A neglected Irish philosopher offers a path forward through secularism and loss of community

On Friday, June 14, admirers of one of Ireland’s greatest philosophers will gather in Dublin for a very special occasion.

Up until his death in 2021, Desmond Fennell used his extraordinary gifts to thoroughly interrogate the condition of the Irish nation.

Along the way, he investigated the material and cultural poverty which plagued Ireland, as well as the root causes of the violent conflict which raged in Ireland’s northern province of Ulster.

As a child, he lived through some of the earlier days of the fledgling Irish state and by the time of his death, he had seen his country shed its former identity as a staunchly Catholic nation without seriously considering what to replace it with.

Those who attend the ‘Desmond Fennell & Ireland’ seminar on June 14 are among the growing number of people who see in Fennell’s work a guide to understanding and overcoming the social and cultural upheavals which are transforming Western politics.

One of Fennell’s most important books was published in 1985: ‘Beyond Nationalism: The Struggle against Provinciality in the Modern World.’

By this time, Ireland had already taken its first steps away from Christianity, with religious attendance falling and demands for social liberalisation growing.

The Irish Republican Army’s campaign to reunite the country by force was continuing but showed no signs of ever resulting in Britain’s withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

The early Irish state’s aspirations to restore Irish as the country’s spoken language had clearly failed, and the country was increasingly importing Anglo-American culture, including its social mores.

The author’s eclectic array of interests is certainly on show in this work, which includes excerpts from various pamphlets he had authored on subjects relating to nationalism and regionalism, as well as some of his writings about the reforms within the Church in the era of the Second Vatican Council.

‘Beyond Nationalism’ is a chronicle of one man’s struggle, what Fennell called a “personal revolt against our provincial condition.”

One strategy which Desmond Fennell employed was relocating his family to Maoinis island off the coast of Connemara.

There they could live amongst a community of Irish speakers, and Fennell’s personal efforts in the area of community activism became a major focus of his life.

During the 1970s and 1980s, as well as being a defender of socially conservative viewpoints, Fennell was also one of the most prominent voices for the Irish Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

Towards a united Ireland

Though he freely acknowledged that he was “emotionally in sympathy with” the IRA, his feelings did not prevent him from recognising what many Irish nationalists could not - that the Protestant community in Northern Ireland was truly British.

This meant that a constitutional solution had to be sought which would satisfy the needs of both warring communities to safeguard their identity.

Brexit and the changing demographics in Northern Ireland have made a United Ireland a topic of greater debate in recent years.

Observing the social changes underway in Ireland as the Northern conflict rumbled on in the 1970s and 1980s, Fennell detected a significant and lasting problem.

Those who wished to purge religious influences from public life in Ireland used the existence of the large Protestant community in the North as justification for this: the constitutional prohibition on abortion introduced in 1983, for example, was portrayed by the secularists as being in some way anti-Protestant.

Indeed, similar arguments continue to be made: the leader of the Social Democrats recently told The Irish Timesthat the creation of a secular education system in Ireland could help bring about Irish unity.

Pluralism was being abused, Fennell argued, writing that the word was being used to describe a “unitarian, secularist state which denies, and gives no recognition to, the plurality of its communities.”

Rather than sweep away those aspects of Irish life which a minority found unappealing, Fennell wanted a new “community of communities” where Ulster’s Protestants (and the Irish speakers of Connemara and other groups) could retain their own distinctive ways of life through regional self-government.

A revolt against provincialism

Newcomers to modern Ireland are often surprised by the rapidity of the social change which has occurred, not to mention the intense hostility often shown towards the country’s Catholic past - a past which is generally not understood.

In ‘Beyond Nationalism,’ Fennell notes his surprise at discovering how little had been written about the history of the Irish Catholics in recent centuries.

The dearth of academic work focusing on Ireland’s historical relationship with other countries in Europe and further afield was just as striking to a writer who was long troubled by the unhealthy dominance of Anglo (and later Anglo-American) culture on Irish life.

Twentieth century Ireland existed as an independent state, but its cultural distinctiveness was wrapped up in Catholicism: a Catholic version of England, if you will.

Here, there were also problems, as the Church which had been rebuilt physically after Protestant persecution of Irish Catholics ended in the 19th century had little connection to its own past, and instead looked to the Continent for inspiration.

Structurally, culturally and artistically, the Irish Church was derivative.

“With very few and unimportant exceptions, the 2,500-odd churches in which Catholics worship in Ireland today were built during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Fennell wrote. “So were nearly all the religious houses. No ancient statues or carved wooden altars look down at the worshippers. Unfortunately, the modern Irish Church acquired almost its entire material embodiment during an age when architecture and allied arts were at a low ebb and when Christianity, in common with the most powerful secular ideologies, was anti-art. Italian bad taste filled the new Irish churches.”

When considering the willingness of Irish people nowadays to abandon (and often despise) the Catholic religion, the underappreciated problem of an insufficient cultural connection to the institution should be factored into considerations.

On a broader level, the nationalism which Fennell espoused and practised in his own life was focused on this revolt against provincialism: the way in which the populations of entire regions looked to distant power centres and began to ape their ways of living while forgetting their own.

This development is even more obvious in today’s Ireland. In the decades after Beyond Nationalism was published, Catholicism was cast aside and Ireland attained material prosperity by attracting vast levels of investment from multinational corporations.

European integration deepened, large-scale immigration commenced and after the revelations of sexual abuse within the Church, the Irish people consciously quickly distanced themselves from their past.

As a young man, Fennell had lived in Sweden from 1959 to 1961. There, he was disturbed by this ultra-progressive and post-Christian society which combined “welfare-ism and collectivism” with “liberal capitalist individualism.”

A spiritual solution

Like other observers, Fennell was seeing the future, but unlike them, his extraordinary foresight allowed him to see the consequences of the radical detachment of man from both his neighbour and his God.

Today’s Sweden - whose people have revolted against the failed multiculturalism of yesterday, and whose government exists thanks to the support of the far-right - is understandably no longer presented as a utopia by the liberal left.

A few years ago, some would have suggested Ireland - progressive, cosmopolitan, secular Ireland - as the new shining light.

Recent developments have changed that. Mass immigration has resulted in the same backlash as has occurred elsewhere, and the public’s recent rejection of government proposals to further weaken the position of marriage and the family within Ireland’s constitution has rattled the political class.

A new mood is in the air. Is Fennellite Irish nationalism set for a resurgence?

A return to the Irish Catholicism of Desmond Fennell’s youth is most certainly not on the cards.

Secularism is here to stay, and there is no more sign of a major revival of the Irish language than there is of a revival in religious practice.

Elsewhere across Europe, groups styling themselves as populists, nationalists or nationalist conservatives seek to challenge liberalism’s individualist and secularist tendencies while aiming to restore the previously strong ties which bound Europeans to their nations, churches and families.

They too will struggle if they try to confuse political action with the only real - and spiritual - solution to Europe’s decay.

Desmond Fennell’s writings are still of extraordinary value, particularly his thoughts on regionalism and communitarianism.



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Against concentration of power

From the 1970s onwards Fennell was increasingly sympathetic with the demands for autonomy by a wide array of marginalised groups - such as the Welsh, Corsicans and other peoples who Fennell viewed as “disintegrated nations” which had been subsumed into larger units.

Though he had an unfortunate tendency to abandon practicality - favouring the dissolution of large states - he correctly identified a central flaw in modern politics which has alienated American citizens from Washington, British subjects from Westminster and much of Europe’s populace from Brussels.

There was more to imperialism in Fennell’s mind than uniformed troops conquering a territory and raising their flag triumphantly. It was a process which could play out long after a post-colonial state gained independence.

Imperialism, he wrote, “is a continuous thing: and what it is, essentially, is a gathering and piling up of power in a centre, and in the hands of a ruling class in that centre.”

Political entities tended to concentrate power in a way that undermined regional identities and communal bonds, as the nation itself often came to be seen as the only community deserving of recognition. Atomisation then became an enormous threat.

As Ireland’s cultural and religious distinctiveness weakened further in the 20th Century and as Ireland was transformed from a rural nation to an urban one, Fennell foresaw the beginnings of the social problems which have made modern Ireland unloveable and its capital city close to unliveable.

“Old rural communities, finding their life devalued and meaningless, have disintegrated… Old urban communities, in the centres of the cities and the towns, have been largely destroyed, their members scattered to the refugee camps of new housing estates, hastily erected.

“Housed there among refugees from broken rural communities, they form no new community together. They live as a rootless mass, like ‘little Americas.’

“But people need to live in community, and to live rooted lives, if they are to find identity and fulfilment as human beings. The social collapse of our nation frustrates us all as human beings,” he wrote.

The same could now be said of most advanced countries, where this sense of frustrated humanity co-exists with unprecedented material prosperity.

A nationalist political turn - one of which is likely to occur in the upcoming European Parliament elections - will not cure what ails us, particularly if the nationalism being offered is one which continues to ignore the myriad of real social connections which exist apart from the abstract bonds offered by the nation-state.

If there was one thinker whose work could open eyes and help people see beyond simple nationalist rhetoric, it is the one who ventured forth long ago into Ireland’s West to live a different life.

For those seeking to understand the present moment, direct them thus: Fennell, now more than ever. 

Share this with friends interested in the history of modern Ireland. 

James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

Image credit: Temple Bar in Dublin / Bigstock 


Showing 2 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-22 18:02:50 +1000
    Actually when Churchill and Collins negotiated Irish independence the British would have been quite happy to lose Northern Ireland as well. The protestants, unfortunately, threatened a bloodbath if that were to happen.
  • mrscracker
    “Secularism is here to stay, and there is no more sign of a major revival of the Irish language than there is of a revival in religious practice.”
    Actually, there has been a recent revival in religious practice in Ireland-both North & South. A revival of Irish Gaelic, I’m not so sure about but it’s having some limited success in Scotland.