“What do you mean maybe?”: on dying for Ireland
St. Patrick’s Day 2021 mightn’t live long in the memory. At least in Ireland itself, the national holiday was celebrated amidst the third Covid-induced lockdown, which saw parades cancelled, hordes of Americans with a tenuous grasp of their own ancestry prevented from crossing the Atlantic to greet us, and members of the Irish Government stopped from travelling the globe, bowls of shamrock in hand, for the annual rituals of supplication before the leaders of various countries (or ‘displays of Ireland’s diplomatic superpowers’ as they are now called).
If one good thing came of Patty’s Day ’21, it may have been the resurfacing, on Twitter, of an excerpt from Would you Die for Ireland?, a 2003 video work by Irish artist John Byrne. A 2-minute extract from the 12-minute piece went semi-viral on 17 March and the days following.
In the extract, Byrne stands with a microphone on O’Connell Bridge one afternoon in summer 2003, asking passers-by the outwardly absurd but heavily weighted question ‘would you die for Ireland?’. The answers are thoughtful and blithe, hilarious and baffling in turn.
One man says “sorry, I can’t” as if he’s been asked to make up the numbers at 5-a-side. Two Italian (?) tourists (?) say “Yeah! why not?”, presumably on the assumption there was nothing better to do that day. One man’s response of “maybe” is instantly rebuffed by his companion, off-camera, asking “what do you mean maybe?”. We can only imagine the conversations that the question prompted among the various groups as they continued on their way.
However, I’d be doing the piece a massive disservice to write it off as another piece of momentarily-engaging flotsam that tingles our dopamine receptors to a sufficient degree to make us smash that retweet button. The video (the full 12-minute version of which you can view here) is fantastic for reasons I’m myself only gradually appreciating. I’ve watched it probably a dozen times since I came across it on Patrick’s Day, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again long after I’ve written this piece.
Not only for the way in which its explicit themes of nationalism, martyrdom, pride and solidarity are expressed through the perspectives of the various respondents, but also as a brilliant cultural artefact in its own right, an insight into the Ireland of 2003 — and just as importantly, the Ireland of centuries past and decades hence.
You could boil the past century of Irish history down to two grand narratives. You could also boil it down to seven narratives or 12, or insist that something as important as history is impervious to the vulgar act of boiling. But I think it’s easy, at least, to think of it in terms of these two stories.
The first story is the one that everyone knows from school and which, on its own terms, is the single story without which nothing else on the island makes sense. This is the story of Ireland’s relationship with colonialism and the emerging, contested sense of nationhood that arose in response to it. In this reading, ‘Irish history’ is a story about Ireland and England, nationalists and unionists, republicanism and loyalism, Catholics and Protestants: one in which Ian Paisley and Wolfe Tone, James Connolly and Oliver Cromwell, Gerry Adams and Brian Ború stand together as characters in a story which, for all its swirls and disconcerting eddies, has remained essentially the same for the better part of a millennium.
In this reading, the Troubles are the latest manifestation of violence and chaos thrown up as a result of Ireland’s encounter with imperialism, and recent developments like the Good Friday Agreement make sense only insofar as they are conduits in which the energy of this millennium’s worth of strife is bottled and momentarily contained.
The second story is the part of recent Irish history that usually comprises the last 10 pages of grand-survey history books with exciting titles like Ireland: A History and The History of Ireland.
In these 10 pages, you get the sense that the historian has passed from their area of interest into the realm of stultifyingly boring “current affairs”, and the narrative whizzes to a conclusion along the lines of:
We join the EU
Foreign investment floods the country
Peace in the North!
Ireland liberalises, opens up to the outside world, and centuries of emigration end as we become a net-immigration country for the first time
Calamitous economic crisis!
Tenuous, export-led recovery
As even non-Irish readers will be able to tell, the second story isn’t as exciting as the first. While globalisation, European integration and international capitalism changed the material and (it can be argued) social circumstances of the country far more than the Act of Union, independence or the Land War ever could on their own, the moment at which the ‘protagonists’ of Irish history stop being the romantic heroes of the first story, and start being the IDA and Charlie McCreevy, a lot of people start to drift off.
Part of this is because the more boring story is all still so recent as to not have passed into myth or popular memory yet.
But part of it is that one of the main features of the past 60 years in Ireland (and similar things have happened elsewhere) has been the evolution of a country in which single narratives — political, social, religious — no longer held sway; a country where the fragmentation of accepted narratives, the explosion of new forms of expression, and the material comfort (complacency?) for many people to not to really give a shit about Irish politics, to be honest, began to win out over the old myths and romantic tales.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that Would you Die for Ireland? works superbly as a document which illustrates these processes and stories in action.
The artist, John Byrne, has dealt and grappled with themes of violence, ideology and the nation in various pieces over the course of a long career. A couple of years prior to Would you Die for Ireland?, he set up an installation of a “Border interpretive centre” in a shed at the spot on the main Dublin to Belfast road where you pass from the Republic into Northern Ireland; treating the Irish border itself (“Twinned with the Korean Border”) as an item of historical and tourist-revenue-generating interest.
Not long after this, Byrne was commissioned to create a piece for an exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol which marked 200 years since the execution of Robert Emmett after the rebellion of 1801. Emmett’s speech prior to being hanged has become a key tenet of Story #1, particularly the closing sentences:
“When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
Byrne explicitly references Emmett and the visceral possibility of dying for Ireland-related reasons during his own youth:
“[Emmett’s] famous speech from the dock and subsequent execution at the age of 25 made me think about Patriotism and the idea of making the ultimate sacrifice for Nation. I grew up in west Belfast at a time when the possibility of involvement in something which could have led to incarceration or perhaps even death was real. I think boys and young men are particularly open to this. I’m thankful I was steered in a different direction. Deciding to make the video was a kind of reflection on that period as much as a response to the ‘brief’”.
You can see why a question like ‘would you die for Ireland?’, absurd as it might seem on first impression, would nonetheless carry some weight in a country where dying and killing for the place has been a common activity, for centuries on either side of Emmett’s oration.
On the other hand, the question has a different resonance than it would have in Britain or the United States. As a neutral country whose armed forces serve only on international peacekeeping duty, there is less of a culture of statist militarism in Ireland than some other countries, and less glorification of the abstract possibility of dying in war than there is glorification of the literal, past acts of violence which led to the State’s creation.
Throughout Byrne’s video, you can sense the tension between the two stories mentioned above — and the different potential interpretations of scenarios in which one’s dying for Ireland might occur.
For some, saying ‘yes’ comes across as a kind of civic nationalism, a reflexive response to the very fact of living in and owing something to a nation state — any nation state — “of course I would, it’s my country”. One man in Cork (?) sums up his feelings on the matter by saying that “I feel a lot about the country — ’tis a great spot”.
At the same time, the weight of historical conflict is everywhere.
On a basic level, many older respondents would have inevitably lived through several iterations of Ireland’s unfolding historical trauma. My late grandfather was 79 in 2003, and I remember him recounting the bombing of Dublin in 1941, and his own father’s experience of the Easter Rising and the establishment of the Free State. People of his generation had spent decades of their lives during which dying for or at least because of Ireland was a distinct possibility that didn’t require any abstract philosophising.
For some younger respondents, the idealism attached to the issue seems almost overwhelming. One young man “looked ready to go then and there” according to a well-liked tweet. Ultimately, the most striking response for me comes from a Tyrone football fan wearing tinted sunglasses outside Croke Park:
“I know a number of men who have — back in the 1980s in the Troubles in the North sort of thing. They all died young men, and there’s something about dying young. I think it was immortalised by the American guy, who was it, James Dean? Something about ‘die young, leave a beautiful corpse’. It’s the same thing — if you die for Ireland, die young, you’re remembered forever in Irish folklore”.
At time of filming, the Good Friday Agreement was only five years old. The provisional IRA was yet to fully decommission, and the British army’s Operation Banner was four years from completion. As such, and as many respondents allude to, the main or only circumstances in which they would countenance dying for Ireland would be in order to further the struggle towards the ultimate goal of republicanism. In this reading of Irish history, nothing much had changed, and nor was it likely to. If Irish history had been defined by struggle, then the struggle had not yet ended — and rather than a mere abstraction, for many people the possibility of dying for Ireland remained a realistic, albeit unlikely direction their own lives could feasibly take.
The past, as they say, isn’t even past.
The second story rears its head at a more oblique angle than the first. This is another sense in which the video operates as a piece of cultural history. In 2003, Ireland was riding high on the fumes of the Celtic Tiger economy. A credit bubble fuelled a housing boom which was accompanied by the kinds of conspicuous consumption that have become legend.
The Galway Tent. Pádraig Flynn telling the country to “try it sometime” (the ‘it’ in question of course meaning ‘try to own and operate three separate houses — in Dublin, Mayo and Brussels — on the measly salary of a European Commissioner’). A trampoline in every suburban garden. Kids getting brought to their First Communion ceremonies by limousine and helicopter. Bulgarian apartment blocks where every unit was owned by an Irish person. Truly, such a world we have lost.
In 2003, Ireland was in year two of a three-year streak atop Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘most globalised countries’ index. In Would you Die for Ireland?, we catch a brief shot of the Spire, the 110m metal landmark on O’Connell Street which had only been erected a couple of months prior to Byrne’s filming. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern — emblem of the era if ever there was one — appears in the video less than a year after his second election victory as leader of Fianna Fáil — after another victory in 2007, no other party would ever achieve above 40% in an election again (for now).
How many respondents, then, are coming to the question with the overriding importance of Story #1 deflated in their minds, living as they do in an Ireland where ideas such as nationalism, political violence and even the concept of society itself had been weakened, to the point of irony or ridicule?
It’s pointless to generalise, but the pointless generalisation machine that is my brain did find it interesting that probably the most strident refutation of idea concept of nationalism per se comes from a dude in a Metallica shirt:
“No, no interest whatsoever. Wouldn’t die for any country, flag, or blood. No interest whatsoever”
I don’t want to give the impression that your clothing or your musical taste determines your political beliefs, but he wasn’t wearing a Planxty shirt all the same. It’s obvious watching the video the extent to which it depicts a country which had begun to turn its attention ever-further outward, for better and for worse.
In such a context it’s impossible to imagine that many people were answering the question in the same way they once would have, given that the dominant ideas regarding what Ireland “is” had themselves changed profoundly.
Speaking via email, Byrne said that the question itself is utterly absurd stripped of any context, and only through repeating the question and observing the common threads of people’s responses, does it become normalised and begin to feel important or profound.
“Its enormity or absurdity effectively I think, led some people to answer something else and their positive responses were more declarations of love for Ireland than any preparedness for martyrdom”.
Indeed, a lot of the responses are clearly about something else than the narrow concept of dying for Ireland as such. In the North, a man says “I’d rather live for Ireland, see what I can do for it”. This being 2003 — a banner year for US foreign policy if ever there was one — a Yank informs us that rather than die, he would “kill for Ireland”. Byrne says that owing to the more “jarring” resonance of the question in the North, he primarily worked in neutral or nationalist areas when on that side of the border — a day trip to meet members of the Orange Order on the Twelfth of July aside.
In these sections, we witness the extent to which “Ireland” itself isn’t even something with a definition that all residents of the island agree on. As one Orangeman tells Byrne, many unionists who died in the Battle of the Somme (1916) or the Battle of the Boyne (1690) did so in the belief that they were dying for Ireland.
Elsewhere, the class dynamics at operation in Irish society (but which are often ignored or imagined not to exist) are clear. Why die for a country which does little for its people, even at a time of economic growth, is a repeated response.
One woman says “I am dying for Ireland — bit by bit. It’s taking every bit of my body, I’m going to end up in the ground”. (As an aside, the relative absence of women from the video is a relevant point in itself — on viewing, it can come across as a commentary on the way that nationalism, martyrdom and violence have been gendered as masculine in Ireland and around the world, though Byrne now believes that the male skew of the respondents to have been a mistake).
And the presence of various minority respondents attests to another facet of the Irish story that was still only being worked out. Ireland only became a net-immigration country for the first time in forever in 1996, and the net inflow of immigrants in 2003 was 30,700. After various Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004, that number rocketed to 104,800 by 2007, before the economy collapsed and Ireland once again ceased to be the kind of country you’d want to move your life to.
A German (?) man informs us Ireland is “400 years under oppression of the English government”, and as such he’d gladly die for Ireland himself. An Indian man (?) says that of course, anyone would prefer to die for their home country, but being so far from his, the fact that “I like this country — I love this country”, means he would die for it if the need arose.
More depressingly, a Black woman suggests that, despite having an Irish passport and Irish kids, she doubts that she would ever be considered “an Irish person”. That this speaks volumes about the narrow and exclusionary way that ‘Irishness’ has been, and is often still imagined, should be obvious, and is one of many threads that could be pursued as revealing something important about the kind of country Ireland actually is.
I could go on about the video at additional length but feel that I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything that would beat the insights you’d glean from watching it yourself. So again, please do watch it.
An obvious point to end on would be to ask Byrne his own views on the question — would he die for Ireland?
The invite for that original exhibition was an image of my back garden at the time in Cabra, with hedge, shrubs, neighbour’s house backs, some of the kid’s toys, swing and slide with the question emblazoned across it. Both question and answer I suppose. I always liked what a guy said early on in the video: “Ireland is a word, why would I die for a word?”