Irish writers’ responses to the Questionnaire “The European Union and its citizens, writers and artists”
By Joachim Fischer
This part of the Kaleidoscope 2 project was developed a little later than the main part, the collection of Irish essays and literary texts on Europe and the European Union, when Hedwig Schwall and Anne Fogarty kindly invited me to join the project. I currently hold the Jean Monnet Chair in European Cultural Studies at the University of Limerick. Jean Monnet Chairs are funded by the European Union and are a key element of the Jean Monnet programme (which is an integral part of the ERASMUS+ programme) and serve the purpose of supporting and developing European (Union) Studies in third level institutions all over the world. Traditionally such chairs are held and focussed on the academic disciplines of Political Science, Economics, and Law, with significantly fewer in Arts disciplines, and even fewer in (comparative) literature and modern languages. My own Jean Monnet Chair in European Cultural Studies with its specific remit of integrating the cultural dimension into the Irish European Union debate is the first one of its kind in Ireland. It is proof of a much broader understanding of the issues involved in European integration where, especially after the departure of the United Kingdom commonly referred to as Brexit, in an attempt to connect more effectively with citizens’ lives, interests and needs, cultural factors are much more seriously considered. It is accepted, and not only in Brussels, that literature, film, dance, music and other art forms offer considerable untapped potential for the discussion about the future of Europe generally, and the EU specifically, as they reach into new areas and are able to inject a new excitement and enthusiasm in too often rather stale and abstract public debates about the European Union. The extensive reflections about the state and future of the EU generated by Robert Menasse’s hugely successful novel Die Hauptstadt , hailed as the ‘first great EU novel’ (Konstantin Richter in politico.eu), in Germany and Austria, provide a striking example. This work has since been translated into all major EU languages, including into English. The Capital, published post-Brexit in 2019 by Maclehose in London was also discussed extensively in major British papers; Fintan O’Toole published a very perceptive review in the New York Review of Books. The Chair I was awarded may serve the additional purpose of opening up this funding possibility for literary and language scholars, in Ireland and elsewhere and direct their attention to the European angle of their research and teaching.
The Kaleidoscope 2 project fits well into the cultural remit of my Jean Monnet Chair. We developed a Questionnaire which aimed to explore the participating writers’ attitudes towards the European Union. Continuing the literary focus of the overall project, the first part of the Questionnaire explores literary angles such as influences, reception and writer-in-residence schemes, while the larger second part deals more specifically with the European Union. In Ireland, the responses can be regarded as a fitting contribution to the celebrations marking fifty years of Irish EC/EU membership starting in May of this year with the anniversary of the Referendum to join the European Communities on 10 May 1972. More broadly, they can also be seen as a (somewhat unorthodox but all the more valuable) contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe, a process initiated by President Macron in 2019 in order to engage citizens all over the EU in a debate about the future of the European Union, a political structure citizens, despite holding a European Union passport, still find it hard to connect to, let alone identify with.
The questionnaire was distributed in 2020 and answers kept arriving until early 2021. While the early phase of covid-19 is reflected in the responses and will have coloured some answers, the war in the Ukraine does not yet feature. Out of a total of 41 writers who submitted texts to Kaleidoscope 2, 31 participated in this part of the project, 9 from Northern Ireland and 23 from the Republic, 20 female and 11 male. Five writers predominately publish in the Irish language. Among the respondents are many well-known names such as Colm Tóibín, Maeve MacGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, or Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Gabriel Rosenstock on the Irish language side. While Northern Irish writers are well represented, there was, hardly surprisingly, no response from anyone who might be regarded as unionist; all Northern Irish voices were even more condemning of Brexit than those in the Republic. In a small number of cases the questions were asked verbally in an interview.
It was left open to the writers what questions they wanted to engage with, also the length of their answers. In the accompanying text containing the responses, the number of answers we received to a question is given (in brackets) after the question; this makes it obvious that certain questions appealed to the respondents more than others. Rather than publishing the individual responses in separate documents we list all answers in the attached document under each question. By adding the author’s initials at the end of each answer we adopt the middle way of neither emphasizing authorship nor going for anonymity. The responses are arranged in the alphabetical order of the initials to make it possible for readers interested in a particular writer’s responses to locate them. This arrangement results in a random sequence in terms of content, gender or provenance (North and South). The responses are personal, imaginative, honest, idiosyncratic, and always enlightening. Nothing else could be expected from creative writers. The resulting text has the character of a collage, indeed a ‘kaleidoscope’, of Irish writers’ attitudes towards the European Union.
A few remarks of the findings have to suffice here. In Part I, the influences mentioned give us a wide range of European authors, including a number of lesser known writers. The writers’ names mentioned (in bold in the text), arranged in terms of frequency, are German and French (identical in frequency), then Italian and Russian, followed by Spanish and Norwegian. The authors mentioned are predominantly male. The responses to the question on writer-in-residence schemes provide useful feedback for cultural officers anywhere in Europe who may consider inviting Irish writers.
In Part II, the respondents openly admit their lack of expertise in many areas, women perhaps more readily than men. Overall the attitude towards the European Union is positive; it seems to many, as one respondent put it, “a benevolent and idealistic entity, concerned with social progress and rational solutions to problems.” Especially in the areas of social legislation, the role of women, workers’ rights, environmental legislation and, of course, infrastructure and roads, the positive influence of the EU is acknowledged. At the same time, the writers do not hold back with their criticism, on neoliberal policies, austerity and EU refugee policies specifically, with a strong left-wing strain from left-of-centre social democracy to radical anarchism running though many of the answers. The fewest responses we received were to the question about how the authors themselves would present the European Union more effectively. In this, the writers show that they are like many EU citizens: quite specific with their criticism but less so with remedies.
The writers perhaps differ from the prevailing view in Ireland in their distance from rigid nationalist thinking and their profound interest in the cultures of other member states. A strong European consciousness emerges from the critique of the EU’s complete failure to “embrace the responsibility to promote a larger vision of a common European culture”. This Europe-mindedness expresses itself also clearly in the self-criticism of Irish provincialism and lack of engagement in matters European: “I don’t think Ireland has contributed much to the EU.”
All respondents from both parts of the island are strong advocates of more language teaching. This emphasis on and interest in languages and specifically in smaller language communities (not only voiced by writers in Irish) may very well be peculiarly Irish and distinguish the European perspective of Irish writers from that of their British counterparts.
The results of the survey should of course not be taken as representative, neither for Irish attitudes to the EU generally nor for literary Ireland, as only those writers may have participated who were particularly open towards European cultures and to whom the thrust of the project appealed. If nothing revolutionary new transpires, the responses still offer a more exciting and engaging read than politicians’ statements, statistics or diagrams outlining decision-making in Brussels. As language is their métier the writers’ answers often bring issues especially succinctly to the point. For one respondent the EU was
a cloudy conceptual thing that we are all part of and that I more often than not feel a vague but primal sense of belonging to but also feel slightly separate from. A bit like my ideas of God (the father part) when I was a kid.
Echoing President Macron’s insistence on multiculturalism and multilingualism (e.g. in his important Sorbonne speech of 2017) another respondent’s ideal EU is “the salad bowl principle rather than the melting pot – discrete ingredients which nevertheless contribute to the flavour of the whole.”
Several writers express the view that it is in the educational system that European consciousness needs to be generated and these authors were very excited about the prospect of our plans to use some of the material generated by Kaleidoscope 2 for educational purposes. It is our firm belief that in conjunction with their texts the authors’ answers offer exciting additional material not only for CSPE and the new Leaving Certificate subject of Politics and Society classes in Irish schools but also in the English classroom. It is an irony far too little reflected upon that the subject of English has remained completely untouched by European integration discourses, considering that English is the effective lingua franca of the EU. However, neither should we overestimate what can be achieved with young people in a school setting: one writer quite rightly adds a cautionary note concerning the power of “Youtube and Facebook and Twitter etc. So, whoever wins that war wins their hearts and souls.”
The material published here, both essays and the responses to the questionnaire, aims to help increase young people’s critical curiosity about the EU. We also hope that the results may give the debate about Ireland’s place in Europe and Irish reflections on the past, present and future of the European Union both more visibility and added substance while also injecting a good dose of (critical) positivity, hope and creativity. In many ways, the writers’ concerns match those expressed by the Irish President Michael D. Higgins in his recent speeches on Europe published in 2021 as Reclaiming the European Street. President Higgins regularly makes a point of including and quoting European writers and philosophers, from Aristotle to Habermas, from Friedrich Schiller to Czesłav Miłosz. A poet himself he appreciates precisely the openness of art and literature and their inherent utopian and ethical quality as indispensable ingredients to the debate about Europe, not to mention the vibrancy, imagination and colour novels, films, music, and dance can bring to often dry and all-too-serious legal, economic or political discussions about the EU that fail to inspire not only young people. No matter what one’s attitude towards the European Union may be, it is unquestionable, that it is a key aspect of the foreseeable future for all citizens in Europe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights that it may in fact be more vital to the protection of values Europeans hold dear than we may have thought previously. It therefore demands our increased engagement. To encourage this, not only teachers may find the occasional quote in the essays and responses that adhere to the strategy devised by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (in French, of course) in his 1948 novel Citadelle: “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.”