Ireland needs an intellectual life

Ireland needs an intellectual life


I welcome the appearance of an Irish journal of ideas bearing the name of Heidegger. That philosopher gave me in his Letter on Humanism a definition of what I have been basically about in my writing. He defined humanism as “taking thought and care that man live humanly and not inhumanly, that is, outside his being.”  That made me realise that, ideologically speaking, I was a humanist in the Heideggerian sense. In the same Letter, Heidegger said: “Language is the house of being. In that house human beings dwell. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” That made me aware of the great gift that my love of language was and of the importance of using it conscientiously and clearly.

There was a story about what often happened when visitors called to Heidegger’s house in the Black Forest wishing to meet him  His wife would open the door, say politely but firmly, ” Mein Mann denkt (My husband is thinking)”, and close it again. That story reassured me that denk-ing or thinking was a fully adequate way of being busy and that thinking, preferably full-time, was an adequate justification of one’s existence!

However, as years passed. I noticed something frustrating. I was thinking, and writing publicly, primarily for the Irish, but there was virtually no public notice or discussion in Ireland about what I published. I believed that truth, and specifically the truth I was seeking, could come to fullness, or near it, only through ordered discussion. The perception and stating of truth required a collaboration of thinking minds. The last time we had something like such collaboration was in the 1980s in The Crane Bag, but only for a few years. We have had nothing of the sort since.

In 2009 I wrote a long essay “On Thinking in Ireland” which spelt out the bias in Ireland against creative thought about the real and the accompanying pretence that “Irish writing” consists of one genre or another of fiction. I put the essay on my website at but it drew response only from Bob Quinn who sent it to his fellow Aosdána members; silence otherwise. It is still there. Then a couple of months ago I wrote a short piece on the subject entitled ‘Ireland Needs an Intellectual Life” and sent it to The Irish Times and the Sunday Business Post. Neither of them published it. I say here now what that piece said.

It’s high time that we identify and eliminate the elephant in our national room. Alone among European nations we have no intellectual life as that is commonly understood: no public production, noting and debating of ideas about the big questions—the  human condition,  ethics, God, religion, knowledge, the universe, the planet’s resources, political governance, contemporary history, the West and so on.

The commonest and most effective form taken by an intellectual life is magazines of ideas published weekly or monthly, containing articles of 2-300 words, letters to the Editor and reviews of new books of creative thought. Most European countries have several such magazines. We have not even one.

Public production, noting and debate of new ideas can also occur live, if less effectively, in public halls or on radio or television: events in which a creative thinker expounds a considered thesis about a big question and two or three others respond.  When did we last hear of the like in Ireland?,
At least the public noting of new creative thought about the big questions can occur when books by the nation’s creative thinkers are reviewed in the books sections of the newspapers. But in Ireland those books sections take the view that “Irish writing” consists only of fiction and poetry with an occasional biography, autobiography or retelling of Irish history thrown in.

Rare the person in Ireland in the last ten years who has read an Irish review of —to name a few random examples—Brian O’Connor’s Adorno or Richard Kearney’s On Stories: Thinking in Action or The God Who May Be or Gerard  Casey’s Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State or William Desmond’s Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion, Philosophy and Art or Philip Petit’s A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency and Rules, or James Mackey’s Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and its Future among Religions or Christopher Cowley’s Reconceiving Medical Ethics or Dermot Moran’s Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences —all  of them published abroad because either their authors live abroad or no Irish publisher would take them.

The underlying fact is that an aversion to creative thought about the big questions by Irish thinkers pervades Irish society. Tacitly we work to confirm Matthew Arnold’s depiction of the “Celtic” peoples in his Study of Celtic Literature as ever so imaginative but thoughtless.

Those of us who persist in thinking as their free minds lead them either emigrate or die frustrated or get posts in Irish universities and write for readerships abroad. The aversion is reflected in the Government’s cultural policies. Aosdána, established to patronise and subsidise creative Irish people, excludes philosophers while admitting photographers. Culture Ireland, recently abolished, was established to finance visits abroad by Irish creative persons but never during its existence financed an Irish thinker.

The aversion in question has its roots in that period of our history when the Catholic Irish were changing their language from Irish to English. In the late Thomas Duddy’s book A History of Irish Thought he notes that from the seventeenth century up to Yeats and AE most of the philosophy done in Ireland was done by Anglo-Irish thinkers. Knowing themselves citizens of, or at least associated with, a great empire, and as participants in European high culture, they found it natural to rethink the world.

To the Catholic Irish, on the other hand, even the well-educated, rethinking the world seemed a faculty and a right denied to them by the same natural order that endowed the Anglo-Irish. The generation of 1916 and the War of Independence showed in their leaders’ writings a budding departure from that colonised mentality. They argued for Irish freedom in terms of a philosophical humanism.

That was the departure of a revolutionary Catholic elite from the Catholic norm. The post-Independence political and mass-media elites relapsed into their ancestors’ self-image as the Irish brand of “thoughtless Celts”. In government and the media they have denied, as an aberration best ignored, the Catholic-Irish creative thought about the big questions that was emerging around them and that persists today in Ireland and abroad.


Desmond Fennell

Dr Desmond Fennell’s latest book is Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered  End of European Civilisation (New Augmented Edition). Publibook Ireland.


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