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The Severed Alliance
Irish Liberals used to look to England as a beacon of hope, and a refuge. They don't anymore, and probably never will again. What happened?
Top Irish twitter poster PangurBn10 has been working his way through the books of Irish writer Desmond Fennell and tweeted out this gem recently:
Fennell is what would now be called a heterodox thinker. He spent his life swimming against the cultural tide in various ways and critiquing whatever the standard beliefs of Irish liberals at the time. This extract is from his book “Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the ‘80s”. Fennell is talking about the Official Ireland of that time, whose attitudes he describes had a “second-hand stage Englishness”.
The smug, right-on Irish person forever looking to England as a beacon of hope, a refuge and a relief was a recognisable figure in Ireland well into the 90s and 2000s. The basic type still exists today and are sometimes parodied on social media as Derek, a meme character who never shuts up about Magdalene Laundries and our data-driven future.
Probably the best example of the shift is Fintan O’Toole. Fintan has been on a journalistic tear since Brexit, producing innumerable articles and at least one book. This has led to the perception amongst right-wing English people previously unfamiliar with his work that he’s driven by anti-englishness. The truth is not quite the opposite of this, but close to it.
Fintan is (and the Fintans are) exactly who Fennell was talking about. With Brexit they saw England as betraying its liberal principles and its openness. In doing so it came to resemble the version of Ireland the Fintans hated - backward and inward looking, superstitious, uneducated. It revealed itself as run by the type of person they hate most in Ireland, that England was supposed to provide a refuge from. The Fintans wouldn’t have given a shit if they’d felt like that all along. But the change was a personal betrayal.
If the current stance of the Fintans isn’t quite anglophobia, the old stance wasn’t quite anglophilia. Englishness was never part of the appeal, only distance from Irishness and from the things that made Ireland insufferable - poverty, religion, farms, nationalism, the people who thrived on those things and embodied those ideas. The bond between the Irish Liberal and England was always driven by the negative appeal of Irishness than the positive appeal of Englishness; which meant that the relationship was vulnerable if one or both parties was to suddenly change.
London specifically had a distinct appeal for Irish Liberals as the closest place that would allow you to get out of the village panopticon and live a life of blessed cosmopolitan anonymity. But it never had the mythic haze that New York or even Sydney did. The quote below is from Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book on the famine, showing that this attitude existed in the 19th Century as well:
It should go without saying people’s feelings about the oppressiveness and smallness of Ireland were completely justified, and their desire to escape to the UK completely reasonable. It’s still reasonable (I love London, probably more than anywhere other than Dublin, and go there a lot) though of course in 2023 the oppressive Irish consensus is much more to the liking of the people in question.
Brexit aside, an underrated factor in the change is the growth of the internet over the last few years. This means it’s easier for Irish Liberals to expose themselves directly to the radioactive core of liberal culture and ideas, the US. The need for the local middle-man is gone.
Irish political culture seems to reflect that; leaving issues related to the north, there is no perceptible flow of political ideas from the UK to Ireland. The fact that something is a point of political conflict in the UK does not mean it’s going to seamlessly migrate over to Ireland, or that Irish people are going to look to pick it up. Again, to the extent that relationship happens with any country, it’s with the United States, and obviously there’s a certain practical requirement to do so with Europe because that’s where legislation emanates from. To understand why or how something happens in Ireland in 2023, it’s often more helpful to think of it as comparable to a blue state than to the UK.
The third factor is the decline in the number of Irish people in England, which is the lowest it’s been since the 1930s.
PPart of what demonstrated the value of England as a cultural underground railroad out of Ireland was that other people had made that journey and could confirm its value. In the past decade it’s become much easier for Irish people to migrate to Australia and Canada, particularly the former. When you hear of an Irish person permanently making a life for themselves abroad, it’s relatively more common now to hear that they’ve done so in Melbourne or Sydney than in London. The cost of living in London doesn’t help of course, and it means that Irish people who do make a life there often can’t afford to do so for very long. This is conflating Liberal Irish people with Irish people generally, though the two groups overlap, particularly amongst those who emigrate.
Ed West, himself a member of the diaspora, touched on the topic of Ireland’s changing relationship with England in a great recent essay, and concluded with this astute summary of the current relationship from an Irish perspective:
(Ireland looks at) Britain with a certain amount of pity, although mixed with some anger that Brexit will also drag them down. It’s the behaviour of a domineering former abusive partner who’s now having some terrible midlife crisis.
This alludes to the biggest factor in the changed relationship between Irish Liberals and England, which I haven’t touched on so far: they won. The Fintans and Dereks are the most reluctant to admit it, but the victory of the forces of progress in Ireland has been devastating and total by every cultural measure. There’s no need for them to turn their eyes elsewhere to find an aspirational model, and in any case they have substantially out-performed the old model in recent years, rendering it useless. Ireland has become the England of their dreams.