One hundred years ago, John Redmond was by far the most famous living Irishman. Today, he is almost forgotten: streets, buildings and institutions are not named after him. Redmond is regarded as representing a dead end in Irish history.
One hundred years ago, Nano Nagle was overlooked, though the Presentation Sisters were working in nearly every large town in Ireland. Nine years ago, she was voted the Irish Woman of the Second Millennium.
John Redmond and Nano Nagle were committed Christians. Most of us, like them, were brought up believing in God, but nearly all of us were brought up to believe in progress. Believing in the constant betterment of humanity has been part of the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment, making sin and redemption less attractive concepts. This attitude has survived the dreadful Twentieth Century, the most violent in human history. Uncounted millions died in warfare and in revolutionary or post-revolutionary violence. The collective memory of such misery and loss was blotted out in the consumer boom that began in the 1960s and stopped only recently. The one exception to the desire to forget was the Holocaust, which was studied seriously from the 1960s onward, after the initial horror had been absorbed. Nano Nagle would not have been surprised at human depravity. John Redmond, who lived in a calmer age, might have been more optimistic.
Very few lives have happy endings, but we continue to fool ourselves about this very grim reality and go to films where all ends well, or watch television series where desperate situations can be resolved within an hour. The daily struggle and the blessed monotony of life do not sit well with the “happily ever after” mindset, so we are open to becoming consumers: of things, of time, of each other.
The collapse of communism in 1989 left no challenges to the belief that our destiny is to possess and that our aim in life should be self-fulfilment. Western democratic capitalism was seen as the perfection of human history, rather than the latest (and therefore temporary) manifestation of human endeavour. Atheism seems both logical and sensible in such a situation: we are in charge of our destiny and, if we pull together, everything will work out for the best. We respect religion, but we should not be bothered by it, other than when it provides rites of passage. Its claims to truth may be discounted, because all truth is relative and my desires are the only things of which I can be sure.
Needless to say, the hubris that comes from the latest Western Zeitgeist is challenged by those who refuse to regard our culture as the pinnacle of human history, who do not admire our lifestyles and who look at our empty churches with dismay.
In Ireland, we usually come late to the feast, so we became wholehearted consumers just as Western Capitalism began to falter. Knowledge of history has weakened, being replaced by a fascination with genealogical research (which may tell us a lot about our ancestors, but less about their culture and religious beliefs). We have no general sense of how we arrived where we are, nor of the people and groups whose endeavours led us here.
Reflection does not come easily to us Irish people; we are much better at literature and drama than we are at theology and philosophy. Given our slowness to reflect, we are liable to accept the very latest thinking, but would be stronger and much wiser if we remained proud of our roots.
There are two traditions in Irish nationalism, but one is often emphasised to the almost total exclusion of the other. Constitutional and revolutionary nationalism both arose as an enraged response to systematic injustice; one can only be understood in relation to the other. The churches played a fundamental role in creating the country we have, but today there is a widespread opinion that a secular Ireland would be a much happier place. Religious orders built much of the medical and educational infrastructure of Ireland, but they are characterised, without exception, as being oppressive and exploitative.
There is often an uneasy feeling that we are accepting a one-sided interpretation of the past, but we are unable to articulate our discomfort and, instead, murmur something about the good priests, nuns or brothers we have known. We need occasions, such as the many local commemorations of the 1798 Bicentenary or the celebration of the Easter Rising anniversary in 2006, if we are to express our real feelings. Patriotism is wonderful, except when evoked by cash-strapped governments.
A healthy democracy is assured only when we accept our many-sided past and have a critical attitude towards our present. Our current crisis reminds us that the best politicians are those who respect us and who show it by offering us no slogans and no easy answers.