Luck and the Irish: a brief history of change, 1970–2000

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Luck and the Irish: a brief history of change, 1970–2000
R. F. Foster
(Allen Lane, £20)
ISBN 9780195179521

Bemused is the word that comes to mind. Roy Foster seems bemused by what has happened here in the past three decades, particularly the past ten years. He is not alone in his mystification. In fact, many of the leading intellectual lights of his generation appear similarly bewildered. As a result, Professor Foster, flummoxed by events, puts all the positive changes over the recent past down to luck. As he says himself, the Irish ‘got lucky’.
Ireland clearly benefited from an unexpected and lucky economic windfall from certain geopolitical events—notably the fall of the Berlin Wall—but that is not what the author is talking about. As far as the title of the book and many of the chapter conclusions are concerned, Professor Foster can’t quite bring himself to accept that we Irish might be capable of planning and running our own affairs, and therefore, in his mind, any successes were/are serendipitous.
In spite of such obvious racial stereotypes, this isn’t a bad book. On the contrary, it is worth reading—replete with all the facts and figures. If you want to know who did what when, you’ll find it all here. Luck and the Irish doesn’t amount to much, however, and it’s certainly not what you’d expect from an academic of Professor Foster’s standing.
You come away from the book feeling that you have just spoken to someone who can’t quite come to terms with what has happened and, as a result, hasn’t that much to say. It could be described as the ‘We was robbed’ approach to societal analysis. Partisan football supporters, who think that their team can do no wrong, typically blame either the ref or ‘the rub of the green’, a dodgy divot or some lucky bounce of a ball when trying to explain why their side did not win. They simply can’t believe the result. How could it happen? This attitude is particularly evident among English football supporters and can be explained by national sporting delusion. This delusion is so endemic and is commemorated so frequently that it becomes almost impossible for the English football fan to countenance defeat. A missed penalty is bad luck and an opponent’s goal is good luck. Like football fans, many Irish commentators and academics—particularly those children of the 1960s and young adults of the 1970s—simply cannot conceive how Ireland changed because it was not in their script. And when our country did mutate into what it is now, rather than question their own assumptions they concluded that it must be luck, dictated by a series of rogue variables that could never have been predicted. Given English fans’ inherent weakness for this sort of carry-on, it is telling that this book appears to have been written for an English, or at least British, audience.
It is important to appreciate that the book started life as a series of lectures in Queen’s University, Belfast, which might explain the tone. Despite being written by one of Ireland’s foremost historians, Luck and the Irish is not a history book (a description Professor Foster battles with in his introduction); indeed, some of the references take us right up to last year. It would be better described as one man’s take on the state of contemporary Ireland.
Up to now, anything I have read by Professor Foster has been a joy, particularly the elegant and funny Telling tales and making it up in Ireland. Unfortunately, this book has far too little of the typical Foster spark and flair. It reads like an overly long 1980s Hot Press editorial, written by a fully paid-up member of the ‘liberal agenda’. It is less an objective history book than a venting of spleen by Professor Foster on contemporary Ireland—full of invective against Fianna Fáil, the church and county councillors. We’ve heard it all before in Grogan’s.
The major hero of the book is Garrett Fitzgerald, whose hagiographical treatment here left this reader speechless. I was in school when Garrett Fitzgerald was taoiseach and remember an ineffectual politician who talked the ‘fiscal restraint’ language of a Chicago school economist but ran the place like Juan Perón—devaluing the currency, running up huge deficits, presiding over record current account deficits and allowing the national debt to balloon out of control. Worse still, this lamentable economic management was camouflaged with a half-baked ‘constitutional crusade’ that, for all Garrett’s posturing, delivered nothing. Garrett Fitzgerald’s Ireland was a country of mass emigration that accelerated under his leadership, and no amount of rewriting of history can disguise that. Haughey, on the other hand, gets slated at every opportunity.
Once you get over all the slagging, the book moves along. The opening chapter on economics is broken down into boosters and begrudgers—those who see the boom as something to be celebrated and engineered at home and those who contend that it is all hype and has left the country worse off both socially and culturally. Again, nothing too earth-shattering here, and very little that the average reader will not have known. The main problem with the professor’s thesis about luck is that, to anyone with a passing knowledge of Junior Cert economics, it is clear that the Irish economic boom can be explained by the key economic factors of demography, credit and industrial policy, all of which were planned.
His chapter ‘How the Catholics became Protestants’ echoes my own similarly titled chapter, ‘The Protestant Catholics’, in The pope’s children. He suggests that Catholic Ireland has more or less adopted the Protestant values of individualism and liberty over the more communitaire and doctrinaire Catholic impulse. There can be little argument with this; however, it’s not all one-way traffic. Whereas the professor suggests that the movement has been one way, given what we can see of the atavistic nature of northern Protestantism, it’s also fair to say that southern Protestants have themselves become more Catholic. Like so many things in Ireland, the new dispensation is less a victory of one opposing camp over another than something more like a synthesis.
Professor Foster is on much firmer territory in his chapter on the North, where he reveals some of his vast knowledge, insight and touch. His reference to Gerry Adams’s appearance in VIP magazine is priceless and funny, summing up brilliantly the profound transformation. Equally deft is his description of Colin Farrell’s My Dublin, which the professor uses to evidence his point about ‘commodification of Irish history’. These types of observations are examples of why Professor Foster’s history can be so easy to read and enjoyable.
Likewise, his chapters on modern Irish culture see him move confidently into the world of arts, music and books. While some interesting points are made, it reeks of having been written for the intelligentsia by the intelligentsia, and unfortunately much is made of the cultural contributions of the author’s mates. No, I’ve no problem with praising, repackaging and publicising your mates or their work—after all, most of us would do it if given half a chance—but in a chapter that sneers at our national weakness for marketing and branding it seems a bit inconsistent. For fans of Foster, and I am one, let’s hope that Luck and the Irish was an aberration. A speedy return to form is what all of us should now hope for.

David McWilliams is the author of The pope’s children: Ireland’s new elite (Gill and Macmillan, 2005) and The generation game (Gill and Macmillan, 2007).


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