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A Sense of Purpose [Dubliner, 05/01]

This column was written six months before the strike on New York. It first appeared in The Dubliner in May 2001.
Sometimes I think we need a war.

Because we’re starting to fade away. We’re becoming bland. In centuries to come, how many school kids will choose to study the persona of the Irish citizen in the early years of the 21st century? Would anyone be interested? I increasingly doubt it. We are in dire risk of becoming as anonymous to posterity as the umpteen trillion e-mails expiring in computerised Trash Bins every millisecond.

Perhaps the 23rd century history student might have more fun trying to work out why the Irish citizen so suddenly evolved from being the darling of the Free World’s whiskey swilling, guitar gnashing underdogs into a nation of sharp-dressed money-hungry geeks just living because there didn’t seem to be anything else to do.

Aye, that might rattle a few of you, but come on, look around! What are we becoming? Where’s the fighting spirit gone? Into self righteous tsk tsks whenever our cars clunk to a halt on congested streets? Into blah blah finger wagging at strikers and farmers and asylum seekers and tinkers and all the rest of ’em?

“Disgraceful carry on, altogether”.

I saw an old man thrown out of a boozer the other day because he was singing. More accurately he was booted for continuing to sing after the barman had told him to belt up. At first I thought the barman wanted him to be quiet because, in fairness, the fellow’s voice wasn’t the best. But when your man started up again, I watched the barman glancing with concern at a table of slick thirty-somethings nearby who were themselves surveying the singer with a look of cool disdain that made the hairs on my back stand on end. The barman whistled up his colleague, heaved the old fellow to his feet and they dragged him corpse-like to the exit. His peaky cap fell off in the process and heated words were exchanged. The old man made an attempt “to beat the barman about the face with clenched fists” as the Kilkenny People might put it. I finished my drink, returned the cap to the old man who stood dazed and befuddled on the street and I went for a walk by a river bank, feeling melancholic and wondering would we all be better for a war.

I don’t want a war. Wars are horrible. They suggest that mankind thrives when killing one another. And that’s not a view to which I can subscribe.

But wars do have a certain beauty to them. They create a sense of urgency, of relevance. You’re no longer in the sphere of the inconsequential. Everything you say or do truly matters. Wars mean not having the slightest notion how the world may turn come the morrow. The present tense is all you have to go on. And there is something deeply romantic about this.

My grandfather read “Mein Kampf” in 1929. The book scared him to bits. Four years later, its author became dictator of the biggest nation in Europe. And when the inevitable war broke out in ’39, Major Rathdonnell duly mounted himself on his hunting horse and galloped all the way from County Carlow to the continent where he spent six years trying to halt Hitler’s blitzkrieging tank divisions. At some stage he seized a Belgian castle from the German authorities and converted it into a popular nightclub for Allied chaps. That reassures me of my genetics no end.

The point is the war gave people a purpose. To my mind, “Hitler’s War” was the only one worth fighting in. The Nazis quite simply had to be defeated otherwise we would have all evolved into psychotic Ronan Keating clones. And that wouldn’t do, would it?

I find Modern Ireland rather dull just now. It seems to be utterly lacking in purpose. Yes, earning money is all well and good but it just cannot be the spiritually satisfying raison d’etre. Worse than that, this feckless struggle to earn billions of bucks is slowly killing all that makes Ireland the wonderful place that it is. We are forgetting to think beyond today. That’s why the island is awash with so many buildings designed by people with the aesthetic instinct of Christmas turkeys. Same goes for those placid golf courses which continue to spawn and multiply unchecked on our once wild and magnificent coastal headlands. What are we at? We are ruining our country. For what? For bloody money.

And, do you know what, the Americans are starting to notice. They’re beginning to cotton on that the saintly Irish are taking the mickey. Yes, once the foot and mouth crisis has receded, they will no doubt return in their droves. But the intelligent ones (and they do exist) are starting to get angry. They miss old Ireland. They don’t like being treated like monkeys. They don’t like being ripped off. They don’t like seeing the Irish turn into a nation of greedy, arrogant, ignorant buffoons. And one day they will stop coming and we will be left alone on our ugly little island of misshapen motorways and perennial strikes.

But if life in modern Ireland is not about earning enough loot to provide our heirs and lovers with car keys, what is it about? That is the conundrum and if you know the answer, you are leagues ahead of me. All I can say is that there is a race going on somewhere in the lateral universe. A race that goes beyond the simple realm of trashing our own countryside, a race between the continued decline of our willingness to fight for a better life for all, and the continued decline of the fragile planet on which we all live.

You may think it rich coming from a Prod, but sometimes I think the worst thing about the collapse of the Vatican in Ireland was the subsequent disappearance of guilt.