This is an anniversary, of sorts, for me. I have now lived in Ireland for ten years. They were ten good years. During that time, I made some friends and worked with colleagues, who later became friends, and befriended some students, who later befriended me. During this time, I made one good decision, and one bad mis-judgment—and the two were related.
One Good Decision
Before moving to Ireland and taking up my post as a law lecturer, I consciously decided that I would make my best effort not to be judgmental regarding differences between home and abroad, between the U.S. and Ireland. It is particularly easy to fall into that intellectual trap, not just because there is a little bit of an ugly American or overweening patriot in most of us, but because there is a large influential, domestic (that is, Irish) crowd in Ireland that exults in complaining about most aspects of Irish (and Western) life, and their having a foreigner adding to the roster of domestic complaints positively confirms their worldview.
There are other reasons making it overly easy to complain about Irish life.
Ireland is a small country—a population of just under 5 million (excluding Northern Ireland). There are problems with life in a small country that are not the making of its individual inhabitants—they are problems which inhere in the country’s size. The most important hardship associated with small-country life is that some (not all) prices are seriously out-of-whack because the entity lacks economies of scale. In a small country, sharing and pooling resources and risk can be difficult and, therefore, costly—for example, the availability and prices for cutting edge medical services and insurance are frequent sources of complaint here. This is the reason Ireland’s initial decision to join the European Economic Community (now the European Union) made so much sense. By moving into a continent-wide no-tariff zone, Ireland escaped many of the economic shackles inherent in small-country life.
Another aspect of small country life is that if you have a profession or specialty, you will have a fairly small number of colleagues. Your reputation will stick. If you make any sort of notable mistake, there are few opportunities for second acts. If you want a second act, you may have to choose another profession—or immigrate.
Larger countries are likely to have, and are commonly believed to have, deeper wells of expertise. Irish appellate judges are slow to overturn their own precedents unless the new proposed path forward has first been adopted by foreign courts. Irish regulators are much the same. It works much the same way in reverse too. A great many Irish find validation only when the Irish position is adopted in EU or international fora, or where an Irish athlete takes a medal at the Olympics or some other international competition. There are a surprising number of people (including young people) in this country who don’t believe what happens here matters—unless what is done here follows what the wider international community has done or unless what is done here is adopted abroad. More than a few of those born here to ethnically Irish parents will say, proudly, that they do not think of themselves as Irish, but as European.
All this can take a psychological toll on the inhabitants of a small country. They constantly look abroad for validation, and only sometimes find it. It lowers the esteem they have for their own country and countrymen. That effect is doubled when the small country is right alongside a large country. The bigger country will tend to set the standard, and its culture is more likely to dominate conversation and news. It is easy to see the larger country’s virtues—e.g., its museums, stadiums, and universities are bigger and brighter—and so, by contrast, one’s own chief cultural institutions seem almost shabby by contrast. This pattern will appear again and again, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. In my own small Dublin Jewish community, we use American printed prayer books—the prayer for the state speaks to the President and Vice President of the United States. A generation ago, the Irish Jewish community used prayer books printed in the United Kingdom—with a prayer for the British royal family. Of course, in Ireland, these prayers were modified by custom, locally-made inserts, and stickers covering the original printed text. There is nothing terrible about this. But if everything you have was made abroad, or made with others in mind, and you have to modify it to make it right, it takes a toll. I expect that some Canadians feel this way about the United States. But for the Irish the effect of being alongside a large country is not merely doubled, it is quadrupled, because their neighbour is not just a large country speaking the same language, but (according to the received Irish historical narrative) the former colonial power.
So it is easy to fall into the anti-Irish trap. And doing so will have personal consequences. In 2011, I started at my university with a small cohort of foreign academics. Each one of them is now gone. One reason they are gone is every time they saw some defect in Irish life, it became a gripe when compared to life back home. But it never worked that way in reverse. Whenever they received some benefit here that was different or better than what was the standard back home, that was just pocketed as the natural order of things, and there was little or no effort to balance the gripes against the benefits.
One Bad Misjudgment
When traveling in the Irish countryside, I came across a lonely plinth. It was a memorial to a long dead Irish soldier—one of Wellington’s officers, who served during the Napoleonic Wars in the United Kingdom’s armed forces. The plinth’s inscription was eroded; its base was not maintained. The path to it was in disorder. There was no modern historic marker directing road traffic to the location. This was a bit of rejected history. The received view here is that this isn’t proper Irish history; rather, it is British history, whose artifacts remain in independent Ireland. Yes, this soldier was ethnically Irish, but he was a soldier for a foreign power, and not just a foreign power, but for the occupying colonial power.
It struck me that this approach was wrong. All wrong. The way I saw it was … the plinth is part of Irish history, and it is a memorial to an accomplished Irish person. Moreover, excising one’s history has real costs. It can often leave one with no history at all, or, what can be worse, it can leave one with a history that is all a story of woe and oppression. If that is a nation’s whole history, its children will seek to escape their identity. Maybe it is no wonder that so many young Irish identify as European?
I might add that this particular monument is not the only bit of abandoned and contested Irish history. There are graves in Ireland where rest Irish soldiers who had served in Britain’s armed forces during World War I—before, during, and after the time of the 1916 Irish Rising. How to memorialize and remember such men is a continuing source of friction here. It is a problem of history and identity. In a certain sense, one might argue that the circumstances of the Irish WWI veterans and war dead is more clear cut—in this case, there was a hard conflict between the political worldview of Irish revolutionaries and those continuing to identify with the United Kingdom. Whether one agrees or not, one can understand why today’s Irish nation and society might not want to memorialize such men. But if the circumstances of the Irish WWI veterans is more clear, then the lonely plinth and remembering Wellington’s Irish officers becomes less clear. The Napoleonic Wars were a long time ago. The hard, long bloody conflict, which would lead to Irish independence, remained in the distant future. Surely, I thought, the generous approach should be to maintain the monument, and to do so as bona fide Irish history.
Anyway, those were my thoughts at the time. But I have come to reconsider my position. This is why. I asked the question: How did early post-independence Americans memorialize and remember the military service of loyal Americans who had served in the British armed forces in the French and Indian War (a/k/a Seven Years’ War a/k/a War of the Conquest)? The obvious place to look was Major General Henry Lee’s 1799 funeral oration for President George Washington, who had reached the rank of colonel in the provincial/colonial Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. All Lee does—all he can do—is to point to Washington’s valour.
Will you go with me to the Banks of the Monongahela [in 1755], to see your youthful WASHINGTON supporting, in the dismal hour of Indian victory, the ill-fated Braddock, and saving, by his judgment and by his valor, the remains of a defeated army, pressed by the conquering savage foe?
Washington’s martial skill can be recorded, but not his loyalty—which was then in service to what became a foreign nation—and not just a foreign nation—but the enemy from which national independence was won. It may be that our American forefathers believed (and, perhaps, rightly) that such loyalties cannot be divided. And if Washington was correct to direct his loyalties to the crown in 1755, then that renders suspect his and our break with the Britain in 1776. The human heart may not be big enough to accommodate two such loyalties, at least where political disunion is accomplished through violence.
Moving forward in our history, one might ask who (if anyone) maintains the graves of Mexican soldiers, buried in the United States, who fell in the War of Texas Independence and the Mexican-American War? I don’t doubt that a generous people—even if they had been enemies—would have given them a proper burial. But I wonder, in the aftermath of those two wars, were those graves maintained at public expense by the sons and daughters, sometimes the orphans, of the Texan and American people who had opposed the Mexican war dead?
And then, there were WWII Axis soldiers interned on American territory, who died as POWs. Not all their bodies were repatriated to their homelands at the end of WWII. Are those graves maintained at public expense? I have never seen any roadside markers—This way to the Axis Soldiers’ graves.
In recent times, we have seen crazed violence across the United States destroying graves, plinths, and other memorials. Some of these memorials should have never been built. None of them should have been taken down by vigilante violence, absent democratic authority from today’s municipal authorities (in regard to public monuments). No one should be taxed to support monuments to traitors and the nation’s enemies.
There is a solution to dealing with such monuments. Let them erode. Let the land around them grow unkempt. Then time will displace them, and they will be forgotten. Ten years in Ireland, and this is what I learned here. I suspect it is what Major General Henry Lee knew all along.
Seth Barrett Tillman, What I Learned About the United States After Ten Years in Ireland, New Reform Club (Aug. 17, 2021, 6:23 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2021/08/what-i-learned-about-united-states.html>;