R. F. Foster’s Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change, 1970-2000

One might think, just on the face of it, that a history of Ireland over the past thirty years or so would be of interest mainly to a specialist. (Or perhaps a gung-ho Irish expatriate.) However, in his introduction to Luck and the Irish, R. F. Foster casts his history into a much broader perspective. Anyone, for example, who has followed American politics for the last decade or so can’t help but feel twinges of recognition.

In spite of its organization, with chapters covering the transformation of the Irish economy and entry into the European Union; the religious question, including not the decline so much as the collapse of the influence of the Catholic Church on daily life; and Ireland’s cultural resurgence, the book is about politics (with due attention to corruption, the seemingly inevitable traveling companion in contemporary life).

The transformation of Ireland from something that remotely resembles the traditional picture of the place – largely rural, intensely Catholic, and dirt poor – to one of the modern economic success stories has not been without its convulsions. In part these seem to be largely part of the perceptions of those outside Ireland. The question of the North, for example, after the Troubles of the 1970s and ‘80s, has taken a back burner in Irish thought (much more so, as Foster points out, than in the thought of Irish-Americans, whom he somewhat obliquely credits with keeping the pot boiling for as long as it did), while London is, from the viewpoint of Dublin, no longer The Enemy but rather a partner in dealing with Ulster, and, while the reunion of the Six Counties with the Twenty-Six is still a possibility, it is no longer the determining factor in political thought, or even rhetoric.

Another major topic, although Foster doesn’t examine it so directly, is the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic Church. Foster’s discussion of this phenomenon centers more around the revolution in the role of women and minorities in Ireland (and “minorities” includes not only ethnic immigrants, most of whom have come for jobs in the burgeoning pharmaceuticals and electronics industries, but gay and lesbian citizens and religious minorities). Where once the Primate of Ireland could practically dictate social policy, it is now a matter of consensus and political pressure from activists. (Another of those ironies of modern life: while gay marchers are still banned from the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, they are welcomed in Dublin – where, let it be noted, the celebration is largely for tourists.)

Entry into first the EEC and then the EU has involved major dislocations in the foundations of the Irish economy. Once largely agrarian, the emphasis on the pharmaceuticals and electronics industries has left the land of Ireland in some cases up for grabs. The advent of the real estate developers and their close ties to leading politicians is so predictable (especially to a Chicagoan) that it’s hardly remarkable from my standpoint. The key player, it seems, who seems to make an appearance in nearly every chapter, is Charles J. Haughey, who rose from modest beginnings to great prominence in the government, including several stints as Taoiseach (which we would call Prime Minister), and finally fell because of rampant corruption, largely “donations” from land speculators and developers and attendant breaks on land-use laws that echo America’s own “no-bid” government contracts and lack of accountability, which are only a matter of degree, not kind.

The final building-block is the transformation of Irish cultural influence. Like everything else about the country, it seems, Irish culture is no longer something so much for home consumption as it is an item for export. (I should note here that tourism seems to be Ireland’s third main industry, with the concomitant “McDonaldization” of history and tradition providing things like “Rebel Tours.”) With musicians leading the way, Irish writers and artists are now part of an international milieu, not in terms of “the latest rage,” but more as members in good standing of what is, more and more, a world-wide cultural community.

This is a dense little book, packing a huge amount of information into somewhat less than 200 pages, but Foster’s writing is seductive enough that it’s hard to put down, even to gain some breathing space. It’s a fascinating look at a modern success story, and one that echoes sometimes uncomfortably for this American, at least.

(Oxford University Press, 2009)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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