Authority and Wisdom in the New Ireland

Studies in Literature and Culture

by Carmen Zamorano Llena (Volume editor) Billy Gray (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection X, 268 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 73


Since the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland has witnessed a profound reconfiguration of its cultural, political, constitutional and religious identities, resulting in an unparalleled questioning of the dominant discourses and narratives that have seemingly defined the nation. The essays in this collection examine the ways in which established Irish socio-cultural structures of authority and their constructs of collective identity have been challenged within literary and cultural discourses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Every challenge to the purported wisdom of these authority structures adds a new facet to the complexity of Irish national identity and contributes to the continuous evolution of the ‘New Ireland’, a phrase often used to signify the momentous transformations of the country in times of change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Carmen Zamorano Llena And Billy Gray - Introduction: Versions of Authority and Wisdom in the New Ireland
  • Part I Past and Present Wisdom for the Future
  • Ciarán Benson - Fault-Lines of Allegiance in Contemporary Ireland: What Should the Irish Love and Fear to Act More Wisely in the Twenty-First Century?
  • Mary O’Donnell - Irish Cultural Connections in Poetry, Fiction and on the Street: The Writing of Jean O’Brien, Maurice Scully, Emer Martin and Other Irish Writers
  • John Wilson Foster - Authority and Wisdom: The Case of Lady Constance Malleson
  • Carly Mclaughlin - ‘Images of Ireland that matter now’: Colm Tóibín in Conversation
  • Part II Updating the Authority of Tradition
  • Bent Sørensen - Sean-nós, sean-nua … sean-nós nua? Constructions of Authority, Tradition and Innovation in Popular Irish Music
  • Edwige Nault - Challenging Catholic Church Authority on the Abortion Issue since the 1980s
  • Carmen Zamorano Llena - The Location of the New Ireland: Redefinitions of Memory and Belonging in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture
  • Part III Charismatic Authority in Poetry
  • Benjamin Keatinge - The Charismatic Authority of Paul Durcan
  • Maciej Ruczaj - ‘Wise foolishness of saints’: The Evolution of Christian Ethical Radicalism in Patrick Pearse’s Writings
  • John Braidwood - Belonging from Afar: Some Images of the North in the Poetry of Michael Hartnett
  • Part IV Political Wisdom and the Arts
  • Caoimhín De Barra - Protestants Playing Pagans? Irish Nationalism and the Rejection of Pan-Celticism
  • Bryce Evans - The Shadow of a Gunman: Seán Lemass and National Artistic Expression
  • Katarzyna Ojrzyńska - A New Lens on Tending the Irish Sectarian Wound: Vincent Woods’s At the Black Pig’s Dyke
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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The Editors would sincerely like to thank a number of institutions and individuals that have made this collection possible. We are indebted to Dalarna University for their financial support. We are grateful to Christabel Scaife of Peter Lang for her patience and support, and to Eamon Maher, the Series Editor, for his valuable advice.

We are also thankful to The Gallery Press and the Estate of Michael Hartnett for their kind permission to use the Michael Hartnett quotations.

Thanks are also due to each and every one of the contributors, who with their expertise and challenging academic work have made this collection possible. It has been the Editors’ pleasure to work with each one of them and to learn from their insightful analyses of authority and wisdom in the New Ireland from a literary and cultural perspective.

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Introduction: Versions of Authority and Wisdom in the New Ireland

The citizen who resists the counsel of wisdom […] ought never to have any kind of authority entrusted to him.

— Plato’s Laws, quoted in DANIEL N. ROBINSON, Wisdom:
Its Nature, Origins, and Development
(1990: 14)

‘New Ireland’ is a recurrent phrase in Irish history which often signals hopes for the construction of a new country emerging out of difficult historical circumstances. This was the case in the new Ireland of the turn of the twentieth century, after a long era of British rule and colonialism, or the new Ireland that followed the struggle for national independence. The phrase was also used in the controversial New Ireland Forum and, more recently, in references to the now defunct phenomenon of the Celtic Tiger. In the latter case, the phrase was often used to denote a pervasive sense of national optimism about the future, a discourse which countered the memories of the dismal past which the country was trying to overcome. A case in point is one of its latest usages by cultural critic Fintan O’Toole in his book Enough Is Enough (2010). Following on from his dissection of the causes for the downfall of Celtic Tiger Ireland in his much celebrated Ship of Fools (2009), this book aims to look into the future by presenting O’Toole’s polemical views on the requirements of building a ‘new republic’ – a phrase noted in the subtitle – a new Ireland out of the dying embers of the disastrous mismanagement and nepotism of the Celtic Tiger era.

However, as a number of critics have observed, and history has frequently confirmed, the official discourse of a new Ireland invariably conceals a gloomier reality; a reality which has frequently included, at ← 1 | 2 → different points in time over the last century, growing socio-economic inequality, moral repression and dismal psychosocial consequences. In hindsight, historical evidence reveals the lack of wisdom that has guided the decisions made by individuals in positions of authority, one of the most recent examples being, as O’Toole notes, the widespread assumption amongst government officials, the Central Bank of Ireland, the business and employers’ organisations as well as sectors in the Irish media conglomerates that the Irish bailout is ‘manageable’ (2010: 11). However, according to figures provided by Patrick Honohan, governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, in June 2015, the current estimated net cost of the Irish bailout at over €100 billion and growing (Hancock 2015) is anything but ‘manageable’. Faced with irrefutable evidence of how incommensurably unmanageable the cost of the financial rescue is, O’Toole has sarcastically remarked that ‘[f]or the Irish political and financial elite to be right on this one, they have to have discovered a wisdom that has eluded all governments, administrators and economists for the past four centuries’ (2010: 12, emphasis added). In fact, rather than ‘discovering wisdom’, recent events suggest that Irish political discourse maintains an almost suicidal self-delusion, or a dangerous willingness to continue a narrative of Irish exceptionalism in a misguided attempt to manufacture and strengthen a communal sense of identity.

According to O’Toole, the miracle of the Celtic Tiger served to fill the void left by the crumbling of two landmarks of Irish identity, namely Catholicism and nationalism. The narrative of a quasi-miraculous economic growth initated a blinkered optimism, a boastful self-confidence, and a lack of fear, all of which proved lethal. This explains the fervour with which the narrative of the Celtic Tiger was embraced, as well as the ‘psychic shock’ (O’Toole 2010: 3) caused by its demise. The end of the Celtic Tiger left an even deeper void in the Irish national consciousness, since, as O’Toole claims, it left ‘a feeling of going back to the past [of economic deprivation, high emigration and social collapse], but without the comforts of religion and the certainties of national destiny that made the past bearable’ (2010: 6). The demise of the myth of constant socio-economic progress exposed the dangers of a self-delusional narrative which encouraged a blithe disregard for the financial excesses and political corruption which defined the Celtic Tiger period. The crisis made patent the unsustainability of this balancing ← 2 | 3 → act between myth and reality and the need to replace it with a balanced, self-critical attitude which would avoid plunging the country into a regressive post-crash despair. In order for this to take place, a fundamentally different political discourse was required, a discourse which consciously avoided the temptation of falling back into self-delusional and self-congratulatory political and cultural narratives that prevented individuals in authority from recognising Ireland’s dangerous trajectory. A conspicuous example of this lack of awareness is Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s public statement that Ireland has managed to face the financial rescue with no increase in income tax, VAT or PRSI, a comment that raises considerable concern (O’Toole 2015), since this patent ‘untruth’ evinces a dangerous slide into the parameters of a new myth, namely that of Ireland as ‘the pride of Europe’.1 When such self-aggrandising narratives are fostered by those entrusted with guiding the nation’s future political and economic trajectories the matter becomes worthy of serious concern, as those individuals in positions of authority are required to exercise the necessary wisdom to ensure the prosperous development of the national community they represent. As O’Toole suggested in his call for the construction of a ‘new republic’, a major reform of the political culture is required, a process which necessarily involves the deconstruction of old myths and an honest self-appraisal of both past mistakes and future possibilities.

O’Toole’s formula to construct a ‘new Ireland’ echoes more classical understandings of what is implied by ‘wisdom’. As Daniel N. Robinson observes in his analysis of the concept of wisdom through the ages, the Platonic Dialogues offer the first sustained analysis of this concept. They ← 3 | 4 → contend that wisdom covers a range of aspects relating to intellectual, moral and ordinary life and, as such, three different types of wisdom are specifically identified: wisdom as sophia, or the ‘special gift of the philosopher and those […] in pursuit of truth’; wisdom as phronesis, or ‘the “practical wisdom” of the statesman and lawgiver, the wisdom that locates the prudent course of action and resists the urgings of the passions and the deception of the senses’; and wisdom as episteme, or a ‘form of scientific knowledge developed in those who know the nature of things and the principles governing their behavior’ (Robinson 1990: 14). In the present context of a global financial and humanitarian crisis, and particularly in relation to the Irish context, one cannot avoid the thought that a greater degree of phronesis, principally amongst those in positions of authority, may have spared the nation the tragic consequences of the financial debacle. While such a perspective of the recent past could perhaps be viewed as somewhat reductive, a critical examination of the past facilitates the acquisition of the knowledge of how to construct the future, including O’Toole’s ‘new republic’. On these grounds, the essays in this collection, focusing on diverse topics from a range of literary and cultural perspectives, have been selected with the aim of reflecting current critical perspectives on the interrelated themes of authority and wisdom in the new Ireland.

The first section in the collection, ‘Past and Present Wisdom for the Future’, offers wide-ranging cultural and literary analyses of Ireland’s past and present, combined with various perspectives relating to previous mistakes and future possibilities. In the opening essay, Ciarán Benson insightfully examines how selected ideas and their practical application are used by individuals to construct certain realities. He analyses how these ideas contribute to the formation of Irish subjectivity and how certain emotions, particularly love and fear, operate within an Irish political consciousness. Benson’s essay proposes a practical wisdom which, learning from past mistakes, should allow individuals and, particularly, those in positions of political and legal authority, to meet socio-cultural, political and economic challenges in the twenty-first century.

Benson’s psychological cultural analysis is complemented by Irish writer Mary O’Donnell’s focus on the contemporary literary scene. O’Donnell’s examination evinces that the critical engagement with authority is not alien ← 4 | 5 → to literature, but rather a sine-qua-non of literary creativity. In this respect, her essay considers challenges of authority as represented in two different forms. On the one hand, it focuses on the manner in which contemporary Irish poets have challenged the Irish literary canon by critically engaging with the authoritative work of the poets that conform this canon. Equally, by discussing the work of a representative selection of contemporary Irish writers, O’Donnell reveals the manner in which their work has challenged moral, religious and socio-political forms of authority in Ireland. Her analysis demonstrates that, unlike Plato’s argument against the presence of artists in his Republic, writers and their critical eye for forms of authority are highly necessary for the healthy revision of Irish communal identity or, in O’Toole’s words, the construction of Ireland’s ‘new Republic’.

The remaining two pieces in this section share with O’Donnell’s essay the strategy of taking individuals and considering the manner in which through their lives and/or their work they challenge authority in various forms. John Wilson Foster focuses on the figure of Lady Constance Malleson, and provides a biographical study of her character, as well as reference to her literary work. The joint consideration of both her life and her work, in the national and international socio-cultural context of her time, reveals various ways in which Lady Constance challenged the socio-political structures of authority and wisdom that were dominant in the conservative Irish society of the first half of the twentieth century. Carly McLaughlin’s interview with Colm Toíbín provides relevant insights into Toíbín’s work, with particular emphasis on The Empty Family, a collection of short stories that engages critically with traditional understandings of the family as a social institution.

The second section of this collection, ‘Updating the Authority of Tradition’, focuses on critical revisions of Irish artistic and socio-cultural traditions. Bent Sørensen examines the dynamics that exist between old and new ways in Irish music. According to Sørensen, the traditional unaccompanied song in Gaelic nowadays known as sean-nós, or the old style, is not the most commercially viable type of music in an age with little patience for lengthy laments without vibrant beats or obscene lyrics. His essay considers what the sean-nua, or new style that is more befitting for today’s audience, might be, and concludes that paradoxically the answer ← 5 | 6 → might lie in looking backward while at the same time looking to the future. Sørensen claims that some of Ireland’s most renowned names in contemporary popular music have been enamoured of the idea of crossing old with new, creating a hybrid form that would at once contain the wisdom of the old style and yet yield some authority in the marketplace. Focusing on Van Morrison’s album Irish Heartbeat and Sinead O’Connor’s Sean Nós Nua, Sørensen examines examples from these two albums where the vocal stylings of these singers resemble the sean-nós in its canonical meaning, yet serve as examples of boundaries of Irish time and place being transcended in the songs’ hybrid musical style, thereby lending new meaning to both sean-nós and nua.

Continuing this critical engagement with tradition, Edwige Nault’s essay analyses the challenges from within and from abroad faced by the Catholic Church on the issue of abortion since the 1980s. Nault specifically addresses the impact of a facet of the so-called secularisation process on Irish minds and morality, and how this challenges the Church’s authority in Ireland, particularly in relation to sexual ethics. Nault also considers the extent to which Church authority may also be jeopardised by foreign authorities over which it has no control. In this regard, she examines how the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland was in breach with the Convention in the case ABC v. Ireland in 2010. The state chose to introduce legislation to implement the Court’s judgement. However, if the act is very restrictive by essentially keeping in line with the Catholic doctrine of double effect, this essay contends that the state has set up structures where women can find help and non-judgemental advice when faced with a crisis pregnancy, thus implicitly challenging the Church’s traditional influence on Irish legislation, particularly with regard to abortion.

In the last essay in this section, Carmen Zamorano Llena examines how the processes of remembrance and forgetting, crucial in the formation of a national sense of identity at the turn of the twentieth century, are re-examined in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture thereby contributing to the construction of a multifaceted image of the new Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s. Written in the context of the growing emphasis on Irish multiculturalism as a result of the growth in migration to Ireland that occurred during the Celtic Tiger era, Barry’s novel shows, through the eyes of two narrators marked by various ← 6 | 7 → experiences of transcultural encounters, how the trope of memory is crucial to understanding contemporary formations of belonging in modern Ireland. As Zamorano Llena contends, the novel’s engagement with the past is not nostalgic, but rather serves to question twenty-first-century narratives regarding the novelty of multiculturalism in Ireland, as well as to challenge and expose the dangers of reductionist narratives of Irish identity.


X, 268
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
construction-building Culture new ireland identity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 268 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Carmen Zamorano Llena (Volume editor) Billy Gray (Volume editor)

Carmen Zamorano Llena is Associate Professor of English at Dalarna University, Sweden. She is President of the Nordic Irish Studies Network and edits the literature section of the peer-reviewed journal Nordic Irish Studies. Her current research interests include representations of ageing in Irish and British literature, literature and globalisation, and the migrant experience in contemporary Irish and British literature. Billy Gray is Associate Professor of English at Dalarna University, Sweden. He edits the section on history, politics and culture in the peer-reviewed journal Nordic Irish Studies. His research interests include Doris Lessing and Sufism, Northern Irish literature, and Irish essayists such as Hubert Butler, Chris Arthur and Conor Cruise O’Brien.


Title: Authority and Wisdom in the New Ireland