Thursday, 5 November 2009

Humani nil a me alienum puto

I mentioned in my last post my admiration for Fintan O'Toole's having actually read P.S. I Love You. In Tuesday's Irish Times, he appears to have gone one further!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Review of Ship of Fools, by Fintan O'Toole

The last few months have seen the emergence of a sub-genre of books on Irish political life, probably best referred to as post-boom literature. Shane Ross on the bankers, Pat Leahy on Fianna Fail, and Matt Cooper on power and its abuse over the last decade are probably the three most prominent (although, to my mind, the most interesting study along these lines came out almost two years ahead of these: John Dillon's brief pamphlet Platonism and the World Crisis). Now Fintan O'Toole, columnist with the Irish Times has brought out his own contribution, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger.

Throughout the boom years, O'Toole has consistently questioned the assumptions that underlay the Celtic Tiger, prompting any number of run-ins with the economists and journalists who acted almost as cheer-leaders for the property bubble. As the brief biography on the inside cover says, his 'name was almost a term of abuse among the politicians who presided over the economic debacle of recent years'. His columns stressed again and again the contradictions, hypocrisy, incompetence and often the sheer heartlessness of those who have held power in Ireland during the last decade or so. In 2003 he published After the Ball, a closely argued, annotated and statistic-filled discussion of what would be the legacy of the Celtic Tiger. Ship of Fools draws largely the same conclusions but does so in a much more rhetorical style. The book's nine chapters read like extended versions of O'Toole's newspaper columns, a series of polemics on the various elements that contributed to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, incompetent and often corrupt politicians, greedy bankers and developers, untroubled by professional ethics, not to mention a largely complacent media which by and large failed to ask any searching questions during the good times and often excoriated those that did.

O'Toole's analysis tends to follow the emerging consensus that the Celtic tiger can be divided into two phases. firstly, a 'Good Boom' in the later 1990s, based on investment from the US and EU, which saw Irish living standards rise from their historically low levels to among the highest in the developed world. This was followed, from about 2001, by a 'Bad Boom', a disastrous property bubble, fed by developers, banks, their friends in government, and by a public which allowed itself to be gulled into believing that the boom times would indeed become 'even boomier'.

O'Toole examines in turn the role played by politicians, bankers, civil servants (the Financial Regulator and the Central Bank in particular come in for a thoroughly deserved kicking) and property developers in the events of the Celtic Tiger years. He emphasises the continuity between what had gone on in Ireland before the late 1990s and what occurred during the period of the boom, so that the same Central Bank which had turned a blind eye to the large scale tax evasion schemes on non-resident and bank accounts and the Ansbacher conspiracy, continued not to notice widespread financial misbehaviour (to put is mildly) in the IFSC. Similarly, the much too close relationship between political parties, especially Fianna Fail, and builders and property developers, which was exposed in the mid-1990s, has continued unabated to the present. These years have seen the emergence and consolidation of a new aristocracy, an oligarchy of businessmen and politicians, which runs Ireland for its own benefit, which embraces the more convenient aspects of American capitalism (a big yes to a winner takes all society, low taxes and social spending; but an equally big no to on actually paying the taxes you owe, obeying such regulations as exist, or any kind of extensive charitable giving).

He describes with relish the excesses of this new gentry and the way it aped the ways of its Anglo-Irish predecessors, buying up their country houses, not to mention high profile chunks of London real estate. His account of Sean Dunne's wedding, along with that of Georgina Ahern, are particularly purple passages. He might also have have gone on to note how, lower down the scale, this phenomenon manifested itself in the widespread popularity of things which had once been the property of the higher middle classes such as second homes, designer labels, skiing holidays, and slightly odd preference for Italian food. It might also explain the rise and rise of rugby, the archetypal Celtic Tiger sport. He is also good on the hereditary nature of the higher professions (despite doctors making up 5% of the general population, their offspring make up 32% of first year medical students), although the hereditary principle could be extended to most other areas of Irish life, from business to politics to long term unemployment. he is also good on the scandalous underinvestment in education and specifically in IT during the boom. he describes the lack of computers and technology in general form Irish schools and even universities (this is something to which Cu Chuimne can testify from personal experience. In fourteen years in Irish schools, I only saw computers once, two aged BBC Micros which sat unused at the back of the room in sixth class). This failure to invest in education is part of a much larger squandering of the opportunity presented by fifteen years of increasing prosperity. Ireland entered the boom with an appallingly poor public service, especially in the realm of health care, largely as a result of the deep spending cuts imposed in the 1980s mend the damage done to the public finances by a previous bout of fiscal idiocy from 1977 to 1982. It appears now, that as we emerge from the boom, after years when the exchequer itself was surprised by the revenue flooding into it, our public services are no better off. Instead they face a new round of cuts deeper again than those of twenty years ago proposed, in a grim irony, by Prof. Colm McCarthy, author of the cuts of the 1980s and now recalled to the task, like an economising Cincinnatus from his plough, to help dig the country out of its most recent mess.

One of the strongest passages of the book, as was to be expected, is O'Toole's discussion of the cultural aspects of the boom. His discussion of the boy band and chick lit phenomenons are witty and acute and Fintan seems to have actually read P.S. I Love You, which arguably shows an impressive dedication to his research (I would have loved to be at the checkout when he paid for that particular tome, I wonder did he also buy a copy of the NYRB or the like to cover it it?). He has an especially interesting insight into the Irish dancing shows which roamed the world for the best part of a decade. Riverdance, he argues, was a product of The Good Boom, a combination of traditional and international elements which surprised us with its success. Lord of the Dance, on the other hand, belongs to the subsequent period of decadence, overblown, sleazy and peddling a mocked-up, commercialised version of Irish history. One oversight here, however, is surely the absence of any reference to Paul Howard's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly books, which brilliantly pinpointed many ludicrous aspects of Irish society during the boom and which must be among the best pieces of satire to be produced in this country in decades.

The one big weakness in Ship of Fools is its treatment of the role of the Irish people in all this. After all, despite the economic and political oligarchies highlighted by O'Toole and others, Ireland is still a parliamentary democracy and the citizens who make up its electorate have an active role to play in determining the direction it takes. However, the majority of the Irish electorate seems to have joined in the general holiday from responsibility that characterised the Celtic Tiger years. Fianna fail won three elections between 1997 and 2007 and it's not as though the party didn't have form when it comes to blowing economic success, Dermot Keogh's verdict on the Lynch and Haughy governments of the 1970s and 1980s ('The younger generation were the losers as a government rolled the dice and forfeited the family silver') is equally applicable to their successors nearly thirty years later. The first two of these election triumphs were won in the midst of the revelations around Charles Haughey and the scandals around planning in Dublin, in which members of the Fianna Fail parliamentary Party, and indeed its front bench, were deeply implicated. The most recent was attained in spite of all the evidence of a decade of misrule, in spite of the mounting proof that tough times, for which no provision was being taken, might be ahead, and in spite of the emerging details of the alternative reality that was Bertie Ahern's personal finances. O'Toole, along, it must be said, with pretty much all the other analysts of the boom, tends to skirt around this topic, even when confronted with evidence, such as the ubiquity of bogus non-resident bank accounts to avoid DIRT in the 1980s, that the same reluctance to pay one's fair share of taxes and absence of any kind of public morality for which he attacks in the rich and powerful, seems to be exist at all levels of Irish society. Furthermore, there seems to be a marked inability on the part of the electorate to hold politicians to account even when they are shown to have misbehaved, which after all is the basic role of the electorate in a parliamentary democracy. Colonial oppression etc., on which most of these authors fall back, seems to me to be an inadequate explanation as to why disgraced politicians such as Michael Lowry, Beverly Cooper Flynn, or at local level, Michael Clarke and Michael Fahy, can be returned again and again by the same electorate they have betrayed. Nor can this be dismissed, as some commentators seem to have done, as an exclusively rural phenomenon. After all, it has hard to come up with a more typically 'Dublin' figure than Bertie Ahern (or so he would have us believe), yet in spite of all that has happened over the last few years, support for him in his fastness of Drumcondra seems as high as ever and he can even give interviews in which he muses about running for President. It seems that, for the most part, the commuter stuck in an interminable traffic jam between the town in which they work and their extortionately priced, poorly built house, struggling to raise a family in a country with inadequate and expensive systems of heath care, education, and childcare, does not make the connection between all this and the incompetent, often corrupt, decisions taken by the politicians they themselves elect. The electorate may now be eagerly anticipating the next general election and a chance to pay Fianna Fail back for all this (vingince bejasus!), but it's at least five years too late. This disconnection, this failure on the part of the electorate to act as a check on the excesses of a party in government and to punish politicians' bad behaviour and poor decisions at the polls must have worrying implications for the future of Irish democracy.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Third National Language

Imprudens Scottorum gens, rerum suarum obliviscens.

We hear a lot in Ireland about the first and second national languages especially, it has to be said, about the first of these and its state of health. While the debate over the Irish smoulders on always, occasionally bursting forth into something warmer (especially on the letters page of the Irish Times), it's worth giving some attention to what could justly be described as out third national language, one which was used for every sort of expression by Irishmen for over a millennium. I mean, of course, Latin; the language of Cicero and Virgil is also the language of Saint Patrick and John Scottus and the vehicle whereby men from a remote island on the fringe of the continent were able to take their place at the centre of European thought and letters. The five hundred years following the introduction of Christianity were among the most dynamic and interesting in Irish history. This part of our heritage tends to receive, perhaps, less attention than its historical importance, not to mention its literary quality, deserves. Our popular conception of the subject is probably confined to vague notions of a Golden Age, of itinerant monks, the Book of Kells and Pangur Bán. One reason for this is the undoubted difficulty and inaccessibility of much of this material, often hidden away in expensive, hard-to-find editions and rarely discussed outside the pages of academic journals (although the books in the wonderful Scriptores Latini Hiberniae series published by the Institute for Advanced Studies are reasonably priced and sit, for the most part undisturbed, on a quiet shelf in Hodges Figgis). None the less, for those that take the trouble, this out of the way corner of Irish history and literature can yield up some real treasures, from the obscure grandeur of Columba's Altus Prosator to the lyrical evocations of Ireland by Colman and Donatus of Fiesole, from the slightly deranged erudition of the Hisperica Famina to the startling originality and learning of John Scottus. While it's true that debates over the date of Easter, however passionately argued (and they could be very passionately argued), or hagiographies of little-known saints may not fascinate the general reader the way they once did, the witty and humane poems of Sedulius Scottus or Adomnan's vivid, engaging life of Columba are among the gems of Irish literature of any period.

Literary Latin came to Ireland along with Christianity in the fifth century. As Dáíbhí Ó Crónín points out in his excellent chapter on this subject in the New History of Ireland, this presented a number of challenges to any would-be scholar. Latin was utterly foreign to the Irish and the techniques we take for granted for learning a language from scratch were almost entirely non-existent at that time. The languages spoken in Gaul or Spain in the sixth century were forms of Latin and for such a person, acquiring classical or ecclesiastical Latin was, to a greater or lesser extent, an exercise in polishing or tidying up what he already knew. For an Irishman, this was emphatically not the case (nominative, accusative or any other). Ancient grammars were not written with beginners in mind and the works of Donatus and others had to be simplified condensed for the schools. Paradigms of declensions and conjugations, vocabulary lists, rules of syntax, all the mechanics whereby almost a millennium and a half of schoolchildren were taught their Latin, owe much to the labours of the monks and their students in sixth and seventh century Ireland. The extent of their success can be seen in the efflorescence of writing, across a number of genres, from the late sixth century onwards.

Perhaps the first Irishman to gain a European reputation as a literary figure was Columbanus, famous as a letter-writer, poet, preacher, and composer of a formidably ascetic set of rules for his monks. Scholarship has in recent years nibbled away at the Columban corpus, questioning the attribution of much that was once though to be by him. Nevertheless, what remains fully bears witness to his wide reading, his facility with language, and to the excellence of the schools that could produce such a figure (Columbanus himself was in no doubt about the reputation and ability of Irish Scholarship - Epistle I. 4). Columbanus' reputation for eloquence was well deserved, added to a charismatic personality was a strong, forceful Latin style. He was certainly no respecter of persons; kings and popes (including Gregory the Great) felt the brunt of his sarcasm in a series of letters.
About two centuries after Columbanus, another one of his compatriots also made a reputation for himself on the continent. Sedulius Scottus was one of a number of Irishmen who found employment at the court of Charlemange and his successors in the course of the ninth century. Sedulius was just the sort of person that a Carolingian monarch or prelate was interested in; an accomplished scholar, widely read in pagan and Christian literature, with a facility for turning out polished Latin verses in praise of his patrons (Sedulius referred to himself as 'another Orpheus'). Sedulius was employed by Bishop Hartgar of Liège (his contemporaries Dicuil the Geographer and the philosopher John Scottus found similar employment elsewhere in the Frankish domains). Sedulius and his circle of fellow Irishmen at Liège produced copies of and commentaries upon a wide range of texts. Sedulius himself wrote a handbook on government in a medley of prose and verse, dedicated to King Lothair II. However, it is his poetry which makes Sedulius such an attractive figure. Some of the poems fairly crackle with a cheeky wit, asking Hartgar to replenish his supplies of beer or to provide him with better accommodation (John Scottus wrote a similar poem). These six lines with their combination of pagan and Christian learning, their self-deprecating humour, and their piety, are a good example of his output:
Aut lego vel scribo, doceo scrutorve sophiam:
obsecro celsithronum nocte dieque meum.
Vescor, poto libens, rithmizans invoco Musas,
dormisco stertens: oro deum vigilans.
Conscia mens scelerum deflet peccamina vitae;
parcite vos misero, Christe Maria, viro.

I read or write, or teach or search for wisdom,
I call upon the heavenly throne by night and by day
I eat, drink freely, rhyming I invoke the Muses,
I sleep snoring, and pray to God while awake.
A mind that knows its crimes bemoans the sins of life.
Have mercy, Christ and Mary, on a poor man.
Columbanus and Sedulius are but two of figures that make up our Hiberno-Latin heritage. However, this heritage largely lies neglected today. Of course the small number of people with a knowledge of this literature is directly related to the decline of Latin and the Classics generally in our schools and Universities. However I think that it is part of a wider lack of interest on the part of the Irish for vast swathes of their heritage. This is of course most noticeable in the actions of those in positions of power. From thedemolition of Georgian houses on Fitzwilliam Street to the building of theM3 Motorway through the landscape of Tara, Irish governments have repeatedly showed themselves to be utterly unwilling to take responsibility for the physical remnants of their country's past. Our intellectual and cultural inheritance has fared little better at their hands. The most recent example is the decision to merge the NationalLibrary, National Archives, and the Irish Manuscripts Commission in an attempt to save money (though where the savings are to come from, as all three institutions are underfunded at the moment, is anyone's guess).

Nor is the situation much better in the Universities, as the decision not to fill the Chair of Old Irish at UCD and a series of similar vacancies across the third level institutions shows. A German academic in Alexander McCall Smith's satire Portuguese Irregular Verbs says dismissively: 'Nobody in Ireland knows anything about Early Irish. This is a well-established fact.' That statement becomes less and less of an exaggeration each year. Latin and Greek However, this neglect for broad swathes of Ireland's heritage it is also noticible, I think, in the general public. The abolition of the Old Irish post made no impression outside of the academic community and even the attempts to defend the landscape around Tara seemed to me to attract less popular support than might have been expected. It is not just Government and Semi-State bodies which preside over the destruction of historical buildings and sites, each year, up and down the country, ancient earthworks of all sorts are levelled by intensive farming or by development, historic buildings crumble neglected or are scarred by poorly funded, badly carried out restoration work. The scale of what has been lost in this, less dramatic, almost day-to-day process is truly astonishing, all the more so for it having happened in such a brief space of time. This unceasing attrition, which is slowly wiping bare our towns and countryside of all traces of their former occupants of what should be the common inheritance of everyone on our island, has attracted surprisingly little attention and will only increase in pace as long as this apathy continues. It is surely the responsibility of all of us, and not just our public bodies, to ensure that those things, physical and intellectual, which have survived the tumult of our history and which constitute our nation's heritage should be preserved and handed down, alongside whatever our own contributions may be, to those who come after us.

Donatus of Fiesole: Virgil and Ireland

Donatus of Fiesole was one of the many Irishmen who scattered across europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, ending up as bishops and later as somewhat dimly remembered local saints. He is known to us as the author of a number of poems, including one on St. Brigid. Donatus visted Rome on a pligrimage, on his way back, he passed through he pretty Tuscan hill town of Fiesole, near Florence, where the inhabitants, acting on a miraculous pealing of the cathedral's bell, acclaimed the rather reticent Irishman as bishop (becoming a bishop could clearly be a fairly random process in ninth century Tuscany). Donatus spent the rest of his life in Fiesole, teaching and tending to his flock. upon his death, he was buried in the cathedral there, his tomb bore a verse epitaph of his own composition. He was acclaimed as a saint (Fiesole's other Saint is a St. Romulus), his feast is celebrated on 22 October (One of the few errors I've encountered in the New History of Ireland is that the index conflates our Donatus with the much earlier grammarian of the same name. It does the same to Sedulius Scottus, mixing him up with the author of the Carmen Paschale). Donatus appears to have been fond of Virgil, his farewell to his brethren includes a line from the fourth Eclogue. Virgil was a favourite of a number of Irish monks, even if some of them were less keen: one of them commented ' ni réid chene!' (he's not easy either!) next to the statement 'Virgil was a great poet' in his Grammar. One Irish Grammarian even took the name Publius Virgilius Maro. The poem below, as well as being an attractive description of Ireland, cited as a precursor of the later genre of the aisling poem, also shows the extent of Donatus' appreciation of the Roman poet:

Finibus occiduis describitur optima tellus
nomine et antiquis Scottia scripta libris.
dives opum, argenti, gemmarum, vestis et auri,
commoda corporibus, aere, putre solo.
melle fluit et lacte Scottia campis,
vestibus atque armis, frugibus, arte, viris.
ursorum rabies nulla est ibi, saeva leonum
semina nec umquam Scottica terra tulit.
nulla venena nocent nec serpens serpit in herba
nec conquesta canit garrula rana lacu.
in qua Scottorum gentes habitare merentur,
inclita gens hominum milite, pace, fide.

Donatus isn't the only poet from this period to write in this strain, a poem survives by a certain Colman addressed to a younger colleague who is leaving from home, which has its own Virgilian reminiscences which do much to add to the air of wistful melancholy which pervades the poem. Our little poem contains a number of Virgilian echoes and reminiscences, most of which are taken from the laudes Italiae, the passage in the Second Georgic where Virgil praises the beauty and fertility of Italy. for example, the phrase ursorum rabies recalls the rabidae tigres of of Georgic II 151, while the phrase saeva leonum / semina is taken directly Virgil's poem. The boast about Ireland's freedom from snakes echoes and goes one better than Virgil's claim that Italy is free from poisonous animals at Georgic II 153 - 154. What more apt passage for Donatus to draw upon for his description of Ireland than Virgil's celebration of his own native land and Donatus' adoptive home?