Professor Peadar Kirby's reflections on 'What We Leave in Our Wake'

19 Mar 2013

Professor Peadar Kirby (Professor Emeritus, University of Limerick) provides some reflections on 'What We Leave in Our Wake' in advance of the screening on March 20th.

‘What We Leave in our Wake’: a film produced and directed by Pat Collins

Some reflections, by Peadar Kirby

At one point in this powerfully evocative film, Declan Kiberd says that James Joyce was interested in the power of thepast over the present. This is what unites the many disparate elements of thisunusual examination of who we are as Irish, the continuing power of the deeperrealities of our past over our glaring failures to construct a better futurefor ourselves. As a Kerryman puts it in one clip in the film, the Tuatha Dé Danannlive on because they went underground; this film is opening up all theunresolved psychic depths that lie under the ground of contemporary Irishsociety smothering its potential.

The themes are the great themes of ourpast, but themes that modern Ireland has done its utmost to cast off,pretending that we have moved beyond them: possession of the land, retreat ofour native language, the power we have given the Church and its domination ofour spiritual and ethical spaces, emigration and the searing pain of being castout, our relationship to our landscape, the complex interrelationships of the individual, family, community and the state. Little of the vital substance ofour lives on this island is left out and yet these are the themes that areabsent from our public and political discourse, from our diagnoses of our contemporary crises and from prescriptions for a new society, a new Republic. An immediate example of the continuing hold of these themes on our personal and public lives is the visceral hostility to a most modest property tax, including themobilisation of opposition by political leaders who label themselves socialist.

To the casual viewer of this film it may appear that there is little coherence among the insights offered by a range of contributors, including Joe Lee, Lelia Doolan, Declan Kiberd, Maureen Gaffney,Olivia O’Leary, John McGahern, Peter McVerry, Desmond Fennell, Debbie Ging andothers. However, in a rather serendipitous way, their insights map out a rich terrain of our contemporary malaise, rare for its searing honesty and laying asolid foundation on which we could find a firm foothold from which to move forward to a better future. Central here are the observations of Declan Kiberd that James Joyce would be scandalised by the skill with which we haveundermined language, religion and nationality so that all we are left with is the market, of Lelia Doolan and Debbie Ging that our veneer of a tolerant public culture masks a profound individualism and conservatism, of JohnMcGahern, Olivia O’Leary and Maureen Gaffney on the fragmented nature of ourpublic life, discourse and values and the lack of an ‘independence of mind and spirit’, a ‘cowardice of the soul’ as Gaffney puts it, of Gearóid Ó Crualaoichand Patrick J. O’Connor that we live as strangers amid the richness of ourculture and our landscape, of Joe Lee that we cling to the land for security but our emigrants in the US stay in cities, of Peter McVerry on thesubservience of the Irish state to the needs of multinationals. These are allof a piece, taking us to those uncomfortable questions from which we spend mostof our time fleeing.

Of course this is much more than anintellectual discussion. What makes this film so powerful are the images andthe sounds that communicate pain, loss, barrenness, but also some of the richlydistinctive sounds and landscape that mark out so powerfully and evocativelywhat makes us different. Finbarr Bradley has made the point elsewhere that ourgreatest economic opportunity in this globalised world would be ourdistinctiveness rooted so strongly in our native language but that we ditchthis in the bid to make ourselves indistinguishable from dominantEnglish-speaking cultures. This helps explain the provocative point he makes in this film that if he were in charge of a business school he would be gettingthe students to learn poetry, as indeed he did when he established the innovativeIrish-language degree in computing, enterprise and finance in DCU in the mid1990s. But the film does not merely make this point, it plunges us into thisreality both in its haunting beauty and in its raw pain. This is at the heartof who we are and its denial has left us a barren, lost people. Perhaps nowherein the film is this point so powerfully made as it uses a clip from ashareholders’ meeting of the Bank of Ireland to illustrate John Moriartytalking about the importance of religion of providing us with a shelter in ourdepths, in our hunger.

But this is not a pessimistic film, for allthe searing honesty which it brings to bear on our contemporary malaise. Anumber of commentators remind us of the amazing achievements of some recent generations: Joe Lee on the remarkable achievements of the Land League, achievements without equal anywhere in the world; Declan Kiberd on the counterexperiment that was our revival movement of a century ago, an attempt to createan alternative form of modernity; Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, on how after 40 years of independence people had come to accept asrights many social improvements that an earlier generation would have begged ascharity. These remind us that self-organisation, politics from below, has apowerful history in this country and at various moments managed to achievemuch. In many ways, the malaise of the present is presented in this film as thefailure to continue those struggles, succumbing to the temptation to believe we could import our modernity, our development by avoiding the painful legacies ofthe past. The film presents these opposed visions in a particularly challengingway at the very end as we hear interspersed what are almost echoes of Dev’s famous 1943 radio address on comely maidens and a speech by Mary Harney on Ireland as the most globalised country in the world welcoming outside investorswith open arms. What makes this so challenging is the choice of a speech of Dev’s that has come to be the object of such vilification and contempt over recentdecades. Thus does the film confront each of us with our failure to stand backfrom orthodoxy and front it, as Gaffney puts it in the film.

To the social scientist, this film is particularly challenging as it shows just how we have largely failed to analyseIrish society in all its contradictory distinctiveness, opting instead toimport our models of analysis and lazily apply these as our frameworks of understanding. Not only have these largely failed to generate any deepunderstanding of Irish society but neither have they generated any original contribution by Irish social scientists to the store of our knowledge of the social. A major exception is Maurice Coakley’s recent book Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development (PlutoPress, 2012), returning to themes that were beginning to be worked in the 1980sbut quickly dropped amid the seductions of the Celtic Tiger. As this film so eloquently shows, what it has left in its wake can draw our attention again tothe perennial questions of the past which, when not dealt with, hold our present in thrall.



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