Ireland after 11 September

How did a terrorist attack on the USA lead to talk of spiritual and moral renewal in Ireland?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘No part of Ireland is unaffected by the events of 11 September.’ Reading ‘Ireland’s top tabloid!’ the Sunday World on 28 October, you could be forgiven for thinking that Dublin or Cork were attacked by plane-crashing terrorists six weeks ago, rather than New York and Washington half a world away.

Apparently, the terrorist attacks on the USA ‘smashed Ireland’s economy’, made Irish people ‘question the meaning and motivations in their lives’, and got everybody ‘rethinking modern Ireland and its place in a different world’.

Considering Ireland and the USA’s ‘special relationship’, it’s not surprising that Irish people were concerned in the wake of 11 September. But recent discussions have gone beyond worrying about Irish family members and family ties in New York and Washington to fretting about Ireland’s national character itself in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

As soon as I set foot on Irish soil, there were people talking about ‘Ireland after 11 September’. At Shannon airport in Limerick on 26 October, a tiny nun was handing out ‘God’s leaflets’. ‘God is speaking to us’, she told me in hushed tones. ‘But we ignored him on 11 September because we’ve lost our faith.’ I brushed her off as just another of those Catholic cranks who sometimes stalk Irish airports on the lookout for knackered travellers to Bible-bash – but she wasn’t the only one talking up religion in the wake of 11 September.

‘One day Ireland was at the peak of success – the next, we were plunged into fear, uncertainty, anxiety and disbelief’, wrote Kathryn Holmquist the following day in the Irish Times (the newspaper that didn’t publish at all on 14 September, the international day of mourning, as a mark of respect for those killed). ‘The global village that had Ireland at its rapidly beating, technological heart brought us a terror unprecedented’, wrote Holmquist.

According to Holmquist, after 11 September the ‘Celtic Tiger [Ireland’s economy] may be eclipsed by the Celtic Soul [Irish spiritualism]’ – but she offered a useful ‘coping guide’ to what’s in and what’s out in Ireland’s ‘new age of uncertainty’. Out goes ‘materialism, long-term planning, conspicuous consumption and Viagra’. In comes ‘spirituality, living for the moment, spending more on less and Cipro’.

‘An entire generation learned to live beyond its means’, complained Holmquist. ‘To live fast, drive fast, eat fast, talk fast. The economy was our sun – and now our wings are burnt. We’re afraid to fly, literally and figuratively. Risk-taking no longer seems an economically sensible option.’

Ireland’s economy will no doubt suffer in the aftermath of 11 September. Heavily reliant on international finance and manufacturing, the Irish economy is bound to feel the heat of the much talked-up, and self-fulfilling, post-11 September economic impacts on the US and UK economies (see The terrified economy, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

And Ireland’s massive tourist industry – with thousands of green-eyed Americans visiting every year to discover their roots – will certainly feel the backlash from a downturn in holidaymaking. Indeed, while I was there, angry Aer Lingus workers marched through the streets of Dublin to protest at the airline’s plans to cut 2500 jobs – complete with placard-waving trolley dollies chanting ‘Leave our jobs alone!’.

But according to some Irish economists, fears that the Irish economy has been ‘smashed’ by recent events are more imagined than real. ‘We could talk ourselves into a recession’, says Maureen Gaffney, chair of the National Economic and Social Forum. ‘If [the economy] is managed properly and if politicians and economists can engage with people’s fears, I’m optimistic.’

‘There are 700,000 more jobs than there were in 1991’, says Gerard O’Neill, managing director of the consumer group Amarach, pointing out that ‘a slowdown was predicted before 11 September’: ‘Our economy has matured and we will experience modest growth and modest declines, but the cake still gets bigger.’

Still, some are keen for Ireland to put the Celtic Tiger to rest and – in the words of one Dublin priest – to ‘re-embrace its lost spiritual side in the wake of these terrible events’. Asked what he would go for if he could choose one area to invest in post-11 September, Mark Hayward of the Henley Centre said: ‘Religion.’

According to the Irish Times, ‘On the Friday after 11 September, the official day of mourning, young people in Ireland flocked to religious services’ – while Gordon Linney, the Church of Ireland’s archdeacon of Dublin, pointed to the ‘feelings of vulnerability’ that make people go back to church: ‘Two of the icons of the materialist age came crashing down. And then the Pentagon, the symbol of Western military superiority, was attacked. The vulnerability of it all was exposed in those terrible events.’

A Galway Catholic priest says that ‘people are coming back to us now, are listening to us again’, while others refer to a post-11 September ‘spiritual upsurge’ in an Ireland that had become obsessed with money, IT, fast cars and jobs in recent years. So is Ireland returning to its religious roots?

Hardly. The two masses I attended while there (out of obligation, I should point out, not to pursue the Shannon nun’s words of wisdom) had the usual mix of young altar boys and girls and an ageing congregation – with a distinct absence in between of twentysomethings, thirtysomethings and even fortysomethings. There were more people standing in the porch – ready to bolt to the pub at the end of the service – than there were sitting in the pews at the front.

At both masses, the priests talked about 11 September and how we might cope in our new and confused world. One said how ‘things like this’ remind us ‘how much we need people: firemen, police officers, friends’ – but said little about how much we might need God or religion. The other said that those who thought God had disappeared on 11 September ‘were wrong’ – He was there in ‘the rescue services and in the messages of support from around the world’.

The churches might see a ‘spiritual upsurge’ in Ireland post-11 September – but they don’t know what to do with it. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Church of Ireland has offered clear or coherent religious thoughts on recent events. The Church of Ireland’s Gordon Linney instead took the opportunity to criticise America for ‘misusing God’: ‘When Bush said “God Bless America”, he was denying the reality that God is not just the God of Christian America.’ While the Catholic Church – still reeling from accusations of child abuse and holding its breath while hearings at the Laffoy Commission on Child Abuse in Dublin continue with a vengeance – seems unwilling to say anything about anything.

In truth, if more people have gone to church in recent weeks, it seems to be less a flocking back to Catholicism and traditional religion than just another way of expressing their grief and confusion at the world after 11 September.

But it says something about Ireland’s religious elite that they can only hope to get people inside their churches as the result of terrible events thousands of miles away – and that they find it hard to utter the words ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘God’ or ‘morality’ even in relation to something like 11 September.

The Celtic Tiger might be weak – but the Celtic Soul looks even weaker.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Wishful thinking, by Josie Appleton

‘New hedonism’: flipside to fear, by Brendan O’Neill

Blind faith, by Brendan O’Neill

An Englishwoman in Washington, 18 January, by Helen Searls

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Ireland

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