The Irish have the dreadful habit of keeping about thirty years behind the times. This being so, Ireland is a blessed place to be in the 1990s if you happen to be a 1960s-style liberal. The “long march through the institutions,” completed in the United States years ago, has just begun to gather steam here in the Emerald Isle. But for a conservative, Ireland is a thoroughly depressing place to be at present, and I look across the Atlantic to America with more than a hint of envy.
Why do I feel envious when I cast an eye across the Atlantic? Let me put it this way. How would you enjoy finding yourself transported back to 1965, realizing that it is going to be years and years before all the silliness and political correctness finally lose their steam?
I know America is only now (hopefully) breaking free from that sixties liberalism, but in Ireland there is no major political party that even remotely resembles the American Republican party. Our media are split between the politically indifferent and the politically correct. There is no Wall Street Journal, no National Review, no First Things, no Crisis, no New Criterion, no conservative platform of consequence whatsoever. And to add to our woes, the influence of the Catholic Church is in precipitous decline.
This might surprise those who still harbor a romantic image of Ireland as the Land of Saints and Scholars. If it ever was, it isn't now. Romantic Ireland's dead and gone.
Catholicism still remains the religion of over 95 percent of the populace, of course, and something like 76 percent still go to Mass each week, but nominalism is widespread and the so-called “ethic of personal autonomy” is in the ascendancy. That this should be so is perhaps not so surprising. Irish Catholicism, while in its strength, was often thought to rule too harshly. Tales of overbearing priests are by now well and truly part of Irish folklore. But after World War II, Irish Catholicism's power began to weaken under the combined blows of more widespread education, growing prosperity, and increased exposure to the “sinful” ways of the rest of the world. People began to rebel against the old “authoritarian” ways.
When Vatican II opened the doors of the Church somewhat, the young intelligentsia couldn't flee fast enough. Mostly in their twenties and thirties, and filled with an overpowering desire to cut the whole of Irish society loose from the “dead hand” of the Church, they came to occupy, in the decades that followed, almost all of the key positions in the media, politics, and the academy. With the generation that preceded them now largely retired, their dominance is total and unchallenged.
While this story will strike many as familiar-it has surely happened all across the Western world-what makes Ireland different is not only the lateness of the revolution but also the extent of the victory. It is not just that liberals have won the culture war or that the opposition has been pushed to the margins; conservatism in Ireland has been virtually exterminated. Irish conservatism today, with a few notable exceptions, consists merely of bona fide cranks and sad, elderly people mourning the loss of all their ancient world. The Church itself seems to feel helpless before the changes. It is astonishing, really, to reflect upon the fragility of Irish conservatism. When the assault began, it collapsed like a cathedral of sand.
Future historians will have a grand time writing books analyzing why this was so. For my own part I believe Irish conservatism was uniquely vulnerable to the changes of modernity. Irish Catholicism was too powerful, too massive-so massive that it displaced all other forms of conservatism. Although for several decades after the foundation of the State in 1922 all of the main parties reflected the conservatism of the wider society, none was convinced of conservatism: they were conservative more by convention than by conviction.
With the Catholic Church as the bulwark of conservatism, no one felt obliged to establish a conservative party such as the American Republicans or the British Conservatives, and no conservative tradition independent of Catholicism developed in Ireland. There was thus nothing to fall back on when Catholicism itself came under attack. There is a hint of irony here, for Ireland is after all the home of the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. He left no discernible impression, however, and his chief Irish interpreter, Conor Cruise O'Brien, is a liberal.
The task of conservatives in Ireland today is to found a new conservative tradition from scratch. It will have to be a creation ex nihilo, and it will be made doubly difficult by the fact that anything even remotely conservative is instantly dismissed by the liberals as being of a kind either with the old-fashioned Catholicism they so fervently despise or with the Thatcherism discredited by its checkered response to the “Irish Question.”
The irony is, of course, that the very people who so pride themselves on having thrown off the “yoke” of the Church are busy constructing a new yoke for us. These Artisans of a New Ireland seem unaware of what Americans have already discovered-that as mediating structures such as the Church retreat, the State automatically rushes in to fill the vacuum.
But not only is the State growing by default, it is also growing by design. Large sectors of the economy are already tied to the State and hundreds of thousands of people are dependent upon it. It has a monopolistic position in the TV market and it is in the process of taking over the education system from the Church. This last is painfully ironic: in the name of pluralism, education is simply passing from one monopoly (the Church) to another (the State).
Ireland has a history of political domination by Britain on the one hand, and moral domination by the Church on the other. Such a history does not breed a culture of self-reliance. Dependency comes naturally to us. The theological correctness of the past has been superseded by today's (entirely secular) political correctness. Thus, while the watchdogs of the old guard find it very difficult to have lewd advertisements removed from public places, the new sexual watchdogs of Ireland's powerful feminist lobby rarely have such difficulty. They are taken very seriously indeed by the same liberals who have no time for what they dismiss as Catholic prudery.
Make no mistake. Ireland is still an extremely civil, warm, and friendly society. But the Irish cultural terrain today inevitably reminds one of 1960s America, in which a group of liberals-declaring themselves liberated from what they insisted was an oppressive, old-fashioned order-set out to destroy all the existing culture and impose the power of the “enlightened” state. It is sad to consider that we Irish must relive America's sixties, seventies, and eighties before we arrive at our own conservative movement, thirty years hence.
David Quinn, a native of Dublin, is a new contributor to First Things. He is a columnist and feature writer with the Sunday Business Post as well as editorial writer for the Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper.