The Life and Death of an Irish Consensus
We say that Ireland is a "consensus-based society" - but why *is* that? And why does the consensus sometimes suddenly change?
A couple of things that I’ve read recently have got me thinking about the idea of consensus collapse; “everybody knows” and agrees on a limited set of facts, resisting or questioning those facts gets you punished, until suddenly one day that’s not true anymore and no one believes it and never did.
The main thing that got me thinking about this was the rise of anti-immigration protests in Ireland, which is an iteration of sudden consensus collapse that you see quite frequently in Irish life. The other examples that come to mind are the collapse of the Church, and Ireland’s swing toward full independece at the start of the 20th Century.
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What causes a consensus to grow and die, and what is it about Ireland specifically that has caused multiple consensuses to grip so powerfully and collapse so suddenly?
Of the three Irish examples, the church is the one collapse I lived through that has also fully completed. It’s hard to convey to a younger person (I’m 43) or to someone from outside Ireland the extent of that collapse. In the Ireland I was born into, abortion, contraception and homosexuality were all illegal. Playboy magazine was illegal for a large part of my life. Divorce was only legalised when I was fifteen.
Today, I don’t know a single family who takes their kids to mass regularly, I couldn’t tell you who my parish priest is, and the Taoiseach is gay and no one gives a shit.
I didn’t live through the Republic of Ireland becoming an independent country but have read a good bit about it. Books about independence tend naturally to focus on uprisings, unrest, the Gaelic cultural revival etc.
But there is a “dark matter” of people in these books not touched upon, Catholic Irish people who (however they felt inwardly) were not in continuous defiance against English rule or Britishness as an identity. Some might toast you with God save Ireland, but it might also be accompanied with God Save the King, and they’d wave union Jacks at a royal visit. I’m not suggesting this was all or most people.
And then in the space of less than a generation those people didn’t exist anymore, the idea of connection to England was expressly hateful to them in a way it was not before. The change is best encapsulated by these maps from the 1918 and 1910 general elections. Sinn Féin were the party of revolution and full independence and were not an electoral force prior to 1916.
I’ve written at length about the current protests so I won’t rehash everything here. Suffice to say that Ireland has been through a period of intense demographic change alongside a housing crisis, the extent of which would have caused revolutions in other European countries but which for a long time had no visibility in politics. One protest started in one part of Dublin and now it’s everywhere.
It’s important for non-Irish people to understand that complaining about immigration without instantly referring to the danger of the Far Right is still a down-at-heel view and not something a respectable person does. But some kind of invisible line has been crossed and we’ve gone from a country that doesn’t talk about this stuff to one that talks about almost nothing else.
So why are we like this?
It all comes down to a function of size and peripherality. Whatever its modernity, Ireland is in functional terms a little village at the edge of the world, and it often has the psychology of one. This has upsides and downsides.
On the downside, everyone knows everyone’s business, everyone sees what everyone else is doing. If you make a mistake or do something wrong, people will remember it. If you fall out of friendship with your neighbour you might move to the other part of the village but you’re still likely to bump into them or people they know. If you (say) develop unusual political views it’s not really possible to move to another part of the village where no one knows you, and everyone shares your views and you and start over; it’s all still just the village.
Instead you’ll at best be considered the village oddball, more likely a begrudger and a trouble-maker and a boat-rocker. At worst you’ll be a pariah and hate figure, although the line between all these categories is uncertain.
Over time this causes people to publicly adhere to a number of safe opinions, standards and ideas that Everybody Knows and that Go Without Saying. These are the kinds of things respectable people believe and the more you believe them the more respectable you are; so they are associated with both normality and upward mobility. Being seen to dissent from these is socially costly.
This is something I feel I need to emphasise with non-Irish people, particularly from the US and UK, because I think they find it hard to recognise and understand, and they question it when they see Irish people aren’t protesting about a given topic. It’s important so I’m going to put in bold (sometimes I feel like tattooing it on my face). Because of Ireland’s size, it is much more socially costly for an Irish person to appear to go against a consensus than it is for other people in other countries.
This has a couple of interesting effects. One is that when people do publicly break away from the consensus it often marginal people who either don’t know or don’t care what reputational damage they are doing to themselves. The movements are often made up of people from poorer areas, again because they are shut out of bourgeois respectability, so there is less at risk. If you remember how mainstream people spoke about the Water Charges protestors I think this stacks up.
Another is that people don’t like feeling that they are beholden to an oppressive popular consensus and develop little psychological tricks to convince themselves they’re not. There’s a particular Irish type, a person who has all the approved views but likes to present those views as salt of the earth common sense, and anything that undermines them as airy-fairy nonsense with no connection to reality. “G’way with your oul nonsense.” These people drive me fucking bananas.
Back to the idea of a consensus collapse specifically.
Adherence to a consensus is maintained by people who really do passionately believe, and by those who use visible adherence to the consensus ideas as a way of progressing socially. Lots of people are a mixture of both of these, in ways unknown even to themselves. There are also institutions who build consensus ideas into the way they operate.
Underneath the surface people have space to believe whatever they want, including disagreeing with the consensus. There may also be room in private to rail against it. With a consensus that’s not deeply felt, that is unresponsive to people’s concerns, or asks them to publicly declare too much they feel to be untrue, this creates a disconnect that is the ultimate root of a collapse. Consensus is maintained on the surface but rotting away underneath until it’s all gone. And then all it takes is one good push.
In the early 20th Century the good push was the execution of the revolutionaries of 1916. It’s hard to put your finger on a single “good push” moment for the church but I guess I would say somewhere between Brendan Smyth and Eamon Casey. Probably the latter.
When I think of Annie Murphy being interviewed on the Late Late in 1993 I feel like I’m recalling a memory of something that happened in the 1960s. That’s a Consensus Collapse effect, the compression and expansion of time, like a rubber band that’s been pulled back for years and years and then suddenly let go. That moment of that interview was, in Irish terms, one of those weeks when a decade happened.
The final thing to say is in relation to the immigration stuff that’s currently going on: is that actually a consensus collapse, or is it just people protesting over a single issue, and the protests will go away when that issue does. Obviously based on what I’ve written previously, I think it is one, but it’s not certain. That’s part of the problem with a consensus – even as it falls apart it constrains the conversation which makes it hard to analyse what’s happening.
But if it is one, we need to exercise caution, even if you hate the status quo. The Ireland of the 90s was a great place to be, the Ireland of the 20s not so much, putting it mildly. A change in immigration consensus is probably similar to the latter than the former, in that it would be against the inclinations of the powers that be and will be resisted by them. As in all demolition zones, you would be well advised to put on a hard hat and stand well back.
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I’m the same age as you and emigrated from Ireland in 2012. I haven’t been back since before Covid, but even based on text message interactions with friends back home I can sense how they have changed over the last decade. From afar (I live in Southeast Asia) it’s easy to see that the last ten years have amounted to a cultural revolution unprecedented in Irish history, but my impression is that most people living there aren’t even that aware of it. The country is now merely a cultural satellite state of the US, complete with Black Lives Matter marches etc., so it’s interesting to see what happens when economic reality collides with an ideology that was created in another country with a completely different history.
Conor, how much of this can be attributed to the possibility that the Irish, politically speaking, are insecure about themselves and their cultural story? The cultural conformity seems to be a function of an inferiority complex.