language and language teaching cannot exist in a vacuum. Language and culture are two sides of the same coin. Unless the cultural context is there, the teaching will always be an uphill struggle.
In order to develop language learning we must bring continental European culture to Ireland in the same way that we bring Irish culture to Europe. If closer unity with the continental EU is to be achieved, if trade and tourism are to benefit for the long term we need to engage at a much closer cultural level. A greater commitment at government level to culture from the continent of Europe would be a clever political move but it would need to be much more than supporting writers or musicians to attend festivals or sending middle class students to continental universities.
Rebroadcasting programmes, films, television series, music from non-anglophone countries as well as sponsoring translation are all necessary elements of that engagement, and they would need to be publicly funded. A continental language could be a compulsory requirement for everyone in primary and secondary school. Civil Service entrants could be required to speak a continental language. Part of the Brexit process has been a defunding of foreign language courses at secondary and third level in England; we must take the opposite tack in Ireland.
Despite our profound engagement at the political and economic level with the continental member states and the Union itself, we have failed to invest ourselves in continental cultures. We have largely confined our efforts to exporting Irish culture to those countries, certainly a valuable activity in its own right, but not sufficient if what we want is closer union with our fellow EU citizens. In terms of import/export our cultural trade with the EU suffers from a substantial deficit. We simply get too little of it here.
This essay is a necessarily brief exploration of the implications of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and our new-found place as the sole anglophone country in the Union. I believe that if we wish, in the long term, to avoid the kind of ignorance, xenophobia and isolationism that drove Brexit we need to increase our cultural commitment because a shared culture is the key to understanding our fellow-Europeans and the first barricade against hatred. As James Joyce once said: “If Ireland is to become a new Ireland she must first become European.”