Modernisation: crisis and culture in Ireland 1969-1992

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2002), Reviews, Volume 10

Conor McCarthy
(Four Courts Press,E45)
ISBN 1851824758

The notion that Ireland is wracked by an unprecedented cultural crisis has become a new orthodoxy accepted both by the side-bar columnists of the Irish Times and the cosmopolitan academic elite. The theoretical basis for this approach was located in the Anglo-American disciplines of cultural studies and post-colonial theory which swept through the more progressive anglophone universities in the seventies and eighties, sweeping traditional disciplines like  sociology and literary criticism to one side and even giving history a run for its money.
The lethargic world of Irish academia caught on to the new trend just as it may have been on the wane—in the same way as a previous generation embraced modernisation theory just before its eclipse—and has not looked back since. Historians might well regard this approach with some puzzlement. After all, the period after the death of Parnell and prior to the First World War has all the characteristics of a cultural crisis: vicious infighting among the various strands of nationalism, the terminal decline of southern unionism and the ascendancy, the emergence of an organised mass labour movement and, of course, the increasing influence of the Gaelic League and the IRB. It is also worth remembering that the Catholic Church and the Catholic elite—such as it was—came perilously close to moral and political bankruptcy at this time: we have our Haughey, they had their Sadleir and Keogh.
Conor McCarthy’s book takes a rather oblique view of the crisis of our times. The long introduction locates the origins of crisis in the uncritical acceptance of modernisation theory by the Irish elite and then extends this to a critique of a number of writers, film makers and assorted academics. These chapters, such as that on Brian Friel are often illuminating and well written and the historically informed reader might be struck by structural comparisons such as between Friel and D.P. Moran, whose vociferous brand of cultural nationalism was influential at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The love affair between Irish academics and intellectuals and cultural studies is understandable only in the context of the absent other of an indigenous critical theory inspired by continental Marxism, something which is shared with their colleagues of the English ilk. Cultural studies in Ireland and elsewhere may well be a redemptive substitute for the failure to engage  with the material reality of Irish life: a class ridden corrupt society with levels of inequality and deprivation unrivalled in Europe. If Irish historians have sanitised history, the denizens of cultural studies have evaded it by ignoring that, cultural crisis or otherwise, Ireland possesses a class and power structure apparently immune to change.

Jim Smyth


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