I had something of a strange encounter with an old friend last week, and I hope the person in question won’t mind me making it public. It was someone I hadn’t seen in a few years, and after the usual pleasantries about what had happened in our lives since we had last spoken, he mentioned that he had recently seen me on television discussing something or other and thought I had done well. “You’re very brave”, he said. “I agree with you nearly totally, but I couldn’t say that out loud in my job”.
“Oh”, I said. “I get it. People really need to be careful these days, people are very easily offended. Where do you work?”
I won’t name the company, for obvious reasons, but the man in question told me that he works at a relatively senior level in the accounts department of a well-known agri-food company. Somewhere in his contract, written or unwritten, apparently, is the notion that he must not disagree too loudly, if at all, with the prevailing cultural-political consensus in the country, lest people get the wrong sort of idea about the kind of person he is.
There was a time in this country when this kind of thing was very common. When my parents were growing up, Ireland had almost two parallel legal systems – the law of the land, and the law of what the neighbours might think. The fear one had of breaking the law was one thing – an appearance in court or a fine, or, worst of all, one’s name in the local paper – but the fear of breaking the unspoken law was even greater. Doing perfectly legal things, like having a child outside of marriage, could bring with it an effective prison sentence greater than what you’d get if you stole a car or robbed a bank.
In that Ireland, public displays of piety and conformity were fundamentally expected. Those who openly lived in contravention of the dominant culture were at best regarded as eccentric, and at worst denounced from the pulpit, or openly scorned. Bishops and Priests were not just religious leaders, they were political and economic patrons, capable of swinging elections, or helping your child get a job.
I drag all this up not because it’s particularly cheering, but because one of the reasons I accepted this role here at Gript is because I question how much the country has really changed. On the outside, of course we have changed. Having children outside of marriage remains legal, and these days it is more to be celebrated than condemned, though of course the economics of it remain as challenging as ever.
Beneath the Pride Parades and the you go, girls, and the monthly national conversations about what a dark and cruel country we all grew up in, though, the culture of the country remains fundamentally unchanged.
This is still a country with its Bishops, and its Priests, and its holy scriptures and its demands that you conform, or else.
Our national identity has always been wrapped up in being the best boy in the class. When we were a catholic country, we had to be the most catholic in all the world. When we joined the European Union, we had to become the most unquestioningly European nation in the history of our continent. When we discovered the sexual revolution, three decades after everyone else, we have had to rush to become the most sexually liberated country in all the world.
We have never been a nation, whether we like it or not, that is tolerant of dissent. Perhaps this is a function of our colonial past, a call back to a time when, as a small and oppressed country, disunity was fatal. The only time in the past hundred years when our two major parties were at odds with each other on an existential question, of course, resulted in a civil war that left thousands dead and many families torn asunder. Dissent is dangerous, our history tells us, because it gets you killed, or evicted, or cast out from society, or denounced from a pulpit. And the pulpits, of course, are still there, even in Agri-food companies.
Dissent, of course, is vital, and we need more of it. Nearly every orthodoxy in the whole history of mankind has been, in some way, wrong. Almost every great tragedy of our past was at one time the unquestioned way of life for those who lived it. The Romans thought slavery was natural, as did the Europeans who settled in America. The Elizabethans thought burning witches was good policy, at the same time as Shakespeare was writing art that survives to this day. A vegan friend assures me that two hundred years from now, our descendants will look on in amazement and horror that we ever considered killing, and eating, pigs and cows. She may well be right.
In this society of ours, there is much to question, and too few willing to question it. Is it right, for example, to say that a six-year-old girl is actually a boy, and to put her on hormones when, or before, she reaches puberty? Is it right to abandon the very concept of citizenship, and the nation state, and declare that people who arrived here yesterday are as Irish as the rest of us? Is it sensible to take a baseball bat to our economy to prevent a climate crisis that has been ten years away since 1970, while other countries proceed normally? Is the European Union the true friend we believe it to be, or is it, like the French in 1798, another ally of convenience? I pose those questions not because they matter hugely to me, but because they are questions many fear to ask, and because their fear is evidence by itself that they need to be asked.
We will try to be reasonable, and fair, on these pages, but we will not be afraid, and we will not worry all that much about offending you. We are, after all, all adults here, and capable of making up our own minds, without the guidance of Priests, or Bishops, or Pulpits.