Flann O’Brien was cruel in his satirising of those who saw living in poverty as being the true way of being Irish. In The Poor Mouth, published in 1941, he writes lines that would have slipped easily into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch some thirty years later.
He possessed the very best poverty, hunger and distress also. He was generous and open-handed and he never possessed the smallest object which he did not share with the neighbours; nevertheless, I can never remember him during my time possessing the least thing, even the quantity of little potatoes needful to keep body and soul joined together. In Corkadoragha, where every human being was sunk in poverty, we always regarded him as a recipient of alms and compassion. The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. One of the gentlemen broke a little bottle of water which Sitric had, because, said he, it spoiled the effect. There was no one in Ireland comparable to O’Sanassa in the excellence of his poverty; the amount of famine which was delineated in his person. He had neither pig nor cup nor any household goods. In the depths of winter I often saw him on the hillside fighting and competing with a stray dog, both contending for a narrow hard bone and the same snorting and angry barking issuing from them both. He had no cabin either, nor any acquaintance with shelter or kitchen heat. He had excavated a hole with his two hands in the middle of the countryside and over its mouth he had placed old sacks and branches of trees as well as any useful object that might provide shelter against the water which came down on the countryside every night.
Like most satire, O’Brien’s work found a readership because it contained within it a grain of truth. There is a penchant in Ireland for taking, if not delight, at least a little satisfaction in being miserable and having a constant source for complaint.
Looking from the outside, suffering is considered to be of great merit in Catholic spirituality. People would deliberately do penance; there would be the suggestion that one’s sufferings should be endured and should be “offered up”. Perhaps it was a way of bringing consolation to poor communities, but if one were a Communist it would have been easy to have agreed with the old Marxist line that religion was the opiate of the people.
While Catholic spirituality offered consolation to poor people, the Protestant line was that you had to get up and do something for yourself (which, of course, was not great comfort to those who could not). Protestants cherished work and thrift and individualism; the catechism told them it was their duty to labour. Protestants would have perceived poverty as due to laziness and irresponsibility. Suffering was not a virtue in the Protestant tradition. Go into a church and look at the walls; while the Catholic churches have the stations of the Cross, the commemoration of the suffering of Jesus, Protestants go in for plaques commemorating prominent (and usually rich) former members of the church.
David McWilliams argued in The Pope’s Children that the changes in the Irish economy had turned everyone into Protestants, that work and success had triumphed over suffering and poverty, but maybe the changes were not so deep rooted. Ireland has become fixated with the prospect of a recession; there seems almost delight in some circles at rising unemployment and falling house prices; politicians seem like rabbits caught in the headlights of approaching economic gloom.
Maybe Flann O’Brien was right, maybe Ireland is only truly happy when it is miserable, and maybe there will be great contentment in offering it up.