- 20 Aug 19
Brexit has thrown up renewed questions about Irish identity, with a key question being: are we still too in thrall to UK culture? The Hog takes a closer look…
Confusion grows. This, we understand, is all part of the game-plan. The British government has moved far to the right and, cattle-prodded by Bojo’s new Darth Vader, Dominic Cummings, has embraced a new hybrid philosophy, borrowing elements from, variously, Margaret Thatcher, the Brexit Party and Donald Trump. The end point as currently envisaged is a no-deal Brexit and their main objective now is to fix the blame on others, the EU in general and Ireland in particular, as though it was us who left them rather than the other way round.
No deal seems more likely by the day and speculation follows that the UK might itself break up in due course. The Scots are pushing that way and in these parts we have people discussing a united Ireland in ways that would have been inconceivable before the Brexit vote.
These outcomes are most unlikely in the short to medium term and indeed may not happen at all. Much more pressing is what happens after October 31st. It won’t be pretty. The financial markets, the ultimate bookies (for better or worse), seem to have concluded that it won’t work out well if the UK leaves with no deal. Sterling has been slipping at an alarming rate. They are now talking of parity with the euro and even the dollar. This would be a massive psychological blow for people in the UK.
Prices will rise over there, but they shouldn’t rise here as the euro will be strengthening. But the suppliers will try to screw us. Just watch. We need to plan for this. We also need to secure supply-lines that are independent of the UK. As we’ve said here before, in the grand European distribution machine, we are what they call UKI, United Kingdom and Ireland, and a huge proportion of our supplies route through the UK, including goods destined for the two German-owned chains that operate here.
All this is, as it were, meat and potatoes. But Brexit, if it’s no-deal or very restrictive, will pose other challenges. So far all of the focus has been on politics and economics. But if you take a geo-political map of Europe, the UK isn’t just a market for food, manufactured goods and services, nor is it just a supplier of same. It’s also a major player in culture.
The UK has a huge media presence in Ireland. Just think of the TV programmes that people watch, the ones they all talk about. Think of the newspapers they buy. Think of music, of film, of theatre. And think, especially, of popular culture.
Let’s take Love Island. Over recent months it had blanket coverage in Ireland, including what might be called the media of Official Ireland. On one day the RTE website had eight separate posts on one aspect or another, and it wasn’t even their show! The Irish Times and the Irish Independent carried stories and analyses. Froth becomes cream! Much of it focused on the two Irish participants, emphasising their Irishness, as though they were in some way representing and promoting Ireland, rather than themselves.
In such coverage in mainstream and social media, where Irish people are up against the Brits there’s a needy, self-centred projection of the Irish as more real, more honest, more… authentic. Yes, that’s the word. But they aren’t always, you know. Deep down, many Irish are as shallow as the next.
So now we read that Maura Higgins is to move to London to maximise her opportunities. Good luck to her. That was always the point, wasn’t it? But doesn’t it beg a lot of questions?
One of these concerns how difficult it is to achieve our cultural and media independence when so much of the Anglophone cultural and economic world is centred in London, as it has been for a very long time.
Ironically, many of those who glued themselves to Love Island would run through you with a fork if you suggested that the Brits still dominate Irish popular culture. But they do. Love Island is all the evidence you need.
And remember, for all the great art, film, theatre and music that has been generated, general popular culture has coarsened, some say dumbed down, in the UK, as in the US, over the last generation. Entertainment and the media are business; and culture has been commodified.
This happened in parallel with the growth of fiscal libertarianism. Are the two linked? Yes, almost certainly. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses) in his Satire X. He was describing the lack of interest of the Roman population in political and philosophical thought or action, and how bread and entertainment were all that mattered. Sound familiar?
CATALAN STREET SPECTACLE
That prompts a second and far more challenging question: how do we Irish wean ourselves off the UK’s bread and circuses? And how do we create our own sphere, one spanning the Anglophone and the European?
Practitioners of the high arts – novelists, composers, poets and playwrights – have always had a measure of independence, though many have been more than happy to take commissions from the major cultural hegemonies, including professorships. And some measure of separation has been achieved in popular music, partly out of bloodymindedness and partly out of changes in technology within the industry.
Horslips were the first of the major bands not to take the boat and U2, in particular, made a point of not moving to London. Massive changes in technology have cemented this and several generations of Irish artists have been able to forge independent paths in ways that encouraged their difference and creativity.
But how would that work with other forms of popular culture? Bearing in mind the large numbers of Irish still living in the UK, the general respect they are accorded there and the relatively small size of the Irish market and consequent lack of resources, there is always a draw. But how do we look past this? How do we start to connect our popular culture, arán agus sorcais féin, with the European mainstream? That is, how do we align our popular culture more closely with our clear intention to be part of Europe and not a satellite of the UK?
It can be done. For example, look at the great work done by Galway’s Macnas spectacle and street performance company who worked with and learned from Catalan street spectacle organisers and contributed handsomely in return. But as Brexit looms we need to think and talk about this, urgently.
And then we need to start doing.