The Rocky Road to a Republic

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You might think of the film ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ as some dated artifact, featuring Dub-a-lin in da rare auld times. But many of the cultural assumptions revealed in the film, and which later went towards hindering the film’s reception, are still very much alive in today’s Ireland. The sacred cows may have changed, but the overall cultural relationship with those things deemed sacred is still strikingly similar.

From the opening shot where the proud young boy reels off the complex theological dictates of the Catholic catechism in a machine-like patter, beaming with pride at his own parroting, oblivious to the meaning of the words he is reciting by rote; the film not only captures a moment in Ireland’s time, but achieves something far more profound: it captures the Irish sensibility, a quality slower to date than many would like to believe, and one which still informs how we do business even today.

For instance, in the opening summary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the commentator (Peter Lennon) says that one of the goals of the leaders of the rising was to ‘awaken a lethargic and indifferent Irish population to an ideal of freedom.’

To awaken to an ideal of freedom. What does that even mean? Not just freedom in the context of colonial Ireland, but freedom itself? What would it mean to be awakened to an ideal of freedom?

Vulgar Chancers

In a 1916 essay – the perhaps over-dramatically titled ‘The Murder Machine’[i] – Patrick Pearse critiques the British education system as it was applied in Ireland, arguing that it was deliberately creating lesser people; people for service, and people, in times of war, to be wasted on battlefields, as was happening in France at that time.

His point was that an ideal of freedom entailed having a say over your own education system, which would then be designed to enhance natural gifts, rather than designed essentially for enslavement to the requirements of a greater, indifferent power.

In the essay he recounts a wonderful story, which we would now recognize as a foundational argument for arts subsidy. A farmer comes to him (Pearse was a teacher) complaining about a ‘lazy’ son who chose to do nothing all day except play the tin whistle. ‘What am I to do with him?’ says the farmer. ‘Buy him a tin whistle’, says Pearse.

But is our education system any better equipped now? It seems to have been designed, like the British education system of Pearse’s time, to facilitate powerful institutions. Even at the top end, the universities often seem like dispensers of tickets for corporate jobs. In Ireland today the bulk of jobs are to be found in retail and ‘hospitality’. The modern equivalent of service.

President Michael D. Higgins recently criticised Universities for being too focused on market outcomes where they should be places to provide a ‘moral space’ for discussion. He said that this was due to a perception in academia that there was ‘magic happening in the marketplace… when in fact actually what you had was a whole series of vulgar chancers.’[ii]

In this brave new republic we now occupy, where neo-liberalism informs the values of everything, the arts appear to be regarded as something of an anomaly. Talented people are flung into dead-end jobs with the same casual disregard that they were once thrown into gunfire. The unions are weakened, landlords are murdering people, economically speaking, with killing rents; workers are over-worked and underpaid; the government is in thrall to big business; and people at the bottom are now going hungry and homeless. No matter how you might like to dress this up with figures for job creation and GDP percentages, I doubt that any of it adds up to anyone’s notion of an ideal of freedom, except perhaps the small percentage at the top, benefitting economically from the enslavement of the rest.

Silence and Gratitude

The sense I have after watching ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ is that little has changed. The place has been repainted and the furniture moved around, but it all seems eerily similar, with one set of sacred cows replaced by another. The ‘economy’, that eternally needy abstract entity, serves as a replacement deity to whom we now must all pay homage, or face dire consequence.

Thus in 2011 Enda Kenny endowed his government’s austerity budget with a penitential quality: “The budget will be tough, it has to be,” he said, adding it will be the “first step” on the road to recovery.”[iii] Cut-backs to vital services appeared to be punishment for the ‘sins’ of excessive spending during the boom era.

The point is, people’s relationship to power in today’s Ireland is more or less the same as that portrayed in ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’. They are just now focused on a different God and a different set of authoritative ‘priests’, but the relationship to authority seems essentially the same, and a similar apathy still prevails.

As for an ideal of freedom; this has neither been articulated nor discussed in the state’s short history. It is not an ideal that informs the cultural life of the country. If anything, it is understood in the negative. Freedom from, rather than freedom to.

In the Rocky Road the question after independence becomes: what to do with your revolution once it has been achieved? The idealists hoped for the emergence of a true republic of equality, fraternity and so on.

Instead, as the writer Sean O’Faolain says in the film:

The kind of society that actually grew up was what I called urbanized peasants…A society which was without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis, and in constant alliance with a completely obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church. The result of all this was…a society utterly alien to the ideals of republicanism…a society in which there are blatant inequalities…the republic is not going to come slowly, it will be the creation of a whole generation, perhaps two generations… who will have the courage to speak and who won’t be afraid of those sanctions that are continually imposed on them if they do so.

Those sanctions of silence are still imposed on people who speak against the prevailing orthodoxies. And often those sanctions are most strenuously imposed by those who are themselves victims of structural inequalities.

The role of Irish people, mainly born in the 1930s, as identified in the film was to be ‘one of gratitude, well-behaved gratitude’, says Peter Lennon. The understanding being that freedom had been won; now, simply, shut up.

Criticism was regarded as betrayal. But whose freedom was it? What was being asked of Irish people now by the revolutionary generation, or those who had ended up in power, was a ‘new kind of heroism. Heroic obedience.’ In essence, to wait patiently while those in power created the republic.

That, to my ears, sounded exactly like what was asked of Irish people after the banking collapse. Heroic obedience and gratitude. It seems to be the same bargain struck in the name of austerity. And again, criticism is seen as betrayal. Your duty is to be patient while those in power rebuild the republic; to demonstrate allegiance with obedient silence.

But who betrayed who this time around? Did Fine Gael in power care for the people targeted by vulture investors? No. They let them fall into homelessness and left them there. It would be dull to go through the litany of Fine Gael betrayals since austerity. Everyone knows what they are. Besides, this isn’t about Fine Gael. It’s about Irish people and their reaction to being lumbered with yet another, self-serving authoritarian clique, supposedly building or rebuilding the republic.

Participation

How do you build a republic anyway? What does it need? I suppose you could say that a century of heroic obedience and silence – while the big boys build the thing – hasn’t really worked. And there is a very good reason for that. Submissive silence in a people is the antithesis of a participative republic.

A republic presupposes participation. But as the documentary about the reaction to ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ shows, Irish people seem to guard jealously the silence that acts as cover for the powerful, more than they aspire to the necessary participative nature of a functioning republic.

Put simply, it is not up to powerful vested interests to build a republic – they’ll never do it anyway, because, as Mel Brooks once observed, ‘It’s good to be the king.’ Who in power is going to spoil their own party by introducing policies that reflect true equality and fraternity?

It’s up to people, by being participative, to build a republic. You don’t even have to do anything dramatic. In the Irish case a way forward might be to simply quit ridiculing those who speak out, as was the fate of Patrick Pearse when reading the Proclamation outside the GPO; and is the metaphorical fate of most anyone who speaks against the prevailing orthodoxies in Ireland.

This above all is what the Rocky Road reveals, the Irish penchant for keeping itself enslaved by imposing on itself heroic obedience and silence. By shutting itself up.

Peter Lennon’s film was widely denounced in Ireland, characterized as a betrayal of a people. The usual rubbish when Ireland is looked at critically by an Irish person. This was in 1968.

In contrast, the film became a huge hit in Paris – a place where they build and maintain republics. It served as inspiration for many French students for what happens to a people when they agree to the pact of heroic obedience and silence.

Interestingly, when Peter Lennon came back to Ireland in the mid-sixties he still saw the glaring power of the church everywhere. But people in Ireland, he found, genuinely believed that all that church stuff was now in the past.

They were enchanted and duped by the ‘modernising’ trend – more-yah in the guise of crooning, finger-snapping, condescending Fr Michael Cleary, singing acapella to new mothers in a maternity ward, of all places.

The young people of the time assured Lennon that Ireland was changing, that the grip of the church’s power was broken, that the grey 30s, 40s and 50s had been consigned to the past. And yet, Lennon’s film, shot with the unerring gaze of Raouel Coutard’s artist’s eye, showed a country still hopelessly in thrall to power; and, most tellingly, in total denial of its own condition. Unquestioning, obedient, silent. Until, that is, they saw Lennon’s film and found something to turn their mute hatred on.

How To Build A Republic

There is in the attitude of the ‘great little country’ – ‘the Best Small Country in the World in Which to do Business’ according to Enda Kenny’[iv] – to its own myths and legends, a sense of the magical mirror that only flatters. And when you critique any of it, you bring down upon yourself the wrath that surges angrily from denial revealed as delusion.

But that, unfortunately, is how you build a republic: by questioning its precious presumptions. This may explain why it has taken so long to even frame the question: how do you build a republic, without getting yourself killed?

The Ireland we dare not look at is decked out with cruel inequities everywhere you care to look, particularly in relation to the low paid, the unemployed, Travellers and Direct Provision tenants.

More recently we were reminded again in the RTÉ documentary ‘Redress: Breaking the Silence’[v] that state officials, in their cumbersome way to make right, actually had the effect of re-traumatising the victims by way, really, of imposing on them an old authoritarian relationship.

This time the concern was whether the victims were fibbing for monetary gain. For the victims it was just another cold authority disbelieving them.

The authoritarianism that truly informs Irish culture peeks out in all its judgmental cocksureness everywhere you look. It’s there in the house rules for Direct Provision tenants, ‘No excuses!!’ it says. It’s in the jokey management sign at the expense of workers, describing them as animals: ‘Where’s your sense of humour?’ It’s in the contempt for the jobseeker as ‘welfare cheat’. It’s in the greedy landlord hinting that payment through sex might be acceptable. It’s in the look-at-me-publican hushing almost the entire county because he feels an urge to sing a song and the world must stop to listen because he’s the man who controls the drink tap. It’s in the bus-driver’s contempt for the social housing passengers who ‘should’ have cars. It’s in the anti-intellectualism that seeks always to control through ridicule.

How do you build a republic? By participating. By speaking up and speaking out. By taking responsibility for the thing that needs to be said, and not waiting for someone else to come along and do it. Or by simply deciding not to ridicule and demean the speaker, because you’re proud of the fact that as a salt-of-the-Earth Irish person that it’s considered clever to broadcast your ignorance and affect a pose of being unable to tell the difference between art, intellectualism and insanity. Even valiantly locking your jaw in that context would be a small contribution in the right direction to the development of a wiser republic.

Peter Lennon’s The Rocky Road to Dublin was restored by Sé Merry Doyle at Loopline Film, https://ifi.ie/film/rocky-road-to-dublin-4/

[i] ‘The Murder Machine’ (1916) by P.H. Pearse: https://www.cym.ie/documents/themurdermachine.pdf

[ii] Jack Horgan-Jones, ‘Universities do not exist ‘to produce students who are useful’, President says’, Irish Times, March 2nd 2020, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/universities-do-not-exist-to-produce-students-who-are-useful-president-says-1.4190859

[iii] Mary Regan, ‘Living Beyond Our Means’, Irish Examiner, December 5th, 2011, https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/living-beyond-our-means-176062.html

[iv] Peter Bodkin, ‘s Ireland the ‘Best Small Country in the World in Which to do Business™?’ Not any more…’, TheJournal.ie, December 9th, 2014, https://www.thejournal.ie/ireland-ranking-for-business-1844047-Dec2014/

[v] RTÉ ‘Redress: Breaking the Silence’ https://www.rte.ie/player/series/redress-breaking-the-silence/SI0000006787?epguid=IH000390934&seasonguid=127629864186

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About Author

Eamonn Kelly

Eamonn Kelly is a freelance writer. He is a regular contributor to the online news site Broadsheet.ie where his articles on politics and culture have attracted wide interest. A native of Dublin he lives in the West of Ireland.

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