Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The past is another country. Namely, Afghanistan.

The West is about freedom, individualism and gratification, they say. The East is about family, clan: collective good over individual good.

If so, Ireland was Eastern until a few decades ago, because godless gratification and self-worship was as unknown here as it is in the repressed religious states of modern Asia. The Ireland of old was a different country to the Ireland of today.

The playwright Brian Friel often looked back at this alien Ireland, not least in his Dancing at Lughnasa, about a family of spinster sisters aging together in 1930s Donegal. This play depicts a world of tight interpersonal connections, where every individual is tied into their place in society by their relationships with others.
There was no freedom there. Individuals monitored one another for lapses of honour, as determined by the conservative Catholic consensus. Duty to family was paramount and individual freedom was depicted as something foreign - literally, in the form of the Welsh man who fathered a child to one of the sisters outside marriage and then returned carelessly to his life of freedom in the city.

Work is depicted as back-breaking and manual. The sisters' lives were governed by ritual. The radio, beloved by several of the sisters, is feared occasionally by the eldest and most conservative sister. She is a constant negative force, reassuring her family of all the things they can't do. The local dance festival is for her a threat to Christian morality and the family's good name.

So much for Western freedom. The world Friel depicts is more familiar to us today from media descriptions of conservative South Asian villages than Ireland. Friel does not pluck this setting from fantasy; in 1943, while Ireland's European neighbours were slaughtering one another over unreligious dreams of nationalism and socialism, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamonn de Valera told the Irish to dream of godliness:

The Ireland that we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live...

The difference between the modern West and more traditonal cultures may be time, not distance. Ireland was once lagging behind the US and Europe, and once had a self-image of piety and unmaterialistic religious morality. Today Ireland stands among the secular hedonist states, and conservative cultures in the "East" view it with the same disdain, little knowing that their future is our present.


  1. Fascinating Shane; very insightful and thought provoking. K.

  2. Thanks!

    I didn't add that at other times in history "Western" countries were more conservative than many of the cultures they were encountering as they expanded. 19th century Japan tolerated both prostitution and homosexuality, and men and women bathed together in public baths - to the horror of the European Victorians!

    The liberal sexual attitudes some European explorers discovered abroad helped to spark debates on sexuality at home. So modern sexual liberalism may have more to do with the "West" being open to non-Western ideas than anything inherent to Western history itself.


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