The 'Green' War on the Irish Nation
Conor Fitzgerald is one of the rare Irish political and cultural commentators who is consistently worth a read, and his latest Substack post is no exception. It is a lyrical meditation on the place of fire and the hearth in the Irish imagination, in the wake of the government's declaration of war against fireplaces and burning peat, the nation's traditional method of heating homes. Here's Fitzgerald:
The fire is a glowing thread you follow that leads you back into Deep Ireland. Past your parents and your grandparents. They tried to get Irish peasantry to bake bread during the famine but no one had an oven, only a fire. The oldest bodies that can be found on this island are not buried in tombs but under metres of peat, and are often discovered by Bord Na Mona [the state entity which oversees peat bog harvesting]. If humanity can have a Collective Unconscious -- a library of primordial images that everyone recognises without ever having learned them -- I don’t see why there can’t be regional branches of that library. The Fire is the central Jungian achetype of the Irish Collective Unconscious.
"Which is a shame," Fitzgerald continues, "because in the present day, changes to planning laws mean that open fireplaces will increasingly be a thing of the past, nostalgia be damned." He explains that government regulations (bearing all the fingerprints of our old friend Eamon Ryan, Green party leader, environment minister, and anti-Irish zealot) mandate that all new buildings in Ireland will need to pass rigorous energy efficiency standards, which serves as a de facto ban on fireplaces. Moreover, he says, "[s]ales of existing houses will also depend on energy efficiency ratings, meaning that existing fireplaces will be sealed/ bricked up," while "[t]he commercial sale of turf is to be banned, and Bord Na Mona’s peat harvesting is also being wound down for environmental reasons."
For those of you who don't know the country, the smell of the turf fire is one of the principal things that let's you know not only that you're in Ireland, but that you're home. You don't smell it inside the home, but outside, where it functions as a beacon and a signifier, reminding you where you are and how lucky you are to be there. There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Apart from the sentimental aspects of the story, there are notable practical issues with these arbitrary and destructive diktats. The first is that Ireland, like the rest of the world, is being crushed under unprecedented heating and energy rates. Ireland's Electricity Supply Board has just this month increased residential gas rates by nearly 40 percent. With the war in Ukraine still raging and likely to continuing roiling global energy markets for the foreseeable future, does it make any sense at all to restrict a tried-and-true method of heating homes, and one which was the only source of heating when many Irish dwellings were built? Eastern Europeans, who have been spending days lining up for rationed coal and stockpiling timber as winter approaches, would probably be grateful for a natural resource like peat.
The second is that Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis. For a sense of its scale, Michael Brendan Dougherty recently wrote that "A few weeks ago, in a country of nearly 5 million people, there were only 716 available rental vacancies." There are several overlapping reasons for the shortage, including the slow recovery of the construction industry following the end of the Celtic Tiger; mass immigration and refugee resettlement (Ireland has accepted more than twice as many Ukrainian refugees as France, despite France's population being ten times that of Ireland); and land-use regulations that inflate the cost of buying and building on land.
The government's responses to the shortage have served to aggravate the problem. For example, Dougherty points to "subsidies for first time buyers, which are immediately priced into the market and recouped by owners as profits." For another, the Irish Green Building Council has declared that the nation must "limit home-building to just 21,000 units a year to meet climate targets." And now we have these regulations requiring "energy efficiency ratings" which will restrict peoples' ability to put their own homes on the market without plugging up their perfectly serviceable fireplace. This is madness.
Still, Fitzgerald's nostalgic appeal shouldn't be overwhelmed by these utilitarian considerations. Eamon Ryan—who only got his ministerial job because Ireland's two main parties needed a "partner" to hold their coalition together—and the government he dominates from a distinctly minority position as the leader of a party that got 7 percent of the vote in the last election are chipping away at "the people’s sense of orientation, uniqueness and familiarity and replacing it with nothing."
What Ryan is trying to do, and so far succeeding, is destroy Ireland as an independent nation-state with a long national history of suffering under foreign occupation and a culture worth preserving, being proud of, and fighting for. He is a tool of Brussels, and one of the most dangerous men in Irish history.
The word "nostalgia" refers to a "longing for home," and it is exactly this longing that has ensured Ireland's outsized influence on western culture. Due to the country's centuries of diaspora, Americans especially have tended to associate Ireland with home. John Ford's The Quiet Man -- where a taciturn American returns to his Irish birthplace to buy his parents' cottage and marry a beautiful, short-tempered red-head -- is a classic example. And that, in turn, has had an outsized influence on Ireland's gross domestic product. In 2019, the last full year before Covid-19 rocked the industry, tourism generated $14.81 billion for the Irish economy.
But how can that "longing for home" exist without hominess? How can Ireland's reputation for warmth survive without the hearth? How can Ireland sell nostalgia for their ancestors' "native peat," if burning peat is a thing of the past? In short, if the attacks on Irish distinctiveness discussed above and in our previous piece about the war on Irish cattle are allowed to continue, why would anyone want to go there?
These are questions the present government doesn't want you asking because, almost to a man, they hate their heritage, their culture, and their hard-won country. At least Gypo Nolan, the traitor in Liam O'Flaherty's novel and John Ford's classic 1935 film, had a reason for his treachery. What's Eamon Ryan's?