Alexis De Tocqueville in Ireland

By Grenier, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 22, 1998 | Go to article overview

Alexis De Tocqueville in Ireland


Grenier, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Stopped on a side street in Belfast some years ago by three men who emerged from the shadows, I found myself grimly questioned on my religion. "I'm an atheist!" I replied light-heartedly, thinking that by this clever evasion I would exempt myself from centuries of religious hatred that had wracked Ireland, thereby appreciably reducing my chances of ending the encounter with a bullet in my head.

None of the three men smiled and one of them, with a no-nonsense gesture, pressed me for an answer. "So you're an atheist, are you now?" he asked skeptically. "But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?" If he were here now I'd have the opportunity -without delving too deeply into theology - of informing him that if all goes well in the referendum Friday he'll be out of date, and that "the troubles" are over.

As it is, I ask myself if it's really possible that after hundreds of years of bloody war Ireland might finally find peace? The double referendum that takes place in Ireland Friday (the Republic and the North holding separate referenda) presents the best chance for peace that Ireland has had for hundreds of years.

Most Americans know Alexis de Tocqueville as the French nobleman who, traveling through America in the age of Andrew Jackson, produced the most extraordinary work of analysis, "Democracy in America". (He was to be Foreign Minister of France's Second Republic.)

Tocqueville's good fortune was that he had the chance to visit, in America, a young but thriving democracy. All he had to do was figure out how it worked. When not long afterwards he visited Ireland - still under British rule - his task was altogether more formidable. "You cannot imagine," he wrote to his father near the beginning of his Irish voyage, "what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorders, and religious hostility have piled up on this poor people. It's a ghastly labyrinth in which it is difficult to find one's way."

The central concern of Tocqueville's entire intellectual life, particularly since his visit to America, was the great transition from an aristocratic to a democratic society that he felt was then taking place in the Western world. In England he was concerned that the transition would come about peacefully, sparing England an equivalent of the French Revolution (during which some of Tocqueville's relatives had gone to the guillotine). For England, at least, he was optimistic.

But Ireland, although at the time unified, and having many English institutions, filled him with despair. It was destitute beyond anything he could have imagined. The people wore rags, no shoes. Their huts had neither doors nor windows. The comparatively well off Irish peasants owned a pig, sharing with him their one room. If lost in the Irish countryside and looking for a cottage to spend the night, one must always look for one with a pig as a sign of comparative affluence.

Ireland and the Irish in general were truly half starved, he was horrified to find. …

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