- 19 Jul 21
Desmond Fennell, who died last week, was a unique character in Irish life – a driven journalist and author who had strong views on Ireland, nationalism, religion, the Irish language and the ‘modernisation’ that he believed was eating at the heart of Irish identity. In many ways, his views could not have been more different to those that were being expounded by our team of writers in Hot Press on a fortnightly basis. But that didn’t stop us from interviewing him when his book Nice People and Rednecks was published, to see if we could get a better sense of what made the man tick. Under the headline, “Fennel Vision”, we announced that "Declan Lynch meets author, lecturer and self-styled philosopher, Desmond Fennell.” Readers were immediately plunged into Desmond Fennell’s musings on a dichotomy that he believed was the bane of of Irish life… Pix were taken by Colm Henry.
"The nice people are the Dublin liberal middle class and their allies and supporters throughout the country. The rednecks are everyone else, but especially Fianna Fail under Charles Haughey, the great majority of Catholics and their bishops, all Catholic organisations, the IRA and GAA, Sinn Fein, and the Fine Gael dissidents who frustrate Garret Fitzgerald's good intentions.”
Thus Desmond Fennell identifies what he sees as the two fundamentally different cultural groups in this country.
The quote is taken from the introduction to Nice People and Rednecks, the recently published collection of articles selected from his Sunday Press columns. And by pillorying the Nice People in all their works and pomps, he seeks to articulate the voice of the Rednecks whom the Dublin media have stigmatised.
Desmond Fennell sees Ireland's identity submerged in the anonymity of imperialist culture, taking abroad every half-baked idea without question. His views on feminism, contraception, the Irish language, and the North would not be a million miles away from those of, say, Mena Cribben, adorned with the trappings of an intellectual stance which he describes as "freethinking", and "post-modernist".
Currently lecturing in Communications at Rathmines College of Commerce, Desmond Fennell was born in Belfast and educated in Dublin. He graduated from U.C.D. and got a scholarship to do an M.A. in Modem History at Bonn University. He then spent 18 years abroad in a variety of jobs - teaching English in Spain; working on Overseas Radio in Cologne, translating news bulletins into English to read to Africa and Asia; becoming the first sales manager for Aer Lingus in Germany; travelling for a year in the Far East and writing a book about it called Mainly In Wonder; finally, a spell in Sweden which was the turning point in his life. Sweden, he felt; was the ultimate experiment in a post-Christian, secular style of living. As he relates in his book Beyond Nationalism, the experiment failed for him:
"My image of the world collapsed in Sweden, and I had to build a new one I could believe in. There were islands of Heaven in a normality of Hell. Ingmar Bergman's films are true films about Swedish life, experienced from the inside. There was an awful lot of spiritual suffering, and I finally came to the conclusion that what was causing that spiritual suffering was that the people had a wrong map of life. Since that way of life was liberal capitalist, Western life pushed to extremes in a sort of experimental, laboratory situation, I lost faith in the general Western liberal capitalist way of understanding the world. I had assumed it to be valid until then.
"I came back to Ireland with no credible image of the contemporary world. I wanted to be a novel writer, but that turned me into a philosopher, because when you haven't got a satisfactory image of the world and you're a serious person, you have to get one again.”
Having achieved this to his satisfaction after prolonged soul-searching in the 60's and 70's, Desmond cast a cold eye over his own country, which he feels has made itself a "whore" among nations:
"I wish I lived in a normal nation, and by that I mean a nation that is doing its own thing, its own way. England is a country which has always done its own thing its own way. I'd like to live in a country like that. A normal nation is autonomous, independent, in charge of its own affairs, thinking its own thoughts, not depending on others to answer its life's problems.”
You mention De Valera as someone who was trying to establish these "certainties". Why is "certainty" necessarily a good thing?
"For some individuals, uncertainty, doubt and confusion are the stuff of their lives. Most people use their talents best where they have orderly steps available to them, where things are laid out for them, and they don't themselves have to create the culture that they flourish in. In the first decades of our independence, we had a government under De Valera which was becoming more free of Britain. We hung out our flags as an anti-imperialist, Gaelic, Catholic nation. People knew where we stood. We were hoping to bring back the Irish language. We were hoping to develop economic forms. A distinctively Irish way of life was being hammered out. We were either loved or hated for it, but at least we were somebody. Like the Japanese.
"Unfortunately, we didn't produce a sufficient entrepreneurial class. The jobs weren't provided, emigration was heavy. Lemass called in the multinationals and we had to abandon that effort to become a normal nation.”
Des, with his unique penchant for turning concepts on their heads, feels that we have adopted a "provincial" mentality, like Illinois, Lancashire, or Picardy. I put it to him that on the contrary, we are acutely aware of being Irish, almost to a ridiculous degree. "The forms of our life are derivative,” he says. "Where is the distinctiveness in the way we organise our cities, our politics, in our books of current-affairs? We don't offer the world any new thought, do we?"
We offer a new angle on things, particularly on something like rock music, where Irish people have been extremely successful in adapting the force to reflect their own sensibilities.
"I think you've picked out the aspect in which we have been creative in the last twenty years, namely music. First of all, in the transformation of our traditional music into a form which the world found it wanted, and then going on into rock. It’s very interesting, because it doesn’t depend on words, it depends on sound. And we got into confusion from the 60’s on, because we weren’t able to put any coherent statements about ourselves together in words, but we were able to make sounds that matter. When the world looks at Ireland now, it yawns. The world 30 years ago, when it looked at Ireland, was excited to hatred or to love. We had just come out of revolution, we were leading the rebellion against the British Empire. What are we today? Bombs!
“I admire Lemass, and I think he did the right thing at the time. But that dependence on foreign industry, on foreign ideas, on keeping up with the Joneses, on imitating London, has out-lived its usefulness, and has brought us into the situation we’re in. We’re full of potential, but were not led by a ruling class who have self-confidence any more. We see indecision, we see paralysis. Not only politicians, but civil servants, technocrats, economists who don’t believe in our potential. Multinationals made us prosperous, and that has made our ruling class feel inferior. Look at America after Vietnam and Watergate. It was in an identity crisis. It has got over it under the present regime.”
At that rate one looks forward to the day when they get back their identity crisis, or as Sigmund Freud advised Lorelei Lee, that they “develop a few inhibitions.”
Desmond also has a sneaking regard for Margaret Thatcher’s “radicalism”. She has taken a definite decision that “this is how it’s going to be”, the South, and the South alone will be prosperous. So much for radicalism.
He is adamant though, that genuinely new thought must be applied to tackling the Irish situation: “You live in a city where new thought new ideas are pooh poohed, discouraged and disrespected. I get treated as either a naive fool or as some form of treating tyrant. I’ve seen the same thing done to Ray Crotty, to Tom Barrington, to John Robb, to any people who bring forward new thought in this city. Young people are told to keep doing things in the way that the British established in the nineteenth century. To do things the way that they do in London. There’s great oppression of free thought in this city. They talk of pluralism. Pluralism means respecting diversity. Do you think that I, with my different way of thinking, am respected by these creatures of pluralism?”
He has come in for an amount of flack from feminists, for, among other things, his criticism of the Women Today programme.
“Because I respect women very much, and know how full of all sorts of life and talent and diversity they are, I was objecting simply to a hypochondriacal programme. A programme that was always about sickness, and sadness, and moany groans. I said fine, there are women like that. We know them all. They talk about operations all the time, and about their sick oul’ fellas, and their sick children. They’ve always been there. Out of five programmes for women on RTÉ, maybe they deserve one. If there is only one programme, it is unfair to all the other women in Ireland to be giving that image of women.
“I lived in Galway for several years. What do you think women in Galway mean? They mean leaders of the arts, they mean Gary Hynes in theatre, Jane O’Leary in classical music, Audrey Corbett, the leader of the choral life of the city? When did you ever hear that on Women Today? I am the feminist. I think that’s an insult to women. I know a lot of feminists who want to keep women down. They want to stick women’s noses always in their bodies, in material things. They don’t want them to have spirits, to be artists, to sing, and laugh, and dance. They want them to go on being moany groans.
“Books like Mary Kenny’s or June Levine’s are exceptions. When do women put down in book length, in a consecutive fashion, in this country, what they think about life?”
There’s Nell McCafferty, for instance.
"I think she’s a brilliant journalist. But she tends to be a criticiser of the existing state of affairs, rather than a proposer of a different one. After all, that’s when women really will come into their own. When they will join with men in the business of providing new vision. Let us have a system in this country where people will be more free rather than less free to be what they are. The oppression is the insistence that they conform to a British mould, or in the case of women, to a feminist mould.”
One piece in Nice People and Rednecks deals with the death of Ann Lovett in Granard and the sacking of Eileen Flynn in New Ross. He writes: “It does not seem to me that the more than a thousand schoolgirls who became pregnant each year in this Republic have any reason to be grateful to those who told them that it’s all right, not to worry, sex outside marriage is no sin.” And that those events “have given fresh impetus to the campaign for sexual liberalism in Ireland.” This is, surely, if you’ll pardon the expression, a bit Irish?
“I said the Ann Lovett affair was an unspeakably sad case, that’s all.”
Surely it’s the nuns telling girls that sex is a sin that creates problems.
“I think that the doctrine that sex is a free for all, and that there’s no rules, and that anybody, married or unmarried, who sleeps with someone is quite all right – that is a doctrine whose victims are mostly women. Because women have to bear the babies. That’s been the doctrine of all the Don Juans of the world since the beginning of time and now it isn’t only the males, it’s the female Don Juans who are preaching it. There’s this strange notion that women never take the initiative with men, and never have sexual goals. We all know this is nonsense. It’s also another denigration of women. Why shouldn’t women have sexual goals? Why shouldn’t women cast their eye on men? It happens every day. What’s wrong with it? I say that women be as women want to be.”
Desmond objects to criticism of the “natural” method of family planning; and he considers the alternative to be “animalistic.”
"There’s a feminist prejudice in favour of mechanical and chemical methods of birth control. There’s an insistence that rather than use self-control, their will, their spirit, to control their sexual lives, women be like cows needing gadgets and chemicals to control their fertility. That’s how cows are. I don’t find that that’s an elevation of women. I find that’s a denigration of women. I’m not opposed to women using whatever means they like to control their fertility. What I’m objecting to is a prejudice against their using the most spiritual way. The way that sequins personality and will. Women who haven’t either got a collaborating husband or their own will to manage natural birth control obviously have to use others.”
He mounts an unexpected criticism of the Church for discouraging pastimes such as crossroads dancing and the night-time ascent of Croagh Patrick.
“The net result of the Church opposing crossroads dancing was to drive young people into dancehalls. And these dancehalls were sometimes run by the Church themselves, more often by local businessmen. In many ways, the distinctiveness of Irish cultural life has been diminished by the Church’s activity. Like putting an end to the Croagh Patrick night climb which was a classic thing of Irish culture. The climb at night, that’s the way they climb Fujiyama in Japan. They replaced it with this morning climb. I’m not surprised the numbers have fallen. A net effect of Vatican II, through discouraging things like Confraternities and Sodalities, and rosaries, and the fast before Communion, and then fast during Lent, and frequent confession – all of these things, which, for good or ill, were a distinctive part of Irish life, have been ended, and have helped to contribute to the Anglicisation of Irish life which is proceeding at the moment.”
RTÉ, predictably, gets a grilling. I suggest that television, rather than narrowing people’s perceptions, has broadened them, even in the simple sense that the commuter can arrive home and see, for example, a kangaroo, hopping across the screen.
“It’s also narrowed our perceptions. The knowledge of affairs in Wales and Scotland on the East Coast of Ireland is much less than a thousand years ago. Does Irish television ever tell us what is happening in Wales, which is 60 miles away? Does it tell us about current events in the Isle of Man, just a few miles out there? No. All it relays is what London does.”
Life is a bit more complex than it was a thousand years ago.
“Well, they bring us the view of life that the big capital cities want us to have. In those days there was a constant traffic of people across the Irish Sea, and they knew well what was going on here. Our eyes are directed to kangaroos and to distant things, but not what’s nearest to us. How well does television inform us about Mayo, about Kerry. I think that television and radio are far too centralised in Dublin.
"I think it’s disgraceful we don’t have regional television stations all around Ireland, telling us what’s happening in those places. It’s a disgrace that the only local radio stations which exist in this country are illegal. It makes Dublin so parochial. All of the rest of Ireland knows about Dublin, but what does Dublin know of the rest of Ireland? The Galway studio is only used to take part in a discussion with Dublin. It’s undemocratic. It’s so different from Britain, from Germany."
On the Northern front, Desmond criticises the S.D.L.P. for discrediting the Provos, and as such, making life easier for Britain: “I was prepared to go along with this Anglo-Irish Agreement, and indeed, my own thinking contributed to what was worked out. Recognising that the Unionists are British and the Nationalists are Irish, and that the main injustice in the North is not that there isn’t a United Ireland, but that 600,000 people in six counties have Britishness forced upon them. That analysis was pioneered in my column in the Sunday Press and elsewhere, and adopted by people who worked for the Agreement.
“We were told that it was going to result in the equal recognition of the Irish with the British element. That has not been done. I don’t have much hope for anything positive in the North in the near future.”
Do you support the Provisionals?
“I think that Irishmen in the North as well as anywhere else in Ireland have the right to fight against foreign occupation. In Ireland, or Afghanistan, or Rhodesia, or anywhere. I’m talking about the Six Counties obviously, which is the only place the IRA interests me.”
First published in Hot Press 10/23, November 1986