It’s a rough time to be a young, Irish, progressive, nationalist. According to figures, there’s a fair chance that if you are in your twenties, you are still living at home with Mammy. Inflation is eating away at your savings for a deposit almost as fast as you are adding to those savings. Your generation is quietly, and in large numbers, giving up on a life in Ireland and fleeing to Australia, or the United Kingdom, to build a life away from the old sod. An era defined by big campaigns for progressive social change hasn’t really made you happier in your country, or improved your life in any meaningful way. And your own generation hasn’t left much of a mark on the country. If anything, after two decades of rampant progressivism from the generation ahead of you, you’re a bit out of new ideas.
These facts are vital in understanding the sudden renaissance in Ireland of affection – either genuine or ironic – for the provisional IRA.
It is very hard to rebel against an establishment that is failing you when, on almost every measure, that establishment agrees with you and shares your values. Are you a left-leaning anti-imperialist feminist who doesn’t like landlords, wants climate change dealt with, and sees fascism lurking around every corner? Congratulations, you qualify to join Fine Gael – or Fianna Fáil, or any other bastion of the Irish establishment.
The young are clearly dissatisfied with Irish policy, and the Irish Government – they have every right to be. The problem is that finding things to differ from the Irish Government on is difficult. Given that the coalition is almost obsessively aligned with progressive young people in the here and now, about the only way left to show that you’re opposed to them is to fight them on the past.
Chanting and singing in favour of the IRA is ideal, in that context, because it’s generational: It’s the kind of thing that can reliably be expected to horrify the olds, and signal that your generation is new and cool and rebellious and different. Conveniently, it requires almost no work or effort, let alone anyone having to learn about the handling of explosives and timers, or risk getting themselves blown up by their own bombs. These bombs are entirely rhetorical – an overt two fingers to the generation that came before and, as you see it, messed up your life on you.
But it does rather sum up the exhausted nature of progressivism: In the past, youthful left wing rebellion was almost always forward-looking. Progressive rebellion almost always seeks to tear down the societal rules that older generations lived by: We went from free love, to gay love, to rebelling against religion, to fighting censorship, to fighting the very boundaries of gender. What’s left? Very little, is the answer, which leaves the younger depressed rebel at something of a loss.
That’s the progressive side. What about the nationalism?
The IRA as a proxy vehicle for Irish nationalist sentiment in the 2020’s is again, I’d argue, a function of necessity more than utility. The soccer team is in the pits. The Rugby team is successful, but so associated with middle class south Dublin values that it’s not even really nationalist to associate with it. If you want to pin your green ribbon on the heroes of 1916, and all that palaver, it’s a crowded field and you’ll have to rub shoulders with a preening Micheál Martin. Unlike the British, we have no World War Two heroics to hark back to, and unlike our revolutionary brethren in Palestine, no festering sore to pick at. Once you strip away the traditional modern outposts of national sentiment – soccer and war – you’re not left with much of anything, except the questionable heroics of the provisionals.
All of this, I think, explains the sudden popularity of the Wolfe Tones and the sudden youthful exuberance for provo rebel songs. It’s about rejecting the country they live in, without actually having to provide an alternative vision for the country they live in, since no such vision that appeals to them exists.
There is, of course, much to laugh at in all of this: The disaffected youth are living in a country that for most of the past thirty years has been governed almost entirely in the interests and in the tone of the disaffected youth. The boogeymen that once held sway have been swept away: The church is a husk. The political right is an echo. The big corporations are all rainbow-bedecked progressives, these days. Education has never been more freely available. Everywhere you turn, progressivism holds sway.
And yet, the youth are still upset, and can’t put their finger on why. So up the ra it is, because there’s nowhere left to go.