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'Something to do with capitalism': Sally Rooney and Irish economic history

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It has taken three increasingly high-profile novels for the Sally Rooney discourse to arrive at the inevitable: “Sally Rooney is Irish”. This is rarely a straightforward assertion. Take Lauren Collins in the New Yorker in 2018: “In the hierarchy of Rooney’s literary identities, millennial is greater than Irish, but post-recessionary may be greater than millennial”—as though these have little to do with one another. A recent Gawker piece by Sean O’Neill which refreshingly places Rooney’s innate Irishness back into focus under the “Sally Rooney is Irish” headline makes some much-needed observations—not least that Beautiful World, Where Are You is set in a specific place and time, as opposed to a generalised capitalist monoculture which “speaks entirely globally”. The piece also notes the novel’s sensitivity to the historic precarity of viable left-wing activity in Ireland. But this perceptive account still depends on euphemisms that most Irish people abroad (myself included) frequently reach for: a “particularly Irish predilection”, “an air of Irishness”, “quintessentially Irish considerations”.

It’s one thing to do as O’Neill does and “give that place a name”, but what of its distinct political and economic character? Ireland’s status as a postcolonial state on the periphery of the EU is as unique as it is complex. In the decades that have shaped its present, it has changed dramatically: it has been a warzone, a cradle of unemployment and emigration, a “miracle economy”, a tax haven, a rat tunnel between the US and European economies, a banking pariah. The high tidemark of “contemporary Ireland” was 2008, when the property bubble burst and the ECB and IMF leveraged their considerable power to force crippling austerity measures on the Irish public in exchange for a bank bailout that had exactly nothing to do with those who would suffer most. This marked the dramatic end to the Celtic Tiger—a period of unfettered economic growth in Ireland, which began in the early 1990s.

Enough has been made elsewhere of Rooney’s self-professed adherence to radical left-wing politics to take it as given here (“communism, which I am obviously a big fan of (laughs)”, she says in 2017). What I’m interested in is the applicability of that politics to the Irish case. Rooney argues that “the deterioration of the power of the Catholic Church was replaced pretty much wholesale with the power of the free market”, but is there more to the very particular conditions that define the post-crash Ireland into which her protagonists are pitched? Often, we find the characters in her first novel stumbling over empty ideological positions—“I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism”, “Nick told me he was ‘basically’ a Marxist”, “capitalism harnesses ‘love’ for profit”—hardly ever with reference to Ireland itself. At one point in a 2017 Tangerine interview, Rooney justifies the fact that two apparently staunchly Marxist characters in Conversations with Friends own a house by explaining that they are “not landlords, or factory owners. They’re not what we’d traditionally understand as capitalists”. In the context of capitalism in contemporary Ireland, the references to landlords and factory owners fall well short of the full picture, and are indicative of the notable absence in her first novel of a contemporary Ireland which, as O’Neill puts it, “retains particulars”.

One version of those “particulars” has been set out by the cultural theorist Joe Cleary:

Because Marxist models of European history have always assumed as normative the transition from feudalism via absolutism to mercantile and later industrial capitalism […], Irish history has always proved quite recalcitrant to conventional Marxist emplotment.[i]

Indeed, Marx himself could not quite reconcile his theories with the specific case of Ireland in the 1860s: “a simple class-struggle story does not quite fit the facts adequately”, claims one commentator[ii]. This is not to say that you cannot be an Irish Marxist—indeed, you’re reading the musings of one right now—but rather that to be an Irish Marxist is to be especially sensitive to the vagaries of Irish economic history. As Rooney points out herself in that Tangerine interview, “it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx”; the lessons to be learned about post-crash Ireland are ones Rooney unwittingly recognises already: that there exists “some sort of void between political theory and personal life”.

Rooney’s second novel Normal People is more sensitive to the “void” between political theory and lived experience in post-crash Ireland. In spite of the novel’s implicit class structure which is once again more akin to “conventional Marxist emplotment” than to the reality of Ireland in the early 2010s, there is at least one definitive nod to a contemporary Irish landscape which is not subordinated to a one-size-fits-all anti-capitalism. “The ghost”, as Connell calls it, represents the only physical manifestation of the financial crash in the novel: an unfinished house in an unoccupied housing estate built during the property boom in the early 2000s—a ruin of the Celtic Tiger. During a trip to the ghost, the central romantic couple, Marianne and Connell, have the most “Irish” conversation in the entire book:

Why don’t they give them away if they can’t sell them? I’m not being thick with you, I’m genuinely asking.

[Marianne] shrugged. She didn’t actually understand why.

It’s something to do with capitalism, she said.

Yeah. Everything is, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

She nodded.

"Something to do with capitalism” is gloriously vague, but at least now it’s a place-specific conclusion reached by precocious, Marx-reading teenagers.

In April this year, a public seminar was convened by Maynooth University English Department on the topic of a “political turn” in contemporary Irish fiction. The novelist Chris Beausang argued there that,

it’s worth making a distinction between a general sentiment and an allegiance to a progressive set of politics made clear in articles written separately or in the context of interviews, versus being integrated into the novels themselves and having those novels then serve a diagnostic function within the conjuncture—which I think is something else. I personally don’t see it in the novels yet. […] Where is the Irish novel about Shell to Sea, water charges, the decline of Fianna Fáil, the integration of the republican movement into constitutional politics?

Whether he has Rooney in mind or not, in her first two books we can see the gap between the espousal of a “general” political sentiment outside the novel, and its functional absence within the novel. Beausang identifies in contemporary Irish fiction a version of Rooney’s earlier point about a “void” between political theory and lived Irish experience. A successfully social-realist novel would reconcile broader political theories with the specifics of a given place or time, articulating a “conjuncture”.

On the face of it, Beautiful World appears to fall short of this task. As O’Neill highlights in his piece, the epistolary chapters between the two protagonists—Alice in Mayo, Eileen in Dublin—which make up about half of the novel are dominated by platitudes about the end of history and the ravages of an intractable economic system, named but not experienced: “rapacious market capitalism”. At one point, Alice even worries about sounding “un-dialectical”. O’Neill is right to acknowledge that their conversations “have very little engagement with domestic politics”.

But in this novel, the conspicuous absence seems purposive. As if riffing directly on Rooney’s line about the void between theory and practice, Eileen admits that “our political vocabulary has decayed so deeply and rapidly since the twentieth century that most attempts to make sense of our present historical moment turn out to be essentially gibberish”; the punchline, however, comes on the next page: “Anyway, I have a new theory”.

Incidentally, this “new theory” connects an earlier topic in the exchange—“general systems collapse” and the end of civilisations—and a later discussion of the exact moment “human beings lost the instinct for beauty”. The arc of this conversation relies either on abstraction in the extreme, or references to historical, decidedly remote “civilisations”—the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age and the Soviet Union. Early on, Eileen admits that “General systems collapse is not something I had ever really thought about as a possibility before. Of course I know in my brain that everything we tell ourselves about human civilisation is a lie. But imagine having to find out in real life”. Later, Alice weighs in:

I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history. I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? […] Or maybe it was just the end of one civilisation, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place.

It’s tempting to file this away with the novel’s other millenarian musings—until Eileen takes the thread back up some 200 pages later: “isn’t it curious that this event [the fall of the Berlin Wall] coincided almost exactly with the date of your birth?”.

Finally, we are somewhere, local. Yes, the fall of the Berlin Wall did represent the collapse of the Soviet Union—but it also coincided with something much closer to home for Alice and Eileen. As Conor McCabe notes:

The 20-year period from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the crash of the financial markets in 2008 was marked in Ireland […] by neo-corporatist social partnership agreements, a credit and construction boom […], and a hollowing out of the social wage.[iii]

In other words, Alice and Eileen’s lives correlate directly with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. They were babies of the Boom and young adults of the Bust; their lives in the novel are circumscribed by this very fact. A moment of reflection in one of Eileen’s emails—reached because, as she aptly puts it, “I went on reading”—seems to subtly acknowledge this. Referring back to “the Late Bronze Age collapse”, she writes:

After the ‘collapse of civilisation’, many of them moved elsewhere, and some may have died, but for the most part their lives probably did not change much. […] Our rich and complex international networks of production and distribution have come to an end before, but here we are, you and I, and here is humanity.

For my money, this is the most overt instance in any of Rooney’s novels of a character aligning themselves, albeit tangentially, with what Anna Joyce has referred to in the Irish Times as the “economically shocked generation” of Irish people who would elsewhere fit the millennial bracket. The crash was a civilisational collapse of sorts in Ireland, just as the banal drift back into the same destructive patterns in the state today chimes with Eileen’s epiphany above; “a history in which everything changes but nothing changes”, as Fintan O’Toole has recently dubbed it in the Irish Times. Responding to this point in her next email, Alice has a similarly post-crash realisation. Referring to her cosmopolitan cultural interests—British, American, Danish—she asks, “what if it’s all a form of vanity, or even worse a little bandage over the initial wound of my origins?”. Being born into a society marked by neo-corporatism, atrophied labour conditions, and a regime of state-sponsored avarice which would implode before you’re twenty could certainly constitute a wound of origins. She goes on to consider the “gulf” that exists between her and her parents—“it’s impossible for them to touch me now or to reach me at all”—suggesting the unbridgeable generational divide between those who created the crash, and those who, now in their prime, have to navigate the ruined landscape it left behind.

The reason I’m convinced these aren’t mere coincidences is that, for the first time in Rooney’s work, the specifics of contemporary Ireland are actually there throughout the novel to complement them—existing beyond the epistolary medium of the laptop screen. O’Neill identifies some of these in his Gawker piece—for instance, a unique sense in the novel that, as he puts it, “places feel further apart in Ireland”. This may or may not be true, but its stake in the book—“It looks like a combination of trains and taxi journeys might work”—seems to stand for something else. Perhaps the reason why places feel especially remote from one another in Ireland is because, infrastructurally, they often are. Coincident with the state “modernisation” agenda inaugurated by the Fianna Fáil government of 1959 came a major “rationalization” of the railways. Since then, the length of rail servicing the state has been halved. The initial justification for this was that “demand for passenger services was reduced due to low and declining population density”[iv]—in other words, to mitigate the financial losses incurred by mass emigration (from rural to urban areas, but more so from Ireland altogether) in the 1950s, the largest exodus since the Famine. The same would happen in concert with another period of sharp emigration in the 1980s. Emigration and modernisation lurk menacingly beneath the fact that a simple trip from Dublin to Mayo is so treacherous in Beautiful World. It’s apropos that earlier in the novel, “several of Eileen’s friends had recently left or were in the process of leaving Dublin”; here again is that “history in which everything changes but nothing changes”.

Perhaps even more unambiguous is the fact that Alice’s partner Felix works in a warehouse (unnamed, but presumably Amazon or another large corporation) in the rural West, crucially situated “outside town”. Warehouse work is obviously not uniquely Irish, but the specific setting of the one Felix works in, and the working conditions there, have a distinctly and unmistakeably Irish resonance. Once again, its roots are in the “modernising” 1960s, and specifically the transformation of the Industrial Development Authority into the motor for attracting US foreign direct investment in Ireland. The IDA’s platform, beyond recommending smaller and smaller corporation tax rates, was to sell US multinationals on the unspoilt beauty of the Irish countryside—as one of its 1980s ad slogans reads, “in the heart of the Irish countryside, the minds that attract U.S. business”. Of course, scenery doesn’t actually move that kind of money—but attenuated labour rights just might: “Part of the attraction of outlying rural areas for industrial investment was that they lacked the strong traditions of trade union militancy which are characteristic of the urban working class”[v]. So, when Felix says “I fucking hate the place”, or when he complains about the erratic shifts, or about the fact he gets “sliced to bits every other week out in that place”, there is a conspicuously Irish legacy to his grievances. It’s notable, then, that Felix—a genuinely oppressed worker—is the only character in the novel to deem Eileen’s on-off boyfriend Simon’s work as a left-wing politician “fairly important”, while Eileen herself seems to “always forget” he’s a politician at all.

Shirley Peterson speaks of “a cultural amnesia obtained during the booming Celtic Tiger that represses the truth about past social injustices in the pursuit of prosperity”[vi]; to me, it seems Rooney’s characters are subject to a new, post-crash amnesia. In spite of their soul-searching bringing them close, Alice and Eileen never seem to grasp the fundamental connection between their abstract political prognostications and the real Ireland in which they live, even if we do as readers. It’s telling, for instance, that in the final email from Eileen to Alice, the former expects she’ll be able to afford “a little terraced house somewhere in the Liberties” once her baby is born (current house prices suggest she’d need a minimum budget of somewhere in the region of half a million euro). We could argue over whether or not Rooney would agree that this is a little overambitious, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t really matter. The more salient question is broader than that: are we interested in how many times reviewers name the place that Sally Rooney comes from, or should we in fact be more concerned with how accurately that place is depicted across contemporary literature today? Investment in only one of these will deliver us to a worthwhile conclusion: namely, that in Ireland, history is no longer a nightmare from which we’re trying to awake, but a recurring lesson we can’t seem to learn.

[i] Joe Cleary, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2007), p. 78.

[ii] B. Lewis Solow, “A New Look at the Irish Land Question”, Economic and Social Review 12:4 (July 1981), p. 307.

[iii] Conor McCabe, “The Radical Left in Ireland”, Socialism and Democracy 29:3 (2015), p. 161.

[iv] Andy Bielenberg and Raymond Ryan, An Economic History of Ireland since Independence (Routledge, 2013), p. 98.

[v] Luke Gibbons, Transformations in Irish Culture (Cork: Cork University Press & Field Day, 1996), p. 88.

[vi] Shirley Peterson, “Homicide and Home-icide: Exhuming Ireland’s Past in the Novels of Tana French”, Clues: A Journal of Detection 30:2 (2012), p. 100.

Will Fleming is working on a PhD in the English Department at UCL, funded by the Wolfson Foundation. His research aims to reconstruct an economic history of Ireland since the 1950s, insofar as political and economic activities of the state can be glimpsed in the published work and production methods of a number of small poetry presses. Before coming to UCL to do his MA in 2017, he studied English Literature and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, where he edited the literary journal Icarus. He has had poetry published in a handful of Irish magazines, and his academic work has appeared in Humanities. He is from County Wicklow.