The Quest For Modern Ireland

Roy Johnston reviews The Quest for Modern Ireland: the battle of ideas 1912-1986 by Bryan Fanning; Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2903 3, £19.95/€26.95 pbk

The Quest For Modern Ireland

THE IDEA behind this book is excellent; it is to analyse the cultural aspect of national identity, as reflected in heavyweight periodicals of calibre such as to end up for reference, vertical on the bookshelf, rather than briefly horizontal prior to recycling.

In his introduction, the author, who lectures in social science in University College Dublin, deplores the level of dependence on intellectual imports, and reminds us of the importance of the cultural politics of nation-building, as developed by Gellner and Anderson. He introduces his selection with the Bell and the Crane Bag, seen as "justly celebrated in... Irish Studies" and includes also Studies, Christus Rex and Administration, which he sees as being more obscure, lurking in the background of the establishment.

"He could perhaps have usefully included Saothar the annual Labour History production; this perhaps is closest to the niche the Irish Democrat intellectual support system might have occupied, had they managed to establish a journal of record, fit to go vertically on the bookshelf. Various ephemeral attempts were made by progressive intellectual groups in Ireland in this direction (Atlantis for example), but in Fanning's study one is made conscious of their lack of success. Saothar however falls mostly outside his period, but why stop at 1986?

The only publication with overall continuity is Studies, published by the Jesuits. Fanning devotes three chapters to it, broadly linked with editorial and policy changes; 'Unfinished Revolution 1912-39'. 'Liberal Agendas: Catholic and Liberal Alliances, 1940-68' and 'Faithful Departures: Culture and Conflict 1951-86'. Note the overlapping dates.

The ordering of his chapters is curious; he starts with 'Taking the Fifth: The Crane Bag 1977-84'. where the 'fifth' metaphor is introduced by its editor Richard Kearney as being the mythical 'fifth province' additional to the historic four. Fanning hails the Crane Bag as the "..archtype of the intellectual journal..." and gives some idea of its origins and scope over its lifetime, though he leaves the question of its demise and lack of succession unanswered. Nor does he pick up on the fact that its cultural scope was broad enough to include the sciences(1).

Then we get 'Out of the Mist: the Bell 1940-45', named by Sean O Faolain after the early Russian radical Herzen's Kolokol. Fanning notes the relative lack of academic input, and identifies Corkery's 1925 Hidden Ireland as a target for O Faolain's critique. We are however left in the dark about the Bell after O Faolain; did it not continue constructively after 1945 under Peadar O'Donnell?

Only then in the 3rd chapter to we get the first of the Studies sequence. Would it not have made more sense to have begun with this, as setting up the background to which the Bell was a reaction? Should there not have been a place for George Russell's Irish Statesman in the 1920s?

There is much space given to Tom Kettle's critiques of socialism in the early days. Later we get George O'Brian and Alfred O'Rahilly; the former is credited with introducing Keynes to Ireland.

There is some discussion of vocationalism and fascism. Tierney, who headed UCD, harked back to pre-Enlightenment culture. Despite this Studies was open to Russell and O Faolain; controversy developed on the role of the Enlightenment. There was awareness of Nazi persecution of Catholics, but also some explicit anti-semitism. There was attention to constitutional reform in the late 30s, with interest in the Swiss model. This long chapter, 47 pages, seems to have been the author's initial project, done in some detail; did this perhaps suggest adding the other chapters to balance it?

Next we get 'Disenchanted Land: Christus Rex and Irish Sociology 1947-70'. Here we have the thinking of the Catholic intellectual establishment, edited by Maynooth Professors Peter McKevitt and Cornelius Lucey; the chair of the former was endowed by the Knights of Columbanus.

Writers included Michael J Browne, Bishop of Galway; there was paternal advice to emigrants, dire warnings from Desmond Fennell about emancipation of women, based on his Swedish experience, concern about socialist ideas in trade unions from Charles McCarthy, voluntary co-operative activism being advocated by M J Costello.

There were however alternative views on Catholic sociology expressed at the same time in Studies, with more open discussion, from Garrett Fitzgerald, David Thornley and others, with names such as Marcuse being mentioned. Studies had evolved towards being a 'Catholic left'.

Fanning continues with Studies for the next two chapters, with discussion opening up seriously to the left under the Burke-Savage editorial period in the 1960s. Censorship. the north, McQuaid; northern poets; the 'big house' authors; Cruise O'Brien; Sean MacBride; historical revisionism and 1916; Protestant Ulster; IRA theology; Church and state issues in the New Ireland Forum. These topics resonated in the environment where the Crane Bag also existed; we had the makings of a vibrant intellectual life for a time; we have Crotty, Whitaker and others arguing the economics, with Sister Stanislaus in the background.

Up to now we have the makings of a good background to the current scene, demanding a sequel. Perhaps one is in gestation, bringing it up to date?

We have instead a chapter 'Fables of the Reconstruction: Administration and Developent 1853-86'. This treats in relative isolation what was, and is, a most important publication enshrining the thinking of the emergent technocracy, initiated in the undergrowth of the civil service by Patrick Lynch, TK Whitaker and Tom Barrington, which emerged eventually as Leargas the journal of the Institute of Public Administration(2).

Patrick Lynch had earlier in the (post-1945) Bell written about socialist ideas in Ireland, on William Thompson in Cork, who developed a 'labour theory of value' before Marx, contrasting him with Robert Owen. Lynch's critiques of Irish capitalism in the 1950s were taken on board by the Tuairim group and published as a pamphlet.

Barrington in Administration developed serious constructive critiques of local government, promoting a serious regionalist appoach. There was subsequent critical papers by Crotty and Joe Lee. Lynch had an important paper on 'Whither Science Policy?'.

Both Lynch and Whitaker were the subjects of festschrifts, which Fanning overviews, suggesting further unfinished business. Did the Crane Bag show the makings of a bridge between the cultures of technocracy (as in Administration) and the humanities?

Fanning in his final chapter queries the dominance of the Catholic aspect in of Irish national culture, suggesting many interesting critical trails to follow. This book deserves serious consideration by the global Irish studies community, where it will undoubtedly suggest further research of political and social relevance.


  1. Richard Kearney encouraged be to develop my overview of the historic development of the 'culture of technological competence' using the successive snapshots provided by the meetings in Ireland of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. See this at
  2. The present writer was asked in 1970 by the editor to write an outline of a seminar based on some techno-economic and socio-technical aspects of his Aer Lingus computing experience; see

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