Multi-Culturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, by Edna Longley and Declan Kiberd, Cork University Press, 78 pages, $9.95
Given that the FIFA World Cup generates only slightly more interest among U.S. sports fans than the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo or the Rugby Union Henineken Cup Final, it's not surprising that most Americans missed what was arguably the most important Irish sports story since the founding of the Free State in 1922.
In May, when the Irish national football team was training on the Pacific island of Saipan, its captain and only bona fide international star, Roy Keane, was summarily dismissed by the team manager, Mick McCarthy. The Irish press described Keane's sacking on the eve of the opening round of the World Cup as nothing less than "a national catastrophe."
Lest one dismiss such rhetoric as mere hyperbole, consider that Bertie Ahern, the newly re-elected Irish prime minister, offered (in vain) to intervene personally in the dispute in an attempt to "salvage his country's World Cup hopes." The wry comments of one Dublin sports fan put things in their proper perspective: "This is far more serious than Partition. That only brought us 80 years of bloodshed, but this could mean that we go out of the World Cup in the first group."
What shocked the Irish public was not so much the bitter nature of the disagreement between the feuding former teammates, but the vehemence and offensiveness of Keane's remarks to McCarthy at a team meeting that led to the sacking. According to the Dublin Evening Herald, Keane told McCarthy in front of the entire squad, "You were a crap player and you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that, somehow, you are the manager of my country and you're not even Irish. You can stick it up your bollocks" (emphasis added).
What might have remained a "mere" sports story became a raging cultural debate because Keane impugned Mick McCarthy's Irishness! As it happens, McCarthy originally hails from Yorkshire and, like several other team members born to Irish parents, grew up in England. By extension, if McCarthy didn't make the cut as an authentic Irishman, then neither did several of Keane's teammates who also play for the Irish national squad. Keane seemed oblivious to the irony of his own peculiar position. The 30-year midfielder, who calls Cork home, currently captains one of Europe's most storied professional soccer teams, Manchester United, and thus lives for much of the year in England where he represents the British team.
The Keane-McCarthy spat replays one of the oldest running conflicts in Western Europe, that between the "native" Irish and the "foreign" English. But if the public disagreement necessarily evokes that 700-year-old conflict, it also points up one of the most recent and increasingly pressing issues in the contemporary Republic of Ireland: multiculturalism.
Having emerged in the last decade as "the Celtic Tiger," one of the fastest growing economies in Europe (Dubliners gleefully point out that the growth rate of the Irish Gross Domestic Product has recently outstripped England's), Ireland has for the first time in many centuries seen a rapid influx of new inhabitants. Indeed, the recent liberalization of the Irish economy, coupled with the country's rapid integration into the European Union, has signaled a sharp reversal in emigration patterns that have persisted for a century and a half.
From the mid-1840s, when Ireland suffered the last great famine in Western European history (scholars estimate that 1 million Irish perished and another 1.5 million emigrated), great numbers of Irish have steadily departed their native land for greener pastures in the United States, Australia, Canada, and England. Ireland today is thus unique among European nations insofar as its population is still below that of 1841 (even when one includes the present population of Northern Ireland, officially still part of the United Kingdom). The new Irish prosperity thus promises or threatens -- depending on whether one takes a nativist or cosmopolitan perspective -- to transform beyond recognition what has traditionally been one of modern Europe's most ethnically homogenous countries.
On a recent visit to Ireland, I was caught off-guard by a Dublin taxi driver who inveighed against the current wave of new immigrants. Vainly scrutinizing the streets for a face, complexion, or manner of dress that might stand out among the crowd thronging O'Connell Street, I finally asked whom he had in mind. "The Dutch!" he expostulated. It seems that one byproduct of EU membership, economic prosperity, and generous welfare benefits has been that ne'er do well Dutch and other European youth have found Dublin a hospitable place to idle away their time. (I continue to puzzle over how they can afford one of Europe's most expensive cities.) If from an American perspective the recent arrival of distant relatives of the Vanderbilts seems like a pretty innocuous instance of the new multiracial Ireland, the fact remains that multiculturalism is receiving a good deal of attention from Irish cultural critics and intellectuals.
A case in point is Multi-culturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, a brief book featuring essays by two of the island's most prominent literary critics: Edna Longley (who resides in Northern Ireland) and Declan Kiberd (who lives in the Republic). Its appearance marks an important moment in Irish cultural history. One of the first publications of the newly established Centre for Cross Border Studies (funded by the EU), the book is intended to represent the new cooperative cultural and political relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland established in the wake of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
It is a token of the immense importance that contemporary Ireland places on its arts and letters that this slim (78-page) volume features a laudatory foreword from Mary McAleese, the current president of the Irish Republic. She writes, "We are gradually moving away from the homogeneity and old certainties which have traditionally been the hallmarks of Irish life. We are rapidly becoming one of the wealthier states in the world, as well as a multi-cultural society."
Edna Longley's essay takes up in considerable detail the single most vexing cultural conflict in Ireland's recent history, that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. While the academic and intellectual elite of the United States has been obsessively focused on the divisions marked by race, ethnicity, and gender, Longley's essay, "Multi-culturalism in Northern Ireland," provides a timely reminder that the truly fundamental, politically critical, and historically significant divisions among peoples in modern Western societies have been religious ones.
Yet one finds little or no interest among contemporary (and usually secular) North American and Western European academics in the religious or creedal differences among their students and fellow citizens. This remains true notwithstanding a post-9/11 interest in the rights of a beleaguered Islamic minority -- a group all too frequently cast by left-liberal intellectuals as an ethnic or cultural rather than specifically religious one. But any historically informed and critically accurate consideration of the development of the political principles of toleration and civil rights must necessarily begin with the religious divisions that plunged late 16th - and 17th -century Europe into decades of civil violence, warfare, persecution, and bloody repression.
If, as Irish commentators of the last 30 years have had it, "it's still the 17th century" in Northern Ireland, then Longley's discussion of the challenge of a newly peaceful and culturally vibrant multicultural Northern Ireland might have a salutary effect on her American counterparts. Specifically, it might inspire them to revisit the politically arduous and philosophically complex struggle whereby modern liberalism overcame the sanguinary terror of religious conflict in post-Reformation Europe. In crucial respects, contemporary divisions among races or ethnicities, and between genders, merely replay in a minor key the historically antecedent and more violent ones fought among religions and creeds.