The wet spring and summer of 2008 was a time when several Irish fantasies ended: the dream of being an infinitely prosperous nation, of being able to rely on the absolute security of property values, of being exemplary Europeans and of being well governed.
The iconography of the period was simple: we were accustomed to seeing countless photographs of politicians socialising with property developers, but this could not convey the strangeness of a time when a Taoiseach was forced from office, when most politicians expected us to vote for the Lisbon Treaty on their word alone and when a well- known writer equated Ireland in the 1950’s with Russia under Stalin.
There was also a sense of history having repeated itself: in 1977, the Republic’s largest political party bought a general election with policies we could not afford, thus leading to ten years of economic misery. In 2007, the same party, this time in coalition, had guaranteed its re-election by spending the State’s entire surplus and promising that prosperity would be permanent. Arrogance peaked when people’s fears were not addressed and we were told, more or less, to shut up and vote “Yes to Europe”.
National self-definition as the “Island of Saints and Scholars” and “My Four Green Fields” had been replaced by belief in permanent prosperity. We, in the Anglophone West, felt so happy that we needed to read accounts of other people’s unhappy childhoods, thus creating a new literary genre: “misery lit” (sales have declined recently by over thirty per cent). Self-definition is dangerous (Britain once boasted of ruling “the largest empire the world has ever seen” and Spain called itself the “spiritual reserve of Europe”), but we are drawn to it, somewhat compulsively.
Who actually takes part in the discussions about national identity? Panellists on RTE radio and television talk shows are usually middle aged and middle class, with a south Dublin bias. Radio phone-ins are usually filled with complaints. Newstalk 106FM and local radio offer a wider perspective, but this is an area where writers could offer very original viewpoints.
Writers, however, have to make a living. Very few Irish writers can live by writing alone. Some become internationally famous; some write very popular fiction, which is ideal for film adaptation; others find security in academic life, particularly in the United States. Exile is now a lifestyle choice rather than a statement of ideological independence, whilst emigration has faded as a theme in Irish life and literature. Adaptations of classics and writing detective stories may be lucrative, but are not innovative and are unlikely to be lasting.
We need help in making sense of our present. Demonising the past is a waste of time, as we face rising levels of violence, drug abuse and alcohol consumption. Unlike some far more important countries, we have never fallen victim to the corrosive effects of national pride. We have managed, however inadequately, to sustain two very dissimilar languages. We are still involved in the drama of belief and unbelief, even though our intelligentsia is largely secularised and harbours some pockets of frenzied anti-Catholicism.
Where do we get a sense of belonging and what are our sources of self-respect? In a very sudden shift, we discover that property can be a burden and that very large cars invite contempt rather than envy. As, once again, we revise our self-image, some of the best tools for reflection are found not in novels, but in contemporary short stories, such as Ann Enright’s new collection Taking Pictures (which evokes modern urban Ireland from a feminist perspective and shows far more insight than the dreary novel which won her the Booker Prize) or Claire Keegan’s depiction of modern rural Ireland in Walk the Blue Fields (2007), in which the title story brilliantly revives the stock fictional figure of the Irish priest.
Reading good short stories is not the worst way of passing gloomy times.