December 19, 2007

As a nation, we've given up our three core values

Posted in Ireland · 30 comments ·

Next year will give us the opportunity to ask ourselves, after 10 years of an economic boom, who are we? Our minds will be focussed on this existential question by yet another EU referendum. Where do we want Ireland to go? What sort of EU commitment suits us now? Whether we vote yes or no, it is a positive thing that a country should have discussions with itself from time to time. My hunch (and its only a hunch) is that we might vote no as we did to the Maastricht Treaty before the government told us that the no vote didn’t count and we would have to vote again. The reasons for this are both historic and contemporary.

For the last 100 years of our history, Ireland was defined in geographic terms. The national project was a 26-county vision of a country, free from London but with some unfinished business in the North. Initially, Ireland’s choices were seen as revolutionary. In an age of Empire, nationalism was indeed modern and rebellious. But events have overtaken us.

In a globalised world borders matter less, change is constant and the very essence of modernity is measured by the ability to adjust, discard and re-invent. The people who win are those that embrace the world rather than shy away from it. Globalisation means that the limits of geography and boundaries matter less. In fact you could go further and argue that globalisation should render old-fashioned nationalism obsolete. When everything is porous, influences are instantaneously downloadable, addition people are always contactable and networks are always on, geographical lines in the sand are just that and no more. Hackneyed as it sounds, globalisation actually does make us citizens of the world.

This new world suits smaller countries. Smallness which used to be seen as a weakness is now a strength. The small are more nimble and can move quicker. In fact, races that have been pushed around in the past have learned to deal with adversity. We are no strangers to an open-access world; we were there when it all started. The Irish are one of the few truly global tribes and we therefore, have a head start over other less wandering peoples. But to get the best out of the new world, Ireland will have to make it up all over again. We will have to re-imagine ourselves.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Ireland is a modern nation, we are able to jettison when other countries hold on too long, we let go; we think on our feet when other countries are left flat-footed.

We have always sought to transcend the limitations of geography and size. Irish people leave when the going gets tough and come home in better times. We ebb and we flow. For example, in the 1980s, unemployment in both Ireland and Spain was at 18pc. In Ireland, this prompted mass emigration, in contrast, the Spaniards hardly budged.

We are entering what might be termed “the age of the chameleon” when an ability to fit in, shed one’s coat and blend are rewarded. Self-interested pragmatism, although not heroic, might come to dominate national thinking. The Irish have shown a unique ability to drop core values when expediency demands. This is not necessarily an attractive national trait, but it is one nonetheless.

If we think about the three of the central attributes that make a culture unique, they are language, religion and national territory. In the past one hundred years we abandoned all three. First, in the 19th century we stopped speaking our own language. This, even for colonised peoples, is unusual, but we dropped our language for materialistic reasons. Most extraordinarily and in direct contrast to the nationalist movements of central Europe and the Balkans, the language of the coloniser became the language of the separatists. English became the official language of Irish nationalism.

In the 1911 Census, the return made by my great-grandfather John Leary, in Macroom Co. Cork, underscores the disappearance of Irish. He had been born in the 1850s. Under the column for language, he wrote that he and my great-grandmother spoke both Irish and English. Yet, tellingly for his children, he wrote that they could only speak English. My great-grandparents did not pass their own language on to their children.

Since independence — unlike the Welsh across the water — the revival of the language has never really sparked much popular enthusiasm.

Our second core value has been similarly discarded. When I was a kid, people on our road tried to ‘out ash’ each other on Ash Wednesday. People marched around the street with the contents of entire hearths mashed into their foreheads, looking like extras from Dr Who. The Ashometer was part of my life in those drab February days. Now it’s gone. Next Ash Wednesday, try to spot the mark of Twenty Major on someone’s forehead. You’ll be hard pressed because we just dropped another core value.

Up until recently, Catholicism was a key part of the Irish DNA. It defined us for centuries. This, too, has been jettisoned for all intents and purposes.

Finally, out of the blue, we dropped 32-county nationalism. Remember the entire furore about Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution in the 1980s and early 1990s? And then when we got the chance, we dropped those, too, by voting overwhelmingly for the Belfast Agreement which is essentially the original 1922 Treaty with nice bits about canal cooperation in Fermanagh attached.

So a cynic might say that we are a Kleenex nation, more ready to wipe clean and throw away rather than the long-suffering, irrational, dreamy romantics we like to think we are. When something is a hassle, we drop it. With such a pedigree it’s hard to argue that any arrangement we enter into is permanent and in a changing world maybe such expedience is the best option.

This national ambivalence might re-emerge again with respect to reform of the EU constitution and, as the economy turns down, there might also be, however implausible, a tendency to look for someone to blame. Why not caricature the remote, essentially benign bureaucracy in Brussels as the boogey man this time? We’d only be reverting to form.

As I said at the start, this is only my hunch. Whatever the referendum outcome, a post party period of national reflection might not be a bad option for all of us. Happy Christmas!

  1. It was the Nice Treaty, not Maastricht, to which we voted “No”. I voted against both times, but I would defend the Government’s decision to re-submit the question, especially as the second result reversed the first, with a higher turnout. Nobody (well, hardly anybody) complains about having a second divorce referendum, even though the result there was extremely indecisive, and represented an unsatisfactory mandate for such a major change, in my opinion. (I voted for it both times, though).

  2. Donal

    I think we should claim them back.

    Although the EU has done some great things for hassle free traveling within the continent, the right to give EU Citizens residency rights anywhere in the economic bloc has been a step to far.

    This is unsustainable as we are growing as a population 2.5% each year, we cannot cope with this anymore and the latter articles in the last 10 days have proved that and previous messages on the article before the espisodes posting has shown that. This is a result of the Maastricht treaty’s legacy and every other treaty after that one.

    We have sacrificed too much of our own soul for too little in return. As for divorce in this country it shouldn’t be allowed, too many people get hurt because there is no such thing as “a civil divorce”. An Annullment can occur in its place, it happened with George and Angie best for God’s Sake.

    We need to make a better effort with our own Native Language to be more dinstinct than that of the UK, we are the only nation in the EU that is: Partitioned, Non-Native Language Speaking and assuring other EU citizens that we can provide them with needs (which is a fat lie) although our nationwide infrastructure has more than just a minor improvement needed.

    I hope Bertie Ahern today goes down in the Tribunal today not only as the man who took bribes, squandered wealth and lacks the basic intelligence and speech of a human being but the man who sold out our claim to the North.

    Dermot McMurroughs legacy lives on through him….. a traitor and a fraud

  3. Aidan

    Great article David. What constitutes Ireland or being Irish does seem to be very flexible indeed. I gre up at the time of the ‘young Europeans’ ads and I think I took that a bit too literally because I don’t think that the average Irish person is very European at all these days. When I was growing up the romantic vision of an Irish speaking united Ireland was still alive and well amongst a certain group and I remember many Gael Linn debates where people were almost in tears pining for the fourth green field.
    Since ‘Ireland’ is a flexible notion I can say that my ideal Ireland is an the same 32 county Irish speaking Ireland that used to be important. Unfortunately the nation gave up on that idea and what seems to have replaced it is the desire to be a wealthy outcrop of the UK.

  4. Leon

    I thought in a democracy the peoples first choice was respected, obviously not if there is a low turnout as in The Nice Treaty. Im sure if we asked for a re-vote of the recent Dail elections alot of people would have changed their mind about voting Bertie back in now.Cant see that happening though.
    I dont think the Divorce Referendum had such a wide ranging social and economic impact as The Nice Treaty had by the way, thats probably why there wasnt as strong an outcry.

  5. John Q. Public

    Are you not a bit of a dreamy romantic yourself David? You are hung up on the idea of the Irish diaspora, most of which would probably not want to come home anyway. What about the huge pressure it would put on our resources and house prices if they were to return? Would we then urge the tens of thousands of illegals in this country to go back to Africa to make way for ‘our own’ people? 3rd and 4th generation South Americans of course!

  6. Donal

    John Q. Public,

    we’re already pressurised with resources accomodating non-Irish nationals in this country and their offspring whom know very little our culture or the language spoken here. We would manage this easire than the poor job we are doing with these people.

    The education system can’t cope with the number of language assistants that are needed (over a 1,000 across the country! an there need to be more). It is delaying the progress of education for infants of all ages and ethnicity.

    All these diasporia children would be fluent enough in english, and have the knowledge and equal chance of an average irish child. They would bring their own finances into the country to build their own houses (even Irish-American building firms coming here would help and kick the thieves for builders we have here in the teeth!).

    This is more manageable than the “Castles in the Sky” idea of successfully integrating different peoples into Irish life.

    Our attempt at even starting a diverse society in the international view is a laughing stock, if no-one in europe has managed this how on earth will we?

  7. Lonnely Expat

    The diaspora has already returned. There’s nobody left out here. Except for me. I’m, staying until things return to normality back home.

    Oh, by the way, the irish (and poles & french) are among the most diverse individuals I have encountered abroad. Adaptable & self-assured. Optimistic. What’s laughable about that?

  8. B


    With all due respect your image of an Ireland that is a harried host is bollocks. We are not supporting the majority of immigrants at all. To say they are here to take our place and eat our food is a slur.

    It is typical of your comments to play to the fears and to provide no backup.

    You should join Fianna Fail. If you are not already a member.

  9. Ed

    “in the 1980s, unemployment in both Ireland and Spain was at 18pc. In Ireland, this prompted mass emigration, in contrast, the Spaniards hardly budged.”

    Language was the reason for this contrast in behaviour – The Irish were at the bottom of the English speaking world, and the Spanish were at the top of theirs. English made it easy for the Irish to up sticks and go to a wealthier country without having to learn a new language – the Spanish could only go to a poorer one.
    For the Irish, there was and still is, a sense of security about having English and this can’t be over stated – that far flung field was always considered to be an English speaking one.

  10. MK

    Yuletide greetings David,

    I agree, Ireland as a small country does have the flexibility to survive hard times when they come. Ironically, one of the key things which is of benefit when we do have to ‘export’ some people (or attract foreign investors) is in fact having the English language. If we were all 100% fluent in gaelige and hard to understand in english, we wouldnt have had this strength.

    But our culture is defined on far more than language, religion and the desire to re-establish the island as a single nation. These three aspects are intertwined as well. The Normans may have assimilated and picked up the sean-gaelige as much as ourselves, but subsequently the language was more or less beaten out of us by our conquestors. It was more than just an economic choice, as for many it was a choice between life and death. Religion for most people is not a choice, and as Henry VIII created a new one due to “marriage difficulties”, it made sense that the peasantry here in Ireland wouldnt change. And nationalism is an idealistic goal given that our culture has schismed and say unlike India its not a case of just chasing out the last bunch of invaders that have arrived who havent been installed much longer than a wet week.

    For our culture, look to such aspects as music, going to pubs (our huge respect and partaking in alcohol), a bit of banter, our poor record of quality of services, etc, etc ….

    Nollaig Shona ….


  11. Paul kerwick

    Well i am not sure if globalisation is entirely good for society. Diversity is the spice of life, and mr goldsmith argued the case convincingly in his book ‘the trap’ that there is another economic way that will bring benefits to all without destroying agriculture and creating rural refugees in the cities. Corporations should have to manufacture in economic blocks to sell goods and services. So if you want to sell a car in china or europe you should be required to manufacture in china or europe. This is a much fairer and equitable system. Whats the point to produce goods in one cheap market if your target market lost the original jobs and thus cannot afford to buy the items. Also small traditional agriculture has been proven time and time again to be more productive than industrial farming techniques.

  12. Donal


    pay attention to the facts if you haven’t already. I have no political affilation and also for the record I know full well that we don’t support the majority of immigrants if any.

    Where does it suggest that they are here only to eat our food or take our place in what i have said?

    The Term “The New Irish” however is something I completely reject, migrants don’t know the Irish culture/history/traditions and values or identify with them so how can they be Irish in the first place?

    That phrase however is nothing but short of provocative, so the old irish can be thrown on the scrap heap then?

    Stop picking fights with people for no good reason.

    I would be careful what you say B, you’ve been accused in the past of hating all that is Irish on this board and you will challenged again.

  13. Ed

    “This new world suits smaller countries. Smallness which used to be seen as a weakness is now a strength. The small are more nimble and can move quicker.”

    Small is only good when it has access to large markets – the EU has given us access to a huge market, but only the Irish based foreign companies have fully availed of the opportunities. Go to any trade exhibition in Europe and you can count the number of Irish participants on one hand.
    Flexible and nimble is fine, but only when you have foreign companies providing the capital and technology/expertise. The screwdriver plant was fine for the jack of all trades, but that era is fast slipping away. R&D is now essential and this requires both focus and tenacity – it’s bye, bye flexibility.

  14. B

    I do not hate “all that is Irish” I have never once said that I hate anything.

    I do object to and reserve the right to have an opinion and express same.

    I apologise if I am not on message.

    I was going through a separation and times were hard. I hear that this excuse absolves all sins. Please someone give me a dig out.

    We get the politicians we deserve. If this means deserving to run the risk of being killed in a public hospital then so be it. We elected them. Remember this when you get stung by stealth taxes and dirty hospitals.

    I know that language assistants are stretched and I know maternity wards are heaving. Blaming immigrants for our woes is a red herring. It is up to the political classes to stop using Ireland as a personal kingdom, take their collective thumbs out of their asses and sort out the public services.

  15. Donal

    I don’t blame immigrants for the pressures of this state, my belief is you can only provide towards your own community because you can identify their needs – We see things from the same angle generally.

    You can’t do provide for anyone else because; you don’t and can’t understand their needs or see from their perception.

    A Community can only provide a solution for their own issues as they understand the problem/s they are facing, and you can’t act on the behalf of someone who isn’t part of that group.

    A sign of maturity admitting that is the case would be better than ignoring the real truth and pretending it doesn’t exist.

  16. John Q. Public

    The immigrants came here of thier own accord. We all have a pretty good idea of what they want so don’t be silly. Who is ‘pretending it doesn’t exist’ exactly?

  17. Donal


    resentment is this country is growing at a worrying rate and the government are not paying much attention to how bad this problem is getting. They are certainly not paying much attention to it.

    For the first time that I have seen the BBC had a article relating to Ireland’s affairs, and it didn’t refer to bombings and the problems in the north. You’re free to look at the links from the 18th last week here.

    We might assume what people want but we are not in their shoes, so we can’t fully understand where they are coming from. People can only provide for themselves sadly, the only thing can can be done is offer financial assistance which doesn’t always help.

  18. John Q. Public

    most of these illegal immigrants have been ‘moved on’ from France and Germany already and a large proportion of them are criminals. 25% of inmates in prison here are black so why should we offer them financial assistance? They can either find work here or home they go!

  19. B

    Bollocks. As usual just rabble rousing. The incitement to Hatred act of 1989 obviously doesn’t temper internet comments.

    Lumping all immigrants, illegal or otherwise, together from 200 countries is exactly the same as saying all Irishmen are terrorists.

    I still blame greedy politicians and armies of faceless overpaid burocrats for the shortage of resources. Elect better ones.

    Blaming the black boogieman for the failings of the elected officials is moving the goalposts. They would not enter without being aided and abetted by the incompetence of a lax State.

  20. shane

    i was sure it was the maasticht treaty we voted for and the nice we voted against. did not finish reading the rest of this article… bit fundmentally flawed.

  21. John Q. Public

    I don’t lump all immigrants into the one group. Some are good and some are useless. I agree with the comment about greedy politicians though.

  22. I have been visiting a family member in a public hospital recently, and what struck me most was the increditable situation whereby 90% of the staff were foreign.!
    !f we are dependent on these people ( from all over the world), for the progression of our health service, what exactly,is happening here?
    When a small nation like Ireland, needs to recruit medically qualified personel such as nurses or cleaners etc from all over the globe, and offer relatively, immense salaries, to staff the public health service, something is seriously out of joint in the body politic.
    There is something bizarre about it all.!

  23. John Q. Public

    I totally agree! I noticed that myself. Think of all the Irish junior doctors that have go abroad for years to start off thier careers. It’s a complete brain drain while simultaneously importing non-eu members to fill the gap. What use is six LC hons A1s and a degree anymore if your job will be filed by a Pakistani and you can’t afford a house. Bizarre as you say. I like Pakistanis but let’s just give our best graduates support first.

  24. Donal

    Hiring Foreign professionals in medicine isn’t the way forward for new positions – Ireland had a surplus of doctors in the 80′s and most of them had to leave the country. My mum and dad included and many of them want to comeback here to work.

    The number of irish doctors in the UK would fill these positions that arise here, alot would take up the offer of returning home.

    If I had the choice of taking a doctor from a country that most likely had the ratio of 1 doctor per 10000 people instead of 1/100 or less. That doctor is needed more in his own homeland because his people would be worse off without him, how can they fully function if we keep taking their professionals?

    How can they work their way out of poverty and find their feet if everyone keeps leaving and making their diaspora bigger?

    Did anyone learn why Ireland only managed to keep afloat on donations from expatriate citizens and not by starting its own engine?

    This is one of the stupid things of immigration, you get so occupied trying to accomodate others instead of your own when there jobs are available for them.

    What happened to priorities and protection?

  25. SpinstaSista


    You made a very good point about Irish health professionals having to emigrate. When I was leaving school it was almost impossible to train as a nurse in Ireland because there were very few places. I know several people who went to the UK to train as nurses and stayed there or went further afield to Australia, NZ or the States. Some of our diaspora who had to leave in the 1980s have a lot of bitterness towards Ireland because they feel that there was no place for them in 1980s Ireland but these days Ireland’s door seems to be open for everyone else.

    Parts of Ireland were like a ghost town over the Christmas holidays because the immigrants had gone home. We have put ourselves in a position where we are dependent on immigrants who have no real ties to this country. Then again, it’s cheaper for businesses to employ people who have no ties to Ireland than to employ returned Irish emigrants who have worked hard to build up their careers abroad and quite rightly, won’t work for peanuts in Ireland.

  26. Donal

    Thank you spinstasista,

    I appreciate someone who acknowledges how stupid the situation is and how it should be fixed properly.

    Not fixing it, the stupid cheap way of using glue and paper that many TD’s in power have.

    Dr James “Jammer” Reilly FG TD is one man whom was at college with my folks, he would have some grasp as to properly fix this.

    I think the public should use his old University Name “Jammer” for him now on

  27. Mojo

    The thing i love so much about this discussion board is the wide array of comments made by individuals (in authorative tones) about things they dont really understand or have fragmented knowlege of. It provides hours of amusement.

    I feel compelled to comment on the statements about doctors in Ireland, being involved in the medical profession myself. Whatever about decades ago, Irish medical students graduating from Universities do not have to emigrate at all. There are more posts for Interns in Irish hospitals than there are Irish medical students to fill them. Bearing in mind that a sizable proportion of graduates from Irish medical schools are overseas students, it is probably accurate to say that non all medcial school graduates find an internship position in an Irish hospital. Nevertheless, i dont know any Irish medical graduates who have been unable to find an inten position somewhere in the country.

    Now it is also fair to say that many irish NCHDs to emigrate abroad during their career. However, this usually has to do with career progression opportunities being limited in many specialities. Overseas work and research experience is often necessary to progress beyond Registrar level, given the competition for positions above. Finally, the working conditions in most Irish hospitals are so apalling, that working in medical services abroad is highly attractive.

    So in summary, there are plenty of non-national doctors here, because most of them trained here, and because (for many) the salaries and career environments are better here than in their home country. Irish doctors do not have to leave here to start their careers. They often have to leave a few years into their careers to help their eventual promotion up the ranks, or they chose to leave because the irish health service is so rubbish.

    As for nurses, well as far as i can see, there is huge turnover in Irish nursing staff and an undersupply problem. Incidentally, many on the non-national nurses are better trainined than the Irish trained nurses.

  28. SpinstaSista

    Mojo, there may be an undersupply of nurses in Ireland now, but when I left school in the 1980s you couldn’t get a place on a nursing course in a teaching hospital for love nor money unless you knew somebody on the board of the hospital you wanted to get into. The government at the time (I think it was FF) closed down a load of teaching hospitals and started the rot in our health service.

    I’m not surprised that some non-national nurses are better trained than Irish ones. They were probably trained in better equipped hospitals abroad with a higher nurse-patient ratio!

  29. John Q. Public

    Let’s get back to our three core values. For most of us on the island, was our heart ever really in it? What about priorities? Now we just have namby pamby a la carte Catholicism,Gaelige and political views. There is no leadership, no role models to inspire and restore our sense of identity

  30. John

    Those who have immigrated to Ireland in recent years have made a very positive impact on Ireland’s economy and culture. From my own experiences as an English language teacher I can testify to the interest of the new Irish in our culture and history, and their enthusiasm to carve out a new life for themselves in this country. If anything, much of the future of our country’s cultural heritage lies in their hands. By contrast, many of the native Irish have cut all ties with our past and have traded it all in for a new car and a second house. Perhaps because we are trying to escape our more rural and parochial past, many people have actively embraced the shallow materialism that the celtic tiger has offered, and have jettisoned our culture, history, religion, and in many cases our humanity in order to project a new image of themselves as modern, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. However, much of this is just arrogant posturing, and it often either conceals our insecurities about our past, or arrogantly over exaggerates our present achievements. The future of this country lies to a large extent with the new Irish, whose enthusiasm for their adopted home country and its culture will keep our old traditions and customs alive. The old Irish will need to do much soul searching about what – if anything – their national identity means to them, because the Ireland of the post Celtic Tiger era is one without vision, perspective or any sense of moral value.

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