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Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of…

Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change, 1970-2000

by R. F. Foster

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This latest work by Ireland's most prominent historian originates as one of the prestigious Wiles lecture series presented at Queens University Belfast. Roy Foster informs us that he was asked to update his Modern Ireland 1600-1972 but decided instead on an entirely new project. He was right to do so, not only because questions arise immediately about history writing in relation to a period where the archive is not yet fully open, let alone a period when Irish history seemed in such deliberate fast forward. There is also that Foster, as a leading revisionist, has taken such pointed positions within the intellectual debates of this period on the central topic under study: modernisation.

An historical take on the present, however, may be just what is needed given some of the more recent conceptions of Ireland. Foster refers to Bertie Ahern's 'Spielbergian' notion of an Ireland no longer looking to the past but rather preferring to live in the future. At heart, this book sees Ireland as basically archaic until the 1970s, moving straight from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial, unimpeded by the social, cultural, political and economic encumbrances that a period of modernity might have provided. The outcome is uncertain and obviously unsettling for Foster: at one point he refers to the apocalyptic events of famine and world war that succeeded previous periods of rapid change. We might now also add world economic crisis.

In 2004, The Economist ranked Ireland's quality of life as leading the world. Foster muses that Ireland has become the 'location of happiness' (all the more happy for the United Kingdom being stuck at 29th). After a period of misfortune and unhappiness 'the Irish had got lucky' (5). 'Luck', of course, is a deliberate word: suggesting something unexpected, perhaps undeserved, liable to change, able to be squandered. The luck of the Irish was overshadowed by events in the North. Nevertheless, as opposed to his mentor F.S.L. Lyons who worried that Ireland was too small to hold the conflicting cultures, Foster takes some hope from the expansion of cultural, political and economic borders.

Foster identifies two perspectives on the period of rising incomes, exports and trade surpluses: the 'Boosters' and the 'Begrudgers'. These labels encompass a variety of stances, and it must be said that the latter, in defensive reaction to the tide of modernity, doesn't sound like a position with a lot going for it. Foster aligns himself with the Boosters - a default position for revisionism, one supposes, given their advocacy of the modern - but he doesn't do so with any great enthusiasm. That it fails to adequately encompass even Foster's outlook makes this an odd kind of contrast, especially for someone well known for wanting to introduce some complexity into the Irish debate.

It is actually Foster's ambivalence that provides one of the strengths of this work, enabling him to see the continuities within a period of rapid change, and thereby question the idea that everything begins and ends with the Celtic Tiger. He recognises that education reforms in the 1960s laid the groundwork for an educated workforce. More interesting is his observation that EEC prescriptions for avoiding inflation were combined with older corporatist approaches to labour relations to underpin economic recovery. He also notes that the 'golden shower of Euromoney to the Irish countryside' (22) tended to reaffirm the importance of rural areas in Ireland. The Irish economy is a mixture of Irish tradition and European policy (with some added US business practice and investment).

He's also prepared to give Begrudging its due, such as when he recognises that the Celtic Tiger, important in addressing absolute poverty, increased relative inequalities in income and educational opportunity. If he regards the advantages of European membership as outweighing the disadvantages, he also sees the risks involved in giving Europe control over monetary policies and the possible constitutional impacts of the European courts. He further notes the effect of agribusiness on the smaller farmer, along with the costs to the environment and the consumer.

Foster seems most sceptical of the Begrudging argument when it apparently believes that Britain's evil empire was replaced by an American one, with the accompanying implications for the repatriation of profits, economic exposure and labour practices. He points out that the Industrial Development Authority began looking to American markets and examples as early as 1949. It was more likely Ireland's low economic base - its lack of outdated plant and labour practices - that made it so receptive to change and development rather than the pernicious effect of Americanisation.

One of this book's more suggestive ideas is that of 'conversion' as a metaphor for the experience of change, put forward in his chapter 'How the Catholics Became Protestants'. Weber's notion of Protestantism as part of modernisation and the overcoming of archaic authority is engagingly literalised for the Irish context. Foster traces here a break in the nexus between Catholicism, nationalism and Irish identity. This begins in the 1960s with international radicalism and youth culture, television, and, quite centrally, the feminist movement (which he calls, fustily, 'Women's Liberation'). Closer to his theme, he also notes the ecumenical strain in Vatican II.

Unsurprisingly, Mary Robinson appears as one of the heroines of Foster's narrative, from her days as legal advisor to the women's movement to becoming Irish president. Women were central to the struggle with religious and political authority over social law during this period, from an early moment of liberalisation in the 1970s to the setbacks with the abortion and divorce referenda in the 1980s. Besides Robinson, the other significant figure is Garret FitzGerald, lauded rather oddly for wanting reform to social law to make the Republic more acceptable to the North. Foster regards FitzGerald as ahead of his time - although seemingly even for FitzGerald himself, given his ambiguity on abortion in the 1980s.

The rise of women's power occurred alongside the decline in 'monopoly Catholicism' in the 1990s. Media coverage of scandals involving sexual exploitation by clerics signalled the end of the 'culture of deference'. Referring back to his conversion theme, Foster asks what 'religious anti-clericalism' was if not a form of Protestantism. Parents took a more prominent role in an increasingly secular and multi-denominational education system. The decline of vocations and mass attendance was an experience the Catholic Church now shared with the Church of Ireland. Divorce came to Ireland in the 1990s with remarkably little fuss.

Foster turns next to Charles Haughey and the 'party fight' within Fianna Faacuteil beginning in the 1960s over Jack Lynch's leadership. This also concerns the more general shift in a party whose republican and rural ethos positioned it as the natural party of government beyond sectional interest. Haughey shared a new emphasis on business and development but also held an apparently unbridled willingness to use this to his own gain. He continued paying 'his obeisances to older household gods' (71) for as long as it furthered those personal interests. Thus when the Northern crisis pressured the party's republicanism, Haughey and others saw their opportunity to destabilise Lynch. This ended rather badly for Haughey when he was sacked and charged with attempting to import arms destined for the North.

Clearly, Foster believes that Haughey represented a further twist in an atavism that long characterised Fianna Faacuteil. Party divisions allowed Haughey to eventually rebuild his position and assume leadership. There follows a pattern of using political power to accumulate wealth, a story that includes offshore tax havens and large undeclared 'gifts'. When Fianna Faacuteil was forced into deflationary measures, Foster points to the grotesquerie of Haughey lecturing the Irish people about living beyond their means. He also notes the continuing nexus of land, politics and power in the inflated housing market, the rise of agribusiness, the large profits made by developers and the connection between patronage and planning powers.

Haughey moved from the arms scandal to distancing himself from the North as he returned to power. This reflects the story that Foster wants to tell of the South's acceptance of partition, beginning with Sean Lemass and Terence O'Neill's attempt to normalise relations in the 1960s. While Ian Paisley looked like an anachronism during this period, he actually more closely represented the North's future. The degree to which Foster regards the early civil rights movement as blameworthy here is a little surprising. They took the language of international civil rights but more often positioned themselves as Catholic activists against a Protestant state. This evidently placed O'Neill's cautious reform under unbearable pressure and allowed the reassertion of ancient antagonisms.

Foster goes on to criticise the ineptness of policies involving summary arrests and internment, compounded by the massacre on Bloody Sunday. This delivered a recruiting bonanza to the Provisional IRA. To blame 'ineptness' seems to understate things somewhat and shows a bit more understanding than he is prepared to direct to those who 'choreographed' the burning of the British embassy in the South. There follows a pattern of early moves towards peace frustrated by violence and intransigence: naive overtures by the British to the Provisionals were rebuffed with a round of bombing in Belfast; a proposed 'Council of Ireland' linking North and South provoked the Northern majority into industrial militancy; the Sunningdale agreement was attacked by irredentists in the South as a sell out.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 was made possible by the clear sense of difference the materialist and prosperous South had come to feel towards the blood-soaked North. Many compromises followed, including the release of paramilitary killers, the gladhanding of Sinn Feacutein, and the euthanasing of the SDLP. The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 offered both inducements to Republicans as well as entrenching consent and cementing partitionism. With the Good Friday Agreement, 'Articles 2 and 3, those treasured pieces of Republican family silver, were at last to be taken out and auctioned' (132).

The impressive purview of Foster's work is evident when he focuses finally on the cultural achievement of artists, writers and musicians (apart from one identifiable error when the writer J.M. O'Neill is referred to as J.M. McNeill). The breaking of boundaries in contemporary Irish cultural activity is symbolised by the change from the short story to the novel. Again, Foster displays some ambivalence regarding this change. Bob Geldoff and Bono evidence a 'new-Irish intersection of money, art and politics' (148), with the former admired particularly for his early move beyond insularity. He worries, however, about the new manipulations and exploitation of Irishness. In this context, the book seems a little preoccupied with Shane MacGowan, whose bombast Foster criticises at several points in the text.

The transformation in Irish writing since the 1970s at last sees writers such as Dermot Bolger explore 'the dislocations of the new Irish urban experience' (165). Foster seems hard pressed to really explain the success of contemporary Irish writing; he might have gone with the late arrival of a normalising modernisation but this would have taken him too near the explanations of those 'liberation psychologists' who are apt to raise issues of colonialism. 'Post-revisionist Begrudgers' come under fire - 'nationalism with footnotes' (177) - as a countering tendency to the general extension of cultural boundaries. This seems to somewhat 'begrudge' the contribution of Declan Kiberd and others in extending the boundaries around the way Irish writing is viewed and discussed.

Part of the interest of this work is Foster's own take on thirty years of change. Its origin as a set of lectures to a specialist and public audience, written here with considerable verve, enhances this aspect of the work. History writing in Ireland, of course, has been for many years directed against romantic Ireland, which, as Foster makes clear, is now quite dead and gone. But if this was by luck as much as anything else then there will inevitably be some uncertainty and shade accompanying the new openness. Recent economic events, emerging only since the publication of this book, now underline this feeling of uncertainty. One suspects that understanding the kind of contradiction registered at various points in Foster's work will become central to the next chapter in Ireland's contemporary history.
Irish Studies Review, Volume 17, Issue 3 August 2009
  plumpesdenken | Aug 8, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195179528, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, March 2008: Over the past three decades, Ireland has metamorphosed from a troubled-but-winsome bastion of the Old World to a thriving economic power known as the "Celtic Tiger." With the second highest per capita income in the EU, the Republic has come a long way from the days of its political argument that the Irish economy featured a potentially desirous "less costly standard of living." Luck and the Irish chronicles this Irish revival as historian R.F. Foster explains how a perfect storm of change produced present-day Ireland. Led by progressive thought, political transformations, and even a rock band from Dublin, the Irish broke through their own oppressive chains and took "the wearing o' the green" to a global level. While such success is due in part to good fortune--it is Ireland, after all--Foster paints an engaging portrait of a nation that is just now learning to stand on its own legs in today's international scene. --Dave Callanan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:42 -0400)

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"From about 1970, Irish history moved into a fast-forward phase. Roy Foster's new book looks at the roots of the changes that came with an almost completely unexpected wave of prosperity. With sympathy, astringency and humour, he examines the upheavals in economics, North-South attitudes, international relations, demography, gender roles, sexual mores, culture and religion which accompanied the boom, as well as the significance of such emblematic characters as Mary Robinson, Bob Geldof and Charles Haughey." "Luck and the Irish also looks at corruption, scandal, New Age Celticism, popular culture and the occasional retreat into reactionary attitudes that followed the liberalization, enrichment and marketing of the New Ireland, and what these transformations mean for Irish history in the long run."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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