Monthly Archives: March 2014

The potential to reimagine a dog’s dinner

I left this comment on the article by Una Mulally in today’s Irish Times.

This is a dog’s dinner. The author laments the lack of social and political change in Ireland, without telling us what kind of change she is talking about. She talks about a ‘period of flux’, but doesn’t say what things were in flux. She says ‘we’ shirk opportunities for change, but doesn’t say who this ‘we’ encompasses, or who it leaves out.

To add to the confusion, the author says the 2011 election was ‘the greatest opportunity for change since the foundation of the State’, but doesn’t explain how. True enough, the change of government after the election was ‘lipstick on a pig’ – but that was always the intention. Both Fine Gael and Labour committed to the full implementation of the Troika programme well in advance of the election campaign.

The author says the 2011 election was ‘the potential to reimagine’: but who was doing the re-imagining? She doesn’t have anything to say about the political limits imposed by a bailout intended to save the financial sector, nor about what this means for the democratic order that she believes to exist in Ireland. In fact, the political establishment has been committed to the interests of finance capital above the interests of the population, and has no interest in democracy.

The items she finds in the constitutional convention are mere crumbs of comfort. There is nothing in them that will alter the political landscape in any way that might endanger the drive for speculation and accumulation. Nothing to put a brake on the social and political changes that flow as a consequence of privileging the interests of capital.

You can’t have a meaningful discussion about the lack of political change in Ireland without looking at how the needs of the majority clash with the needs of the capitalist class, and hence the political consequences of this situation. But this fundamental fact -class conflict- is hidden from view, so that it appears as if the needs of Dermot Desmond and the needs of the long-term unemployed are identical. This appearance is maintained by Ireland’s ruling political parties, by its media establishment, but also by the vague cultural bric-a-brac of this article.


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Pothole Idol

thehole‘The Hole’- El Roto

If you click on the link to this Irish Examiner report and scroll down, you can see a picture of a middle-aged man standing in a pothole, wearing only underpants and wellies. I’m not reproducing the image here because I would prefer to give people thumbnails that made them want to read my posts, not scare them off.

According to the accompanying report, the man in question, who lives in Cavan, has been made enter a bond to keep the peace, meaning he must refrain from his habitual activity of painting the roads in areas where there are potholes.

The politician who fixes the road, and the citizen who votes for him, are figures of mirth for elite opinion in Ireland. They are eternal symbols of parish pump politics; a political system in which immediate local concerns inevitably take precedence over the wider, grander visions for society that could otherwise take shape, if it wasn’t for these gombeen politicians and their culchie acolytes.

Where this politics is going, we don’t need roads. The cost of repairs to cars and agricultural vehicles isn’t that important. Sure they’re only boggers, anyhow. This view is particularly popular among low-and-even-numbered Dublin suburbs with relatively decent public amenities and transport links.

I am not saying anyone who gets passionate about the problem of potholes to the point of stripping off to their underpants in public is heading in the right direction, politically speaking. Stripping down to your underpants in public is an effective way of getting a message across. But the content of that message is rarely anything other than: look, a man standing in his underpants. I think only a small segment of public opinion is likely to get behind such a man’s campaign.

Actually, I think the absurdity of a man standing in underpants and wellies serves to hide the fact there is something absurd about a man getting hit with charges for criminal damage for painting public roads whose condition poses a danger to vehicles and their occupants.

Apparently the road belongs to Cavan County Council, not the public. Would the man have taken up painting around potholes if the local council had been able to keep its roads in decent condition? Maybe he would. Maybe painting the roads and posing for photos in his underpants is the fullest expression of his civil passion, and potholes are simply the present object of that passion. On the other hand, he may have a shrewd understanding of what makes people in Cavan tick. I can’t say for sure.

Fixing in the roads is one of those issues, however, that is unlikely to divide public opinion. There is no vocal constituency in favour of letting the roads turn to shite. Capital investment by the State in transport infrastructure is an important matter for both IBEC and socialists. It just so happens that the former group thinks it should be paid for by cutting things like social welfare payments and school maintenance budgets, and that it should target those areas that maximise the profitability of dominant business interests.

The other day I had to contact a local election candidate to see what he would do about fixing the road. It was something that came up at a parent association meeting. The council had been unresponsive in fixing the road, and it poses a constant danger to children going to and from school. The council budget doesn’t stretch to fixing dangerous roads in good time. So in order to put pressure on the council, people felt it would be a good idea to get the local election candidates to demonstrate how good they were at getting the roads fixed: Pothole Idol.

That is how local politics works in Ireland, mostly. They have an inbuilt depoliticising dynamic. There are urgent practical issues to be addressed. You get the best tool available to fix it, and not, for example, the person best able to diagnose the suffocation of public finances under neoliberalism and the systematically engineered absence of local democracy.

I’m sure people would be quite interested in the broader social and economic context for why the road is full of holes, if they had the time and opportunity to discuss it. But the inevitable problem of getting the person best equipped –with the hands closest to the levers of power, and often with influence or strong links to local business groups- to fix local issues guarantees low participation in local politics, and zero discussion of conflicts of interest.

This reliance on the man with the ear of those in the council buildings militates against building local alliances to democratise local government. It’s difficult to see, in such a situation, how the local population might exercise greater control over local economic resources in order to improve the quality of life for the whole community.

It is too easily forgotten, if it was ever known in the first place, that local services and facilities and planning functions are part of the social wage, or, if you like, indirect wages.

What this situation favours, then, is not an ever-deepening mobilisation of local communities against forces of privatisation and primitive accumulation, in the interests of decent local services and facilities for a decent community life. Rather, it favours the spectacle of lone men standing in potholes in their underpants.

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What sleazy informality is for in Ireland

Image by ec.

A moment’s consideration will reveal the connection between the Garda penalty points affair and the Patrick Nulty affair.

Were you the kind of person who knew how to get their penalty points wiped? Would you have had the sense of assurance and the personal acquaintances that would have got you off the hook? Maybe one of the Guards you could rely on for that kind of thing is a friend of your father’s. Maybe you invited him along to give a talk at your Residents Association meeting, about the need to install burglar alarms and lock your tools in the shed. You can never be too careful with burglars.

I’m not that kind of person. I don’t know any Gardaí. If I got done for a motoring offence that got me penalty points, it wouldn’t even occur to me to approach the police to get the points wiped. This isn’t because I’m one of the good guys, it’s because I don’t trust the police.

Now, maybe if I had a guard for an uncle or something, I might have a different view of the police, and of my chances of getting penalty points wiped, and I might have a different sense of entitlement, too. However, I don’t. And the thought of going to An Garda Síochána to get penalty points removed brings with it the following: what would they want in return?

What they want in return may not be much. Most likely they will not say they want anything at all in return. All part of the service. So this is what you say happened, sir? Well, who are we to disbelieve your account. Points wiped. But this willingness to believe is a gift, and it is not a gift bestowed on everyone who crosses the path of An Garda Síochána. That’s one of the reasons they bug people’s phone calls.

David Graeber’s Debt has a telling quote, taken from Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”

What happens when an institution of the State makes you a gift in the form of wiped penalty points? How does that change the relation between you -the ‘citizen’- and the State official? By gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.

In this place, do you know where you stand when it comes to the police? How about doctors and consultants? Do you know what your rights are? Would you be confident enough to quote your rights and stand up for them? Could you do it even when there are lots of people standing around who, as far as you can see, think the police are great fellows altogether, or that the gynaecologist is beyond reproach because he delivered all my children, or that the politician at the meeting is on our side because he sorted out my mother’s pension entitlements?

A lot of people criticise Ireland’s political system because it is clientelist. A lot of this criticism comes from the bien pensant, socially liberal but economically conservative, extreme centrist core of the Irish middle class.

This criticism expresses haughty disdain both for the people who vote the same candidates in time and again, and for the grubby, self-seeking politicians who use constituency clinics and the like as a way of buying votes.

What this criticism usually hides from view is the fact that people are forced to rely on the intercession of political representatives because Ireland does not have public institutions that operate in line with principles of democratic citizenship and guaranteed rights. Instead, it has institutions that make sure you’re well looked after if you’re rich and might do you the odd favour if you’re not.

And this situation is getting worse, or better, if you are a privateer. Under the auspices of the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform, Irish government departments are doing away with the word ‘citizen’ altogether, and replacing it with ‘customer’. Thank you for your custom: ‘custom’ implies payment. Your rights, hence, are what you can pay for. If you look at Ireland’s constitution, it says that institutions should operate on the basis of charity. Charity, not rights. By gifts one makes slaves…

Patrick Nulty’s behaviour was stomach churning and reprehensible, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Why should a woman who has been the victim of physical and sexual abuse be forced to make her case for increased rent allowance to a male TD? The woman who attended Nulty’s office seeking help said her detailed account of the abuse she had suffered was “just another story I had to tell another total stranger because I thought I had no other option”.

Nulty’s own abusive behaviour in this case shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he was able to operate in the expanses of a vast grey area established by the Irish State, where gifts and favours and nods and winks take the place of enforceable rights, and of institutions that correspond to those rights.

This world of sleazy informality and bogus intimacy is not the exception to the rule of law: for the intents and purposes of those who matter in Ireland’s kleptocracy, it is the rule of law.


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Losing Dignity in Translation



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These days I don’t do as much translating of articles as before, I’m not sure why. This weekend I was going to write something, maybe translate something, on Saturday’s marches in Spain, which after long treks from the periphery to the centre, finally converged at the Plaza de Colón in Madrid, the presence of some two million people. Two million people according to the organisers, but only 50,000 according to a large section of the Spanish press. There is an article in La Marea today pointing out that on previous occasions when this square was filled, the papers had no trouble putting attendance in the millions. But that was when the square was things like demonstrations against gay marriage, or against abortion.

In this case, the marches, according to their organisers, were for ‘Pan, Techo y Trabajo‘, that is, ‘Bread, Shelter and Work’. Their manifesto expressed the need for a ‘unified, massive and resounding mobilisation against policies that attack human rights and social justice.’ It called for ‘a mobilisation against debt payments, for decent employment, for a basic income, for social rights, for democratic freedoms, against cutbacks, repression and corruption, and for a society of free men and women, a mobilisation against a system, a regime and governments that do us harm and do not represent us.’

The name of this mobilisation was, in Castillian, Marchas de la dignidad. A large banner led the marches bearing the word dignidad alongside its cognate in the other languages of the peoples of the Spanish State: dignidá, dignitat, dignidade, and so on, as well as its Basque translation: duintasuna.

Even if you haven’t a word of Spanish or Catalan or Asturian or Galician, you can probably figure out what the English for dignidad is. But do you know what it means?

I don’t know much about translation theory and don’t have any standard approach to translating things. Most people know that any translation results in losses and gains. What a word means depends on a lot of things: from how it sounds in relation to other words to the cultural and historical experiences of the person who encounters the word. When translating something, you feel a certain ethical obligation to convey the meaning of the word as fully as the original speaker intends it. Sometimes you can achieve this, more or less. Other times you feel like you need pages of footnotes to get this across.

So I could take the word dignidad and translate it as ‘dignity’ and say nothing more about it and no-one would say I was being misleading or inaccurate. But why translate things unless you’re doing it for an imagined target audience or readership? A translator usually already has a good grasp of what the word means in its original language. So she or he does not need to translate it in order to understand it.

That particular scruple meant I didn’t get round to doing any translation. I couldn’t be confident that my imagined target readership knew what dignity means.

Do you know who likes to talk about dignity in English? Enda Kenny. Part of his mantra for enforcing his government’s austerity policies is ‘growing old with dignity’, whatever that means. Do people only need dignity when they’re on the home stretch to the grave? Then there is the associated word ‘dignified’. What do you think whenever you hear people say ‘we’ll be having a dignified protest’? What I hear is: we’ll be having a protest with no shouting or roaring or anything like that. Just stand quietly for a bit and hopefully no-one will take too much notice before we shuffle away. The idea that dignity might involve roaring and shouting and confrontation and open conflict with ruling powers -among other things- seems kind of alien to my imagined audience’s sensibilities.

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‘Honourable’ you say?

The Irish Times consumer correspondent Conor Pope has a feature today on geo-tagging. This is because geo-tagging functionality in Facebook allowed the Sunday World to make it possible for Patrick Nulty to claim that his account had been hacked when he was confronted with claims that he had sent sex texts to a 17 year old girl.

The article uses the Nulty affair to explore broader questions of data privacy, permanent digital footprints, and surveillance. If you are a man in your thirties who is quite worried right now about whether his harassment exploits online are going to come back and haunt him at some point in the future, then you may well be interested in such a feature. If you aren’t, you might satisfy your curiosity about the minor and tangential relevance of geo-tagging in this story by checking out the Wikipedia article on geo-tagging.

But wait. What if there are lots of men who fall into such a category? What if they are a significant segment of the Irish Times target demographic? Is online harassment all the go these days? Is acting like a sex pest just another example of online behaviour, like ordering pasta from Amazon? Have we all been there? If not, why would the Irish Times use the example of someone acting like a sex pest to address broader concerns about privacy? With regard to the use of internet technology, there are two main perspectives in this story: that of the sex pest and that of the victims, and the Irish Times chose the perspective of the former.

Elsewhere in the same paper, Fiach Kelly says Patrick Nulty ‘undoubtedly’ stood for election ‘to serve the public and because of a belief in the good of politics’. We might call this giving a sex pest the benefit of the doubt. It is also a mind-bendingly banal observation. No-one who stands for election does so because she or he believes politics is the wrong thing to be doing with their lives. This observation is akin to saying that no-one seeks ordination as a Catholic priest because they believe the pope is the Antichrist. In a similar vein, weighing Nulty’s commitment to progressive politics against his actions in sending these messages, as he did in his resignation statement and as others have done, bears comparison to the attitude expressed by some towards the abuses of certain religious orders.

When it comes to an individual’s personal motivations for holding a position of authority, we can never be entirely sure about what drives them. What drives them may change over time. This doesn’t mean that everyone who holds a position of authority needs to be as pure as the driven snow. It doesn’t even mean they need to be held to a higher standard of behaviour than anyone else. It just means there have to be strong mechanisms of public accountability in place that prevent them from engaging in abuses of power, and, in the event that they do engage in such abuses, it means they are swiftly dealt with, and removed from their post when this is necessary.

In the case of Patrick Nulty, you would think it should be obvious that it was necessary for him to be removed from his post as a public representative. And yet, I’ve been surprised at the amount of people I have encountered online who have expressed the opinion that he didn’t do a great deal wrong, that this –sexually harassing girls who are in a vulnerable position and whose families are seeking his assistance- is just the sort of thing that red-blooded males get up to. Some people have highlighted his age -31- as if this were a mitigating factor. Sure he’s only twice her age, like.

Fiach Kelly’s article endorses the position that Nulty’s resignation of his seat is ‘an honourable admission of wrongdoing, not often seen in Irish politics’. What’s honourable about it, exactly? When such an abuse of public office is revealed, it should not be in the gift of the guilty party to resign: they should encounter automatic and immediate removal from their post. Would you honour someone for not sexually harassing someone else? I don’t know, perhaps there should also be a pension bonus for members of the political class who manage not to murder women in cold blood.

It is true, there are other people have not resigned when their flagrant abuse of public office has been revealed to everyone. For example, Phil Hogan wrote to constituents to assure them that a Traveller family would not be moving to their area, one act among many that has fallen down the memory hole due to the normalised discrimination against Travellers in Irish society. He also made a lewd remark to a woman that left her, as per her letter of complaint to Enda Kenny, “completely traumatised“, on account of his “demeaning, insulting and degrading” actions. He remains in power. But here’s the thing – so what? The problem is not the character of the individual in question or the party to which he belongs, but the incapacity of the public to exercise appropriate accountability. It is not just a matter of formal mechanisms, but a public culture that enforces norms for respectful behaviour on the basis of equal rights for all. What the reaction and coverage of the Nulty affair suggests is that no such public culture exists in Ireland.

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Whatever happened to the Irish Democracy?


Tomorrow it will be exactly one hundred years since the foundation of the Irish Citizen Army. Personally, all these centenary commemorations leave me cold, though I appreciate the efforts of people who try to  wrench the memory of these events away from the official ritual of State history.

There’s a short article by Padraig Yeates on the centenary in today’s Irish Times. I don’t have a paper copy, but the article’s URL locates it under the category of ‘culture’ and then ‘heritage’. That is a minor detail, but one that is suggestive of how the Irish Citizen Army is seen in the official scheme of things these days.

Padraig Yeates’s article quotes the ICA constitution in full, and I’m going to do the same thing here. As the article reminds us, it was written by Sean O’Casey.

“1. That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.

2. That the Irish Citizen Army shall stand for the absolute unity of Irish nationhood, and shall support the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations. 3.That one of its objects shall be to sink all differences of birth, property and creed under the common name of Irish people. 4.That the Irish Citizen Army shall be open to all who accept the principle of equal rights and opportunities for the Irish people. 5. Before being enrolled, every applicant must, if eligible, be a member of his trade union, such union to be recognised by the Irish Trade Union Congress. “

Yeates rightly stresses how it was the last point, added at the insistence of Jim Larkin, that ‘anchored O’Casey’s soaring vision to the material base that could make it a reality’. He also says that ‘none of the other features were remarkable in themselves’.

From the point of view of a historian concerned with how particular things fit in with wider developments, I’m sure this is true. But not everyone confronts these texts on such terms. Some things can strike us as remarkable when it’s our first encounter with them, and also when we read them again in a new light.

What is more, any act of interpretation unfolds in the context of wider social and political realities, and it involves bridging a gap of understanding between what the words written meant then, both to those who wrote them and read them, and what they mean to us now.

What is remarkable to me now, from this text, is the phrase ‘the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations’. In particular, it’s the appearance of ‘democracy’ with a definite article: the democracies.

Nowadays it’s rare to hear talk about ‘the democracies’. If you do, it’s usually when someone is contrasting capitalist states that have formally democratic institutions with some designated oppressor regime, some official enemy of those states. You do, however, find mention of ‘the democracies’ in accounts of antiquity, such as in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

But what Thucydides and others are speaking about are definite political regimes. What O’Casey and others are talking about in this text is not democracy as a form of state, but democracy as a potency, as the flesh and blood liberation struggle of the multitude for social equality. ‘The democracy‘, in this context, then, is another name for the collective subject of working class emancipation: the revolutionary proletariat.

At the remove of a hundred years, the ICA constitution is a text with a different political grammar than the one we are accustomed to. Nowadays, ‘democracy’ is generally understood as an established state of affairs: representation in parliament, the right to vote every few years, the right to say what you like as long as it doesn’t get in the way of business. It is not generally understood as a multitude collectively engaged in social and political struggle, even violent struggle, for the conquest of rights and freedoms based on social equality.

In his article Padraig Yeates says that ‘in a less tangible but more potent way the first clause of the ICA constitution was woven into the 1916 Proclamation and the democratic programme of the first Dáil.’

But whatever happened to the figure of ‘the democracy’ mentioned in the second clause? Where did it go to?

The present Irish constitution declares that Ireland is a democratic State. Does this mean  ‘the democracy’ referred to by O’Casey wrested control over the State? You would need to be a quare idiot to think such a thing. In fact, the concrete figure of ‘the democracy’, as a potent social constituency that stands in opposition to the ruling class, has been erased from Irish political life and public discourse altogether.

Nowadays democracy is the application of an abstract term. It is no longer the logic of a thing, but a thing of logic. The prevailing idea of democracy, at least if you were to listen to political speeches or read the newspapers, is little more than representation: you get to vote for the candidate of your choice, then the government gets in, and it does what it likes.

As I’ve written elsewhere, accepting this idea of democracy means accepting that ‘regardless of how destructive they are of public welfare, regardless of how much wealth they transfer into private hands, regardless of how the reality of their decisions is obscured from public view’, government decisions are legitimate and unimpeachable.

This, more or less, is the idea of democracy entertained by Ireland’s Labour Party andtrade union leadership. The latter counsels support for right-wing governments in its dealings with financial dictatorships. It backs schemes targeting the unemployed that amount to the effective abolition of paid labour. When it comes to a choice between ordinary people resisting the imposition of indirect taxation to pay off banker debt on the one hand, and the right-wing government on the other, it backs the right-wing government. And then it claims it is battling at the gates of hell.

Some of these people say they are social democrats. That means they seek the election of people to introduce reforms that benefit working class people. They are not concerned with the dismantling of the bourgeois State form or any of that nonsense, though some of them will tell you that capitalism is bad, after a few drinks. But none of them talk about ‘the Social Democracy’ as an active revolutionary subject that seeks the ‘end of all tyranny – national, political and social’. That is James Connolly’s language.

I haven’t mapped its history, but to me it looks like ‘the democracy’, and ‘the Social Democracy’, as political names for collective agents of revolutionary change, were shot dead in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Then, in political terms, they got effectively stuffed and mounted. ‘The democracy’ as a potency ceased to exist. Then, in its place: ‘Ireland is a democratic state’. Ha ha.

The surprising thing, though, is that people have not altogether discarded the idea that democracy means something more substantial than just voting once every now and again.


For instance, look at this graph here. It is from the European Social Survey, though the legend is in Spanish (via). What it shows, and this might come as a surprise, is that 54.2% of people surveyed in Ireland recognised that democracy also means that people’s material needs must be met. That is, over half of people in Ireland think democracy entails fighting against poverty, inequality, or both. We might add a caveat. Over half of people in Ireland might think such a thing, but many of the same people could also oppose it because they’re wannabe capitalist pigs. But at the same time, many others might think that socio-economic equality has nothing to do with democracy, but that socio-economic equality is still a good thing.

Anyway, the point is, despite the fact that the idea of democracy as inexorably bound to socio-economic equality is almost completely absent from public political discourse, it is an idea that the majority of people may find attractive, if someone were to take democracy seriously.

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Nostalgia In The Land of Boiled 7Up

In response to my post from the other day titled ‘The Land of Boiled 7Up’, the chip monk writes:

Help me understand your view of nostalgia. Nostalgia as *product* is of course both troubling and gross. But nostalgia in and of itself is, it seems to me, an important element in our remembering ourselves and identifying ourselves to and with one another. It is not the *only* element of course, as that would just be sentimentality, which is largely inexcusable (although again, not wholly), but an important one nonetheless. And it’s both sad, or maybe more accurately, filled with longing, while being simultaneously pleasurable (or funny), and thus it’s a strong feature of Irish literature generally. But it’s not an Irish phenomenon.

But supposing the phrase “You know you’re Irish if boiled 7Up is the cure for every illness” was something that was said to you in the pub as opposed to something printed on a shirt on sale in a multinational. I guess you wouldn’t laugh because you don’t know what this ‘meme’ is referring to. I’d laugh, though, because whenever I was sick as a child (colds and/or tummy upsets, measles, chicken pox), my mother boiled 7up and gave it to me to drink. It was supposed to be an easy to digest source of energy. It was never a replacement for medical care. I think back on this fondly.

Anyway this isn’t about the specific ‘meme’ itself (that comment has been all over facebook, twitter and retro Irish forums). I have noticed here and in one or two other places what *seems* to be a disgust for nostalgia. There’s a dig back there at the Irish Mammies phenomenon too (now, also, a product). Is the disgust or disdain or whatever directed at the co-opting of shared remembering for exploitative purposes? Or is it how it consciously or unconsciously ‘others’ those who are not ‘Irish’? Or is it that you think it clouds criticism of ‘Irishness’? I’m just interested in your thoughts on this.

I was thinking about nostalgia the other day, in particular the ‘-algia‘ bit. That bit is rooted in the idea of pain, as in neuralgia. So what do we mean when we talk about nostalgia – are we talking about an activity, or are we talking about an effect we feel? Or to put it another way, is nostalgia deliberate, or is it involuntary? There is a Facebook page I look at every now and again. It’s a collection of photos, regularly updated with new ones, that show images of people and places from my home town in the 1970s. They could be of people posing in group photos at dinner dances, or sports events, or demonstrating in the streets. Visitors to the page help identify the faces in the photos, which in many cases belong to people who are now a long time dead.

Looking in on this, and knowing others are doing the same, the effect can be very potent: it awakens long dormant feelings and memories that remind you of where you come from, and how the people and places shaped those feelings. It needn’t be the face of someone you knew well, or even at all, but the way they are standing with their arms folded, or the way they are trying to put on a suitable face for the camera that has made its way into their life.

But if it gives you a sense of where you come from and who made you, it also, at the same time, comes with a feeling of being uprooted: you are looking in on a world to which you know you can’t return. You might not cry, but you may feel a stinging sensation, which in my experience is like the feeling of what happens when you have just been hit in the face full smack with a football and the sting has just started to recede.

Not only is it a world of which you are no longer part: it may be that the person looking on the images can no longer recognise herself in that world. That world has gone, but might it also be that the person you once were has gone too? Or if not gone, fading away to nothing? A couple of weeks ago the cartoonist El Roto -whose images I will never tire of using on this site- produced this. The man in it is saying: I was afraid I hid myself so well that I have never been able to find myself again. Is this where moments of nostalgia get their power – by restoring us with a sense of who we once were, and, as a consequence, a sense of who we still are? What is the relation between nostalgia and fear?


A few weeks back I was at a funeral for a friend of mine. He was the same age as me. We were walking down through the streets of the town behind his coffin and I could not help remembering the times we had walked together up and down the same streets, usually on a night out. In one of the streets there used to be a row of houses where the families of people I know used to live. They were listed buildings. Then, around 20 years ago, the developer -an ironic name- demolished them, and with them, the possibility of all kind of memories. The plot of land stood there for 20 years as he wasn’t allowed to build on it.

I don’t know what kind of transactions have taken place in the interim, but now, the land is up for sale again. And lining the street there is now a row of Potemkin shop fronts, showing anonymous scenes of bustling smalltown commerce to whet the appetites of potential investors. I am guessing identical scenes line streets the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Sometimes memory -collective memory- does not stand a chance against Progress, or Development, or other names for getting rich.

But other times, this kind of memory -and nostalgia- can be the ally of accumulation. Think about the Keep Calm and Carry On images, redolent of British postwar society and its sense of purpose, that proliferated in recent years as that society’s National Health Service was being dismembered and its welfare state stripped away. Images such as these -and the memories they stimulate- convey a sense that ‘we’ are all in this together. When, in the cold light of day, we are not. Is Ireland any different?

The chip monk notes that nostalgia features strongly in Irish literature. But I think there is a distinction to be drawn between the exploration of nostalgia in Ulysses and, for example, the contemporary nostalgia of Bloomsday. There is another one to be drawn between nostalgia that happens within Ireland on the one hand, and nostalgia about Ireland that happens outside it. And then there is nostalgia as a personal, individual experience, and nostalgia as a collective one.

The political culture of the Irish State has always been about being all in this together. The lived reality, however, has been different. Not everyone was condemned to emigrate. Not everyone was terrorised by the State’s disciplinary institutions. Not everyone was denied a decent standard of healthcare and education and housing. But a great many were – and are.

Living elsewhere, Irish people see things with a different complexion. Irish nostalgia in Britain can be a way for people to cement friendships and communities in circumstances not of their choosing, in places, that whilst superficially familiar, can also make you feel like you are not from round there, not really. In such situations, you can hardly blame people for finding common reasons for laughter in what kind of things happened in a place they recognise as home.

It’s different in Ireland, though. I don’t think there is anything wrong with nostalgia in general. It can be debilitating in certain circumstances. For instance, sometimes it might be easier to share pictures of your favourite dead socialist icon, with all the memories they evoke, than articulate a political project with others in your own terms. It can lead to private withdrawal rather than collective affirmation. It depends. But I do see something wrong with nostalgia, when what is considered most important, about the things the nostalgia relates to, and what makes them worthy of common attention, is that they are Irish.

There is no virtue in being Irish. In Ireland, discerning what is Irish and what is not, or who is Irish or who is not, can not be easily separated from what the State does in Ireland. According to the Irish State, being born in Ireland does not make you an Irish citizen – it depends on who your parents are. The question of what is Irish and what is not can not be easily separated from its political culture, which demands loyalty to this State. And so, for instance, to talk about ‘Irish Mammies’ in Ireland inevitably suggests that there is only one kind of mother in Ireland -the Irish one- and hence other women who do not conform to these daft characteristics are either not mothers or not Irish, or neither. What happens in Ireland, then, when the question of what is Irish and what is not is thrust before people who feel a sense of fear and foreboding, that they are being uprooted from the world they know, by malevolent forces of one shape or another?


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Bod Delusions

I left this comment in response to an article by Vincent Browne in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Painful truths about rugby culture‘. Browne’s article, which associated misogyny, homophobia and masculine hegemony with rugby culture, provoked indignant and dismissive responses.

Tony O’Reilly, former Irish rugby international (via)

Why so down on the Browne? It’s clear the writer isn’t criticising the sport of rugby as such, but rugby culture.

We all know rugby in Ireland is still mostly an elite sport. Irish rugby culture is intertwined with Irish elite culture more broadly. The sport originates in elite institutions concerned with producing the ideal Christian gentleman: an individual who was a beacon of health, physically vigorous and morally principled, and loyal to his fellows. You still see that original ideal in the mediated presentation of Brian O’Driscoll and others as true gents: nice people, do a lot of work for charity and so on. And at the same time, they’re tough and single-minded competitors.

But we also know that the history of this whole world of physical vigour, moral probity and hail-fellow-well-met sportsmanship is also the history of icy cold calculation, masculine domination, institutional brutality and the subjugation of women. As the saying goes, the bigger the front, the bigger the back: polished gentlemanliness is the flipside of libidinous boorishness.

However, in the present, the ideal figure produced by elite institutions isn’t so much a Christian gent. It is a tough-minded entrepreneur, usually a man, pitting himself against all others in a war of all against all. And yet, he is bound to intense collaborative networks where each subjects himself and others to perpetual surveillance and appraisal.

This is the dominant culture, and it informs the celebration of the Irish rugby hero, whose image is fused with corporate logos and aspirational slogans. If you can’t take the pain imposed by this culture, it’s because you need to ‘man up’, or because you are not a ‘team player’, and in the final instance, it is the strongest and the fittest who survive.

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The Land of Boiled 7Up


The other day I was in Tesco and they had t-shirts prominently on display for St Patrick’s Day. One of them read “You know you’re Irish if boiled 7Up is the cure for every illness”, or something very similar, and the first thing I thought was: am I Irish?

I have never heard of this in my life. Flat coke, yes. but never boiled 7Up. But flat coke is not particularly Irish. There are any number of countries around the world where people will swear by the medicinal properties of flat coke, as well as its reputed use as a drain unblocker by plumbers in the know.

When I remarked on this boiled 7Up phenomenon the other night, someone suggested to me that it may have to do with a time -now?- when getting a doctor to take a look would cost too much money as would proper medicines so self-medicating home remedies would always be to the fore. Hence you know you’re Irish because you’ve got an aversion to using professional health services because they cost too much.

On the way out of Tesco there was a charity effort. People were packing customers’ shopping. It was in aid of a very sick person’s expenses. Large amounts of money were needed to give this person vital treatment. So here were the volunteers, helping Tesco get their Saturday morning cashier lines cleared as quickly as possible, in exchange for customer donations. And I would never actually say this but Tesco were really setting me up to ask: have you tried boiled 7up?

Under what circumstances would you feel the need to know if you’re Irish or not? Do people wake in the morning feeling strangely self-conscious about their naked body and think: am I Irish? Do they find themselves unaccountably sucking up to Americans? Do they get overcome by the strangest feeling that the world -even the non-English speaking world- finds their accent sexy?

And why would you need to know? What would you do with the information that confirmed you were, indeed, Irish? Would you start evading tax? Start thinking about your mother as an especially amusing subspecies of mother? Start nodding sagely at the pronouncements of economists on TV?

What kind of entitlements would being Irish bring? What kind of rights would being a child of the Irish nation entail?

In Tesco, for example, where you are besieged by advertising at near every glance about how this carrot or that lump of meat is Irish, they use JobBridge to employ shelf stackers.

This, by the way, was a scheme brought in by a Labour minister. You may recall that the Labour Party campaigned for the Fiscal Treaty with big billowing tricolours on their posters: you know you’re Irish when paying off bank debt is more important than paying for hospitals and schools. You know you’re Irish if the cause of speculators is the cause of labour.

Another way of putting JobBridge is that Tesco, and firms like it, get some Irish people -the ones in government and their associates in the business world- to force other people -who may or may not be Irish, depending on how they use boiled 7Up- to work for slave wages. This helps keep the wages of the rest of Tesco’s staff down, to drive Tesco’s profits up in the low tax country it calls ‘Treasure Island’. (Every little helps.) You know: for Ireland.

Last week a video produced by Ireland’s tourist board was heavily circulated online. According to the video, one of the inspiring things about Ireland was the way the country had successfully emerged from a Troika bailout.

That is, Ireland’s government had successfully managed to demonstrate it would pay off private banking debt whilst undertaking internal devaluation, driving down wages and unravelling employment protections, privatising public services and cutting benefits.

Inspiring perhaps, but to whom, exactly? Well, speculators and accumulators, mainly, but also, it would appear, a great many one-dimensional enthusiasts for the official word on things. To such people, Ireland is inspiring because the war of all against all is the new normal.

So being Irish, on its own, doesn’t entitle you to much, I’m afraid. Not a decent wage, or a decent health service, or a democratic political system, anyway. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of anything. Maybe you know you’re Irish then, if when someone is robbing you blind, all you can think about is Mr Tayto and boiled 7Up.


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What kind of scapegoat is Bono?


I’m going to take my cue from Harry Browne’s very fine article on Bono in today’s Irish Times.

The vulgar abuse may stem from people’s belief that Bono spends entirely too much time schmoozing with politicians – but maybe he is their victim as much as he is their pal. The cover of the new Italian edition of my critical book about Bono pictures him with a barcode across his face, an image that invites the reader to view the book’s subject as both a product and as a prisoner.

Internationally, Bono has been used to bathe statesmen (George W Bush, Tony Blair) and corporations (Apple, Amex, Monsanto) in the moral legitimacy that he earned over decades as an artist and activist. In Ireland of late, however, his service to the powerful is cruder: he is a sort of human shield, taking the flak for the sins of banks and State. He’s a scapegoat.

And ask the question – if Bono is a scapegoat, just what kind of scapegoat is he, apart from a fabulously wealthy one?

Let me say, first of all, that there are very good reasons for finding Bono unbearable and I have no interest in improving his public image. Just to get it out of the way.

I am going to focus on just one area: tax. Bono’s hypocrisy on tax is well known by now. He and the rest of his band moved their tax affairs away from Ireland because they wanted to make as much money as possible. So when they go on about being Irish, and about what Irish people think or what they are like, people get annoyed. Bono, if u so Irish, why u no pay tax in Ireland?

But not all critiques of Bono’s tax hypocrisy are undertaken for the same reasons.

Some people hate the idea of paying taxes altogether. They think it’s an injustice that a conspicuously rich and celebrated person should get away without paying taxes when they still have to. A lot of the time this sense of injustice comes informed by a sense that the law is the law and obedience to the State is a virtue.

Others think taxes are an essential obligation in democratic society, part of the social glue. Some of them might also recognise that an international tax regime that allows very rich people and the corporations they own to squirrel away their earnings, without paying tax, has the effect of suffocating the public finances of nation states.

Which position reflects the dominant public discourse in Ireland? I think it’s the former.

You can see this in the way there has never been a truly national health service in Ireland. But not only has there been no such thing, there is rarely ever even a discussion of why there has been no such thing.

You can see it too in the way there is no such thing as universal public education. Parents –I am one- have to pony up for textbooks and stationery and even basic school maintenance, as well as give of time in a voluntary capacity, to make sure that their child’s school can function properly. Meanwhile, the State pays for teacher wages in exclusive private schools that nurture and maintain privileged elites.

(This provides a vivid illustration of why volunteerism is so highly valued in Ireland: because it gives a communitarian gloss to a basic situation described by Adam Smith, often quoted by Noam Chomsky: the ‘vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people’)

When it comes to public debate on education, whose voice gets more hearing – parents, or the country managers of multinational corporations that employ a tiny proportion of the workforce and take advantage of Ireland’s favourable tax regime?

These corporations haven’t been subjected to any tax increases over the past five years of crisis. Rather, they’ve benefited both from a religiously defended low tax rate and lower unit labour costs, to the point of free labour laid on by the State.

Meanwhile, the burden on ordinary workers and their children –in terms of lower living standards and higher taxes, with a growing emphasis on indirect taxes- has grown.

It’s the corporation bosses, of course: managers who tell you the country needs more Flemish speakers for call centres, or more graduates who stand up straight when they’re talking to you, or more people ready to work at least thirty different jobs in their lives.

What all of this, and more, means is that there is little sense that you or I have an obligation to contribute towards the education of other people’s children.

We can extend this observation to health care, and welfare more generally. In a society with such a marked absence of mutual responsibility, in which paying as little tax as possible is part of official culture but PAYE workers are seen as a cash cow, there is ample room for resentment towards Bono.

Not because Bono is seen as standing in the way of a better society, however, but because he fulfils a particular role in popular Irish narratives about how such a society works. According to these narratives, the rich are rich because they are greedy and devious bastards, the poor are poor because they are lazy and stupid bastards, and ever was it thus for we ordinary punters in the middle.

So Bono provides a safety valve for venting resentment about a superficial feeling of injustice, but with the structural basis of that injustice well out of sight.

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