‘What we have wit­nessed is the Dún Laoghaire-isa­tion of Ire­land’

An ex­clu­sive ex­tract from his new book ... The shift from ‘mov­ing-statue Catholi­cism’ to ‘bouncy-cas­tle Catholi­cism’ has gone hand in hand with ex­plo­sive eco­nomic growth

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - David McWil­liams

It’s 9am in the Do­mini­can Con­vent in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. A pa­tient col­umn of peo­ple runs all the way down the street as far as the Chi­nese-run New Paddy phone re­pair shop. The only other shop do­ing busi­ness so early on a Fri­day morn­ing is May’s Oc­ca­sions, which is busy sell­ing com­mu­nion dresses, tiaras and para­sols to cater for the last-minute panic ahead of the big cel­e­bra­tory week­end.

Ir­ish cit­i­zens might be about to re­peal the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment on abor­tion, but no one would lay a fin­ger on our di­vine right to host a full-on, over-the-top com­mu­nion, re­plete with bouncy cas­tles, gaze­bos and Instagram poses.

Down here on the coast south of Dublin the polling sta­tion is jammed; the re­turn­ing of­fi­cer has never seen any­thing like it in her 20 years of su­per­vis­ing. By four in the af­ter­noon, turnout has al­ready hit a mas­sive 43.7 per cent. In other votes, it would typ­i­cally have been half that. Some­thing is afoot.

This is Dún Laoghaire: tra­di­tion­ally, Ire­land’s most lib­eral con­stituency and, for years, the an­tithe­sis of “Mid­dle Ire­land”. Here the lo­cals have been bap­tis­ing and con­firm­ing their chil­dren for years, with­out be­liev­ing a word of it. Be­ing a pro-Com­mu­nion Re­pealer sits easy here. It’s an am­biva­lent place. But so too now is Ire­land.

Ahead of the ref­er­en­dum, both sides thought the re­sult would be tight. Lib­eral Ire­land and Tra­di­tional Ire­land were thought to be neck-and-neck. In the end, we weren’t split at all. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity, al­beit a pri­vate and non-vo­cal ma­jor­ity, were lib­eral, not con­ser­va­tive. In one gen­er­a­tion, to use VS Naipaul’s phrase about In­dia, “mil­lions of lit­tle mu­tinies” had kicked off in­side Ir­ish heads.

The re­sult? The val­ues that Dún Laoghaire held at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit had be­come Ire­land’s val­ues by the time Pope Fran­cis ad­dressed a much-di­min­ished crowd in a gale at Phoenix Park al­most 40 years later.

This dra­matic shift in Ire­land’s value sys­tem poses a few crit­i­cal ques­tions. How did Dún Laoghaire’s lib­eral at­ti­tude, once re­garded as an out­lier, be­come main­stream? How did we move from Mov­ing Statue Catholi­cism, cowed by rules, vin­dic­tive­ness, su­per­sti­tion and fear, to Bouncy Cas­tle Catholi­cism – still cul­tur­ally Catholic, lov­ing the big day out, but morally prag­matic, em­brac­ing all-com­ers and en­er­gised by am­bi­gu­ity, ac­cep­tance, facts and hope? And how did this cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion af­fect the econ­omy?

Dún Laoghaire-isa­tion

The last time we voted on abor­tion, in 1983, Dún Laoghaire was a lib­eral en­clave in a deeply con­ser­va­tive coun­try, the con­stituency with the largest vote against the in­ser­tion of the eighth amend­ment (a de facto ban on abor­tion) into the con­sti­tu­tion of Ire­land. It was more mid­dle-class, more cos­mopoli­tan and more lib­eral, with higher lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion.

The fact that it also had a higher con­cen­tra­tion of the very small Protes­tant pop­u­la­tion contributed to the sense that it was that lit­tle bit be­yond the reach of the crozier. To­day, Dún Laoghaire’s val­ues, once seen as rad­i­cal, are main­stream. We have wit­nessed the Dún Laoghaire-isa­tion of Mid­dle Ire­land.

Back in 1983, as a teenager just too young to vote, I re­mem­ber feel­ing proud that al­most six out of ev­ery 10 peo­ple in my neck of the woods had re­jected the Church and its doc­trine. The Church had never played a huge role in our lives.

As we hung around Dún Laoghaire pier, drink­ing flagons and look­ing to­wards Eng­land, spir­i­tual home of The Clash, The Spe­cials and Liver­pool FC, we were aware that our rea­son­ably “live and let live” Dún Laoghaire ex­is­tence wasn’t the Ir­ish norm.

Our place felt sur­rounded by an­other Dublin, de­fined by the enor­mous churches built in the 1970s to house the bur­geon­ing faith­ful for gen­er­a­tions to come. These mon­u­ments were the Cala­trava bridges of the 1970s sub­urbs. We may not have built rail links, schools or hos­pi­tals in the new sub­urbs but, by Jay­sus, did we build churches! They were built to show off, lest the last few Prod­dies be un­der any il­lu­sion who was boss.

Past these sub­ur­ban tri­umphal arches, an­other Ire­land ex­isted. In that other, much big­ger Ire­land, peo­ple saw mov­ing stat­ues and – even more dis­tress­ing – bleed­ing stat­ues. Some of our cousins came from out there; we’d heard the sto­ries and had no rea­son to dis­be­lieve them. RTÉ beamed that strange coun­try into our homes. It was a world of swag­ger­ing priests in soft Dubarry shoes, mad-look­ing politi­cians with com­bovers, and some­thing called The Sun­day Game.

The coun­try was per­ma­nently a few short weeks away from bank­ruptcy. Dads on the road talked about some­thing called the Na­tional Debt, which we un­der­stood to be big, bad and about to ex­plode.

The south Dublin tribe and the coun­try tribe were reg­u­larly painted as be­ing po­lar op­po­sites of one an­other. South Dublin­ers were thought to be cos­mopoli­tan, open, pompous and were not to be trusted. In con­trast, coun­try peo­ple were in­ward-look­ing pro­tec­tors of deep Ir­ish cul­ture.

When JM Synge headed out from Dún Laoghaire, then Kingstown, home to the ranks of the Bri­tish forces, to Inis Meáin over 100 years ago as part of the fledg­ling Gaelic League, he headed to the place he be­lieved was the ex­treme op­po­site of his home town, the crib of real Ir­ish­ness, home of the lan­guage, sean nós, tra­di­tional mu­sic and, of course, a GAA strong­hold.

Yet in the past few years, a great blur­ring has taken hold, where these old dis­tinc­tions have melded into some­thing else. Dalkey, for­merly home of re­tired ma­jors and colonels of the Bri­tish armed forces, stomp­ing ground of Protes­tant chron­i­clers of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ire­land and Eng­land, Shaw and Synge, has be­come the cra­dle of Ir­ish hurl­ing. Dalkey’s Cuala GAA club have been All-Ire­land hurl­ing club cham­pi­ons for two years run­ning. How did that hap­pen?

We have de­scribed the Dún Laoghaire-isa­tion of the coun­try­side, but what about the re­verse takeover, the “culchi­fi­ca­tion” of Dún Laoghaire?

In 1979, there was al­ways a big lo­cal sport­ing fi­nal on St Pa­trick’s Day for the schools rugby fi­nal in Lans­downe Road, where the sons of the lo­cal mer­chant class showed their true skill and, more im­por­tantly, char­ac­ter on the play­ing fields.

Had you told us back then that a Dalkey team would be All-Ire­land hurl­ing cham­pi­ons, we’d have laughed at you.

Yet, on St Pa­trick’s Day 2017 and 2018, le­gions of lo­cals left deep­est south Dublin,

decked out in the red and white of Cuala, for Croke Park to cheer on a hurl­ing team spon­sored by that pil­lar of south Dublin fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal­ism, Davy Stock­bro­kers. Yes, you are read­ing right.

When you open your eyes, you see this cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion ev­ery­where. On a warm Tues­day night, Cuala Academy, with over 500 kids un­der the age of nine, is in full swing. They ar­rive early in a fleet of Opel Zafi­ras, each par­ent with a job to do, each com­pet­ing in the com­pe­tence rank­ing. Such moth­ers could or­gan­ise the in­va­sion of a world power be­fore break­fast. On the side­line is a le­gion of dads, wait­ing to be mar­shalled into ac­tion.

Quite apart from the im­pres­sive or­gan­i­sa­tional power on dis­play, the other thing that stands out are the ac­cents. These peo­ple were not born around here. Their ac­cents are nei­ther clipped Ryan Tubridy nor old Dún Laoghaire Ron­nie Drew, and not many have the lo­cal Bob Geldof spliff­head drawl. There are some mem­bers of lo­cal GAA aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies, but in gen­eral most of these par­ents, or one half of each cou­ple at least, moved here dur­ing the great blur­ring of Ire­land.

The CAO win­ners

The rise of hurl­ing in coastal south Dublin can be traced back to the free ed­u­ca­tion of the 1960s. The pri­mary force of the cul­tural takeover of south Dublin has been the emer­gence of a ru­ral pro­fes­sional class that has come to dom­i­nate Dublin’s pro­fes­sions. This is the CAO class, which ini­tially emerged in the 1970s when the first gen­er­a­tion to ben­e­fit from free ed­u­ca­tion came of age. As Ire­land be­came more mer­i­to­cratic, ex­ams be­gan to mat­ter more, and the peo­ple who were good at pass­ing ex­ams did best.

The class that ben­e­fited most from free ed­u­ca­tion in the 1960s and 1970s was not, as James Con­nolly would have ex­pected, the in­dus­trial work­ing class, but rather the small farm­ing class. It is their grand­chil­dren who now play hurl­ing in south Dublin.

In 1992, two econ­o­mists, Damian Han­nan and Pa­trick Com­mins, pub­lished a pa­per called The Sig­nif­i­cance of Small Scale Land­hold­ers in Ire­land’s So­cio-Eco

nomic Trans­for­ma­tion. It is our start­ing point in try­ing to ex­plain the eco­nom­ics be­hind the so­cial patch­work that is Ire­land to­day and why south Dublin plays hurl­ing. The writ­ers chart the ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess of the sons and daugh­ters of Ire­land’s small farm­ers in the so­cial revo­lu­tion of the past few decades.

Han­nan and Com­mins found that the sin­gle most im­por­tant de­ter­mi­nant, on a county-by-county ba­sis, of a county’s ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment in the 1960s and 1970s was the num­ber of small farm­ers in each county. The more small farm­ers in a county, the bet­ter ed­u­cated the chil­dren ended up be­ing. As a tribe, they were very good at ex­ams and did well in their Leav­ing Cert.

In the 1960s two of the most de­prived groups in Ire­land were small farm­ers and the in­dus­trial work­ing class. It’s in­ter­est­ing to con­trast the for­tunes of both groups. Com­pared with their ur­ban, work­ing-class coun­ter­parts, 30 per cent more chil­dren of small farm­ers than those of the ur­ban work­ing class did the Leav­ing Cert and 50 per cent more went on to third-level ed­u­ca­tion. Over time this changed the com­plex­ion of the sub­urbs.

Their suc­cess in ed­u­ca­tion also cat­a­pulted them into the civil and pub­lic ser­vices in great num­bers. They are now re­tired as the best-paid pub­lic ser­vants in Europe. The next gen­er­a­tion, their kids, didn’t be­come teach­ers but went up a notch or three on the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy to be­come doc­tors, lawyers, ac­coun­tants and bankers.

Many have adopted rugby, the sport of the old hi­er­ar­chy, and still sup­port Mun­ster rugby de­spite never hav­ing lived there. How­ever, they have also kept their al­le­giance to GAA. This is why, three gen­er­a­tions later, Dalkey are All-Ire­land club cham­pi­ons. Af­ter Cuala won the 2018 hurl­ing fi­nal, there wasn’t a cow milked in Dalkey that night!

The lib­eral div­i­dend

What in­ter­ests me is the how this cul­tural fu­sion be­tween Dún Laoghaire and Mid­dle Ire­land and the propul­sion of the econ­omy went hand in hand. When we dropped strict moral codes, via a three-decade long cul­ture war, the econ­omy took off.

Since the late 1980s, the Ir­ish econ­omy hasn’t re­ally stopped. We have even re­cov­ered from a global crash, which was trau­matic and might have stopped an econ­omy in its tracks for decades, as a sim­i­lar crash did to Ja­pan.

In a world where other coun­tries are di­vided, their economies stalled, lurch­ing to the ex­tremes, con­vulsed by ex­is­ten­tial fights pit­ting one part of the pop­u­la­tion against the other, a well-off, rel­a­tively chilled Ire­land, with a grow­ing econ­omy, surf­ing a wave of lib­eral op­ti­mism, isn’t a bad place to be 100 years af­ter the State was founded. It’s not per­fect, but it’s pretty damn good, and we shouldn’t let per­fect bully pretty good.

The re­peal re­sult, which rep­re­sents a huge lib­eral swing in the coun­try since the year the Pope’s Chil­dren were born, wasn’t a tri­umph for Dún Laoghaire, or for cos­mopoli­tan Ire­land over tra­di­tional Ire­land, but it was a fu­sion of the best of both, a syn­the­sis of a bit of ev­ery­thing.

This new deal al­lows a per­son to vote en­thu­si­as­ti­cally for re­peal on Fri­day, May 25th, and get up the fol­low­ing morn­ing on Satur­day, May 26th, the last day of Com­mu­nion sea­son, and sit proudly in Mass over­see­ing their daugh­ter’s en­trance into the Catholic Com­mu­nion. Ire­land, so of­ten a place of ex­tremes, has blended into a cen­tre. Dif­fer­ences that we thought were set in stone have faded away.

The link be­tween tol­er­ance and sub­se­quent eco­nomic growth – let’s call it the lib­eral div­i­dend – is the story of mod­ern Ire­land.

It is of­ten ar­gued that, as any econ­omy be­comes wealth­ier, we the cit­i­zens ben­e­fit from the stronger eco­nomic per­for­mance and be­come more tol­er­ant pre­cisely be­cause we are less threat­ened com­mer­cially by peo­ple and ideas that are dif­fer­ent from our own. This way of think­ing is based on the premise that the econ­omy has a mind of its own, as if di­vorced from the peo­ple who cre­ate it. A re­mote, ro­botic econ­omy, op­er­at­ing of its own ac­cord, some­how de­liv­ers the fruit of some mirac­u­lous com­mer­cial surge, which we then utilise.

Such a con­clu­sion rests on the idea that bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, bet­ter health, take-away In­dian food, Google, air-con­di­tion­ing, iPads, or­tho­don­tist bills and a gen­er­ally bet­ter life­style give us the per­mis­sion to think for our­selves, change our at­ti­tudes, drop con­ser­vatism and em­brace lib­er­al­ism.

This can only be the case if you be­lieve that the econ­omy and so­ci­ety op­er­ate in sep­a­rate spheres. I’m not so sure this is how it works. It seems to me more plau­si­ble that the econ­omy and the so­ci­ety work to­gether and that a philo­soph­i­cal ecosys­tem that en­cour­ages dis­sent, free­dom and ques­tion­ing is an ecosys­tem that en­cour­ages en­trepreneur­ship and eco­nomic dy­namism.

Ire­land’s re­mark­able pe­riod of so­cial and eco­nomic na­tional trans­for­ma­tion was book­ended by the visit of an au­to­cratic pope in 1979 and the visit of a more demo­cratic one in 2018, and by the first abor­tion ref­er­en­dum in 1983 and the re­peal ref­er­en­dum in 2018.

The trans­for­ma­tion sug­gests a com­pelling case that eco­nomic val­ues and so­cial val­ues are in­ter­twined. It seems rea­son­able to sug­gest that the cul­ture war and the eco­nomic surge are re­lated and, ul­ti­mately, we didn’t end up with an ab­so­lute vic­tory for one side or the other: tra­di­tional ver­sus lib­eral, right ver­sus left, ur­ban ver­sus ru­ral. In­stead, we have wit­nessed a grad­ual move from the ex­tremes to the tol­er­ant cen­tre, the “rad­i­cal cen­tre”.

In 1983, the year of the first abor­tion ref­er­en­dum, slio­tars in Dalkey were about as likely as Roscom­mon vot­ing for abor­tion. Yet, 35 years later, both have come to pass. Dalkey’s Cuala GAA are All-Ire­land club hurl­ing cham­pi­ons and ru­ral Roscom­mon voted to re­peal.

This is an edited ex­tract from Re­nais­sance Na­tion: How the Pope’s Chil­dren Rewrote the Rules for Ire­land, pub­lished Novem­ber 2nd by Gill Books at ¤22.99

The south Dublin tribe and the coun­try tribe were reg­u­larly painted as be­ing po­lar op­po­sites of one an­other Lo­cals have been bap­tis­ing chil­dren for years, with­out be­liev­ing it. Be­ing a proCom­mu­nion Re­pealer sits easy here

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