(Originally published in the Irish Times, March 31, 2004)
We can still learn from Horace Plunkett
By James J. Kennelly
This year Dublin will celebrate, and surely not quietly, the 100th anniversary of the Abbey Theatre in April, and of that famous day in the life of Dublin, Bloomsday, in June.
Yet, lost amid these celebrations is another centenary. A hundred years ago this month, Sir Horace Plunkett published a book that raised a storm of controversy, one that criticised the "national character" and urged Irishmen of every political and sectarian stripe to embark on a campaign of national regeneration. Plunkett's Ireland in the New Century was, like the author himself, as welcome as "a dog on a tennis court" and today both author and book are largely forgotten. Yet, as Ireland embarks upon its newest century, I think perhaps neither should be so readily dismissed.
Plunkett, as was his wont, tackled the host of economic, social and political problems that beset Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century head-on; he diagnosed the root of the problem as one of "character".
Plunkett called for a "dawn of the practical" in Ireland, and lamented the "functional derangement" of the Irish mind characterised by an unhealthy obsession with politics to the exclusion of practical works to improve the social and economic condition of the nation. He criticised his fellow Irishmen for lacking initiative, self-reliance, thrift, industriousness, and any conception of quality.
The implicit fatalism of his countrymen, and their concern with the hereafter to the detriment of the here and now, was a matter of continuing perplexity to him.
Such a diagnosis was strong medicine to a people still seeking nationhood, in the heady days of the Irish renaissance and with little appetite for self-criticism. Further, his ill-considered criticism of the Catholic Church cost him, and his co-operative movement, dearly.
Plunkett extolled the virtues of co-operative organisation as a vehicle for national social and economic regeneration, emphasised the necessity for widespread education and technical instruction, and preached the mantra of "Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living".
His ideal Ireland would be characterised by efficient and technically proficient agriculture, and co-operative organisations of small farmers, run on sound commercial principles. It would be a society that was not only competitive and productive, but also mindful of the value of rural community and with a vision of a national life that was distinctly Irish. Although Plunkett surely had difficulty articulating with any precision his vision of "better living", it was essential to his view of national regeneration.
This vision was echoed in subsequent years. In the decades after independence, Irish leaders, and probably most Irish people, did share a vision of the good life that was remarkably like Plunkett's. But de Valera had scarcely a hint of the capabilities needed to achieve that "Ireland Which We Dreamed Of".
Now, Ireland in this newest century has a different challenge. Capability, it seems, abounds. Ireland's public policymakers are fond of referring to Ireland's new "enterprise culture", a culture that perfectly mirrors the sort of character that Plunkett called for in his opus. Indeed, initiative, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, education, practicality, a global perspective and self-confidence are hallmarks of both. And such capability is welcome. To this extent, at least, Plunkett's prescriptions have been realised.
Yet one wonders if this capability has come at the price of a vision of that ideal Ireland, that it perhaps lacks the element of "better living" that Plunkett himself knew he had given too short shrift. As Ireland confronts the challenges of growth, and the imperative for truly sustainable development (socially, environmentally, and economically) one could do worse than to revisit the work of Horace Plunkett.
But you will not find him amid the pantheon of Irish heroes and patriots. Neither political hero, nor rebel, nor martyr (although some might differ), Plunkett did suffer the fate of many prophets before him. He was denounced, mistrusted, excoriated, humiliated, burned-out of his home, and exiled from his country.
But his prescription for the social and economic betterment of his country was prescient then, and still relevant today.
It is a pity he is not remembered, more the pity he is no longer read, on the centenary of Ireland in the New Century.
Perhaps the words of the poet W.R. Rodgers offer Plunkett a fitting commemoration:
So God save Ireland from her heroes,
For what is needed is not heroism,
But normal courage.
Dr. James J. Kennelly is associate professor of International Business at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is the author of The Kerry Way: The History of the Kerry Group, 1972-2000 (Oak Tree Press).
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