In May 1969 Emil Cioran considered writing a book on the Irish, having met an Irishman “qui n’avait que “Almighty God” à la bouche” in conversation. He was normally more interested in the religious preoccupations of other countries, such Russia and Spain. As it happens, a piece of the latter’s history is instructive on the difference between Ireland and the Romania of Cioran’s pre-war dreams.
Early in 1937 the prominent Iron Guard members Ion Moța and Vasile Marin were killed by a shell after volunteering to fight for Franco. Their bodies were transported across Europe by train and greeted in Bucharest by thousands of Greenshirts, as the Iron Guard liked to dress up. They were interred in Bucharest on 13 February, in a mausoleum newly erected by their leader Codreanu. The ceremony was overseen by hundreds of Orthodox priests.
Later in the year the Iron Guard did well in a general election on the back of this big production but, less a month after the solemn show, Codreanu had written to Cioran to thank him for writing The Transfiguration of Romania.
All of us, fighters and writers, are driven… by the might of this Romanian volcano which is about to break its bonds…
It is one thing to think such thoughts – a mind is a terrible thing to lose, as Dan Quayle might have put it – but to say them in public or even commit them to paper is rather more serious. In the Thirties, the Irish State had its Blueshirts (the green shirts were already taken) but nothing about them concerns us here except their experience in Spain, also on Franco’s side. It may be only apocryphal that Freud thought the Irish immune to psychoanalysis but it is easier to highlight the lack of seriousness that makes such blood and soil less fertile for fascism (or Marxism).
The comic history of that escapade must be written one day: recruits armed with letters from their doctors saying that the Spanish climate would work miracles for their tubercular lungs; boys going to a dance in Dundalk… and waking up on the Dún Aengus in Galway Bay the next day on their way to fight in Spain; O’Duffy having to inspect a guard of honour without weapons in case they shot him; the money collected to defend God in Spain being diverted to found a political dynasty; and, finally, more men returning from Spain, despite the casualties inflicted on the Brigade by Franco’s Moorish troops, than actually enlisted.
In The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) Breandán Ó hEithir defines the begrudger of the book’s title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling. In that same book Ó hEithir also wrote
One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.
A nephew of the novelist Liam O’Flaherty, Ó hEithir (1930-90) was born on Aran and wrote successfully in both Irish and English. Upon his retirement from broadcasting he and his wife got a Paris apartment but, unfortunately, to borrow a line from Beckett’s All That Fall, the poor man didn’t live long to enjoy his ease.
V. S. Pritchett’s memoir Midnight Oil (1971) includes his time in Ireland during the Civil War in 1923 and refers to laughter without mirth, “a guerrilla activity of the mind” that even “rippled over the surface of the incurable seventeenth-century bitterness” of the north-east. Pritchett describes several surreal incidents elsewhere in the country, after the British had gone, such as a raid on a house of the gentry, nominally for arms.
The servants were hysterical and a parrot imitated them, calling out ‘Glory be to God’… there was a good supply of untouched weapons but girls among the raiders had gone off with his wife’s riding clothes, and one of the men had emptied a jar of ink over the drawing-room carpet. The raiders had found a safe… but could not open it. So they dumped it in the middle of the lake. My host rang up the local military… ‘We’ll send down the Terroriser,’ the officer said. The Terroriser and his men rowed about the large lake very happily. It was a lovely afternoon.
We can but wonder in passing what inspiration Cioran might have got from that parrot. As the Civil War moved away from the capital, Pritchett got on a train from Dublin to Cork. In the midlands there was a long stoppage for the addition of an armoured engine and a troop escort.
…a few of us, including a priest, left the train and went into the town for a drink, sure of finding the train still there after a couple of hours. It was. It gave a jolt. ‘Are we starting?’ someone asked. ‘Sure, we haven’t started starting yet,’ the porter said. The afternoon faded… at Mallow it was dark… we got into cars to join another train across the valley. The viaduct had been blown up. We eventually arrived in Cork in a racket of machine-gun fire. (…) But the passengers took it for granted and a bare-footed urchin who took my case said, ‘’Tis only the boys from the hills.’
The Civil War was indeed a grave matter in which a few thousand people died but where does the overriding lack of seriousness come from? Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, has sold two million copies in German. Though written in the Fifties, it still captures some sturdy truths about the Irish character. The most important of these is found where he discusses a commonplace phrase. It could be worse. For Germans, he says, if something bad happens it is always the worst possible eventuality but, for the Irish, even death has something of a bright side. Stirbt man gar, nun, so ist man aller Sorgen ledig (‘If you die, well, your troubles are over’).
It also struck Böll that whenever something bad happened, humour and imagination deserted the Germans but it was right at that moment that they got going in Ireland. Mention of what he calls the twin sister of ‘It could be worse’ (i.e. ‘I shouldn’t worry’) then allows him to explain how these phrases express a fundamental recognition that it could be – and has been – bloody well worse.
…und das bei einem Volk, das allen Grund hätte, weder bei Tag noch bei Nacht auch nur eine Minute ohne Sorge zu sein: vor hundert Jahren, als die große Hungersnot kam, Mißernten einige Jahre hindurch, diese große nationale Katastrophe, die nicht nur unmittelbar verheerend wirkte, sondern deren Schock sich durch die Generationen bis auf heute vererbt hat…
‘…and that too from a people who would have every reason to be at most a minute without worry, day or night: a hundred years ago, when the great famine came, crop failures for several years, this great national catastrophe, that not only had an immediate devastating effect, but whose shock has been passed down through the generations to this day…’
What Böll grasped, the Irish have not lost, despite having more money and less religion than in the Fifties. Hence there has lately been the notable public response in Ireland to an appeal for financial help by Native American tribes stricken by the virus. This money is in return for a few Choctaw dollars sent over in the 1840s.
Furthermore, just before the onset of the pandemic, a public outcry of the what-the-f*ck variety forced the minority Dublin government to scrap a planned memorial service for the colonial police. It is one thing to think such thoughts but to say them in public or even commit them to speeches is rather more serious.
PS … here’s another passage from Paddy Lindsay’s memoirs (see top)