What is the constitution of an institution? Who decides in and for an institution? What happens when an institution rejects us, or when we destroy an institution? Owen Dudley Edwards meditates …
The Reader Knows Best
England is still governed from Langar Rectory, from Shrewsbury School, from Cambridge, with their annexes of the Stock Exchange and the solicitors’ offices; and even if the human products of these institutions were all geniuses, they would finally wreck any modern civilized country after maintaining themselves according to their own notions at the cost of the squalor and slavery of four-fifths of its inhabitants.
— George Bernard Shaw (1936) Introductory essay to Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (1903)
When I was growing up in Catholic Ireland 70-80 years ago, dirty jokes depended on innuendo however crude, rather than on the symphonies in F dominating discourse today.
Theoretically Irish Catholic schoolchildren might seem the most likely regurgitators of Anglophobe filth, but by the late 1940s Anglophobia had staled, verging as it did on official Irish government doctrine and otherwise protracted in endless repetition. The Americans, as world plutocrats, heated up newer grudges. And so we told ourselves stories of pompous US speeches such as an American leader telling the world his country led mankind in institution, constitution, and pros — perity. No doubt such whispered depravity consoled us for losing George Orwell’s 1984, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and other English victims of official Irish book censorship.
As bad jokes go, it was better informed than English anti-Americanism: Irish migration to the USA transmitted American popular political theory. The Declaration of Independence hovered opaquely in the respectabilization of Irish nationalism, the US Constitution was known to have partly inspired the Irish Constitution of 1937. And the third, aborted, category had some slight official status in rape attempts by US soldiers when quartered in Northern Ireland.
There was the unspoken thought that institution and constitution might be contagious cousins to prosperity, but might find prostitution even more infectious.
Irish schoolchildren comprehended these implications without their banal articulation. We realised that institution and constitution were sacred things to Americans, that they were supposed to have resulted (as if by magic) in creating prosperity. ‘The Dark Wisdom’ of the slums (thus labelled by the would-be aristocrat English Catholic Evelyn Waugh in Put Out More Flags) rejoiced in the realism that saw prostitution more evident than prosperity. Leading American authors fell below the chariot-wheels of Irish Censorship, among them John Steinbeck for East of Eden and J. D. Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye. We Irish became quite adept in the purchase and smuggling of banned books via migrants making home visits, once the Censorship Board had obligingly called the works obscene.
‘Constitution’ — as a word in UK use — frequently conducts its users into the nearest Serbonian bog, not least because its more chauvinist British discussants take as much pride in its UK non-existence as Hans Anderson’s Emperor in his New Clothes on their first outing. The consensus seems to be that the UK needs a written Constitution but fortunately cannot have one. Some Scottish nationalists declared that the Act of Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 is that Constitution. The other Acts of Union can scarcely be ignored, as Institution if not Constitution. The Union of Wales and England (master-minded by Thomas Cromwell whose sovereign Henry VIII executed him during its enactment (1536-43)) was declared law by the English King and Parliament with no Welsh participants, adding that it had existed from the beginning of the world. The successive Unions of Great Britain and Ireland (enacted in 1801) and of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (established under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and formally named in 1927) have been more sworn at than sworn by, their ultimate solution of 1927 employed but disdained by defenders of the entire British-Irish UK or by opponents of its continued existence in any form, while their original creation in 1801 forgot to abolish the King’s Viceroy in Ireland thus leaving the place officially governed by royal court and by parliamentary representation: having the two institutions maintained more jobs for the rulers’ friends. Two and two can make pretty pennies.
‘Institution’ hauntingly supplants the last word in Modest Mussorgsky’s musical Pictures at an Exhibition (1881) whose opening Promenade was made the theme-tune of ‘The New Statesman’ (1987-92), the blazingly contemptuous TV soap-opera satirising modern British politics (written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran) and savagely focussed on the imaginary cynical chauvinist Tory politician Alan Beresford B’Stard (played by Rik Mayall). The final word substitution was established by the American poet Randall Jarrell in his Pictures from an Institution (1954) the institution in question being modern US academic life, a much-ploughed field for the celebrity-seeking highbrow novelist. Naturally the UK Parliament presented itself as the Institution confronting most constituents. It had been masterfully mocked in the Edinburgh Festival Satire ‘Beyond the Fringe’ which inspired ‘The Establishment’ and the TV series ‘That Was the Week That Was’ the latter reaching the heights of self-satire when its best-publicised star David Frost interviewed the disgraced Richard Nixon and won world-wide publicity for showing Nixon agreeing that he had been disgraced, despite having known it from his own resignation. The greatest rival facing the ‘B’Stard’ series was ‘Yes, Minister’ evolved into ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ (1980-88), deadly in its elegant ironies and Wildean epigram, but somewhat beyond the comprehension of many politicians (Margaret Thatcher, being limited in humour and intellect, called it her favourite programme thus following Nixon in unconscious self-satire, as she did in making war her chief agent for election victory). As satire ‘The New Statesman’ preferred the bludgeon to the rapier, an obvious example being visions of B’Stard wearing underpants manufactured from the Union Jack.
Fans remembering the series may sometims think of it as a forecast of Boris Johnson. But the truth is less mystical. Mr Johnson probably made it his political vade mecum which through the doors of his perception naturally became vade mayhem.
The Johnson soap-opera currently embarrasses me. By the time you read this, you may have witnessed Mr Johnson’s Waterloo, which I still think to be far, far away. To make matters worse, I want Mr Johnson to remain in 10 Downing Street in all of the culture of vine and vomit he has imposed on it, and I do so for what the Victorians called ‘interested motives’. Specifically, Luath Press are on the verge of publishing my new book Our Nations and Nationalisms, and although I am a historian to trade I begin with reference to the present, with Mr Johnson named as Prime Minister. Should he be driven from office before my book appears, it is born obsolete.
Institutions vs Matricide
O suitably attired in leather boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in enquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Thus begins A. E. Housman’s ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’, an exquisite satire lampooning the pedestrian translations of Greek flourishing in late Victorian days, for instance wickedly echoing the laboured contrivance with which scholars would try make Anglophone room for the dual number unfamiliar to persons ignorant of Greek and therefore an obvious reason for its pedantic deployment. It calls other tunes: great homosexual poets can never quite exclude gay code, and nightingales mean the gay cult figures of the dying Keats hearing the Nightingale, and Wilde’s fairy tale of the Nightingale killing herself to aid the unworthy student, and the expelled Eton master W. J. Cory translating the elegy for Heraclitus —
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Housman’s bogus ‘Fragment’ concludes with the original addressee Alcmaeon now offstage killing his mother Eriphyla (for having made his father participate and be killed in the war of Seven Against Thebes, unmentioned in the ‘Fragment’). Her voice can be heard crying out against the matricide:
ERIPHELA [within]: O! O! another stroke! This makes the third,
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
CHORUS: If that be so, thy state of health is poor,
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.
Institutions may be maternal, to be avenged when assassinated, if not repudiated by assassination. They may also be maternal in another sense, refuge from a world against which individuals may drive themselves insane. They may imply an absence of mind conflating them via Mussorgsky with persons making Exhibitions of themselves, whether for personal profit as practised self-vauntingly by Alan B’Stard, or for scientific purposes in auto-experiment undertaken by Dr Jekyll with the result of Mr Hyde. In strict academic usage, an Institute for this or that originally meant a monastic refuge whence the uncouth or ignorant were supposedly excluded. An Institution naturally draws to itself the supreme loyalties of its personnel. Thus a country or a religion is an Institution whose defence when personally undertaken supersedes all other loyalties. Enforcement of that defence through conscription automatically commends itself to moronic militarists, but it decays easily into corruption and despair.
And institutions may exist for the eradication of motherhood, scouring identity’s respect for the act of birth, creation of loyalties to replace respect for human life.
What finally includes a person in an Institution may frequently be the conduct of some rival entity once claiming maternal allegiance but now showing itself a child-devourer. Ireland produces an example. The Easter Rising of 1916 is commonly credited with setting off alienation from the existing UK and the Union which had defined it in 1800. Supposedly, Irish Catholic allegiance was aborted by the military repression and the execution of self-surrendered Easter rebel leaders (and individuals credited inaccurately with leadership). But however valuable compassion for victims may be in exciting repudiation of self-proclaimed protectors now self-exhibited as tyrants, tyrants’ war against their own subjects seems a more obvious breaking-point. In particular a government demolishing its own cities may invite a deeper departure. General Sir John Maxwell’s repression of the Easter Rising in mid-week, by the bombardment of Dublin (from the warship Helga and other official military origins), was probably what first turned most subjects into rebels. Dublin before Easter 1916 was the least Irish city in Ireland. Its thousand-year identity had begun with Viking raiders and settlers, becoming the principal base for Norse, Norman, and English/British administrators down the centuries. You may try to proclaim its Irishness by the works of Joyce as Exhibits to buttress your Evidence, but Joyce acquired that encyclopaedic vision as a Cork man (the first thing you and he see in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a cow). Dublin’s chief political identity in 1916 was the Catholic dream of a reactivated ghost of a Parliament which had excluded all Catholics to the day of its death. Maxwell banned all news reports of the insurrection during Easter Week itself so that when reporters and editors were let loose they cheered the Helga’s attempted destruction of the Socialist headquarters Liberty Hall (‘now a sinister and hateful memory’ (Irish Times)) which Maxwell romantically assumed must be also the headquarters of the rebels (who had actually installed themselves in the General Post Office and other government and business strongholds). But in fact Maxwell’s shells did far greater damage to main city thoroughfares, above all to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. The Cork Examiner deemed it would take Dublin 50 years to recover. Maxwell’s propaganda implied that the UK was back in full control, as a result of which Dublin citizens looking at their streets, buildings, quays knew their ruins for the work of UK troops who had therefore become the inhabitants’ visible enemy and most immediate danger as well as being the first British troops (apart from rioters) to attack Dublin since the Norman invaders of 1171 routed its Norse rulers (William III took it in 1690 without firing an additional shot). The balladeer Peadar Kearney is credited with authorship of a song about the Rising containing the lines ‘Britannia’s Huns with their long-range guns sailed in through the Foggy Dew’. Dublin transferred its allegiance by nationalising the vocabulary of UK patriotic warfare.
And so Dublin really became an Irish institution. The General Post Office won its place in Irish nationalist sacred mythology. It was an appropriate symbol in more ways than one. Its ordeal prophesied the end of Dublin’s status as a UK government branch office.
The City of Mary
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope,
To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve,
To thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears,
Turn then, O most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us,
And after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary,
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
This hymn, the Salve Regina, is here translated from its thousand-year-old Latin text, but it usefully sums up Catholic doctrine, whether Roman, Greek, Russian or Ukrainian. Its doctrine is orthodox, in all senses. It does not imagine that Mary can (or would) alter the judgment of God, but makes it clear our prayers to her are that she help us to change ourselves to qualify for sanctity by repentance for our sins. We are asking her to pray for us to do what we should.
The cult of Mary is a cult within Christianity, supremely memorable. Without Mary there could be no Jesus, and His birth from her womb identifies with all human lives. Appeal to Mary draws all Catholic humans together (and also all Protestants when they realise it does not claim divinity for her).
Humanity has sought to honour Mary in innumerable churches, but also in differing landscapes, arts, and cities. Secularization extends ignorance, and probably most inhabitants of the largest town to bear her name — Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles — no longer realise it is her whom they honour by living in her town, although today the growth of Latinos in excess of Anglophones may mean the original name is implicit for a greater number of Angelinos than existed in the twentieth century. This does not mean festooning the city in pompous public prayers, but simply increasing individual psychological sense of her being ours and our being hers notably on day-to-day difficulties which seem too trivial for appeal to God. She is the mother of everyone in being the mother of God. The survival of the Roman Catholic church in early eighteenth-century Ireland (when almost all priests were outlawed) was ensured by the cult of Mary to whom Catholic mothers prayed. The same would have been true of Catholic identity across the world.
Mariupol means the city of Mary. It was founded in 1779, its title taken from an ikon of Mary showing Jesus to the world as its Redeemer. The Russian authorities made official noises about its being in honour of the presumptive future Empress Sophia Dorothea niece of Frederick the Great of Prussia and daughter-in-law of Catherine the Great of Russia married to Catherine’s son and heir the future Paul I in 1776 when she was officially renamed Marie Feodorovna. She would be mother of the assassinated Paul’s successor Czar Alexander I who declined her offer to share his rule. She hardly impacted on the lives of the rapidly growing inhabitants of the rapidly industrialising centre Mariupol, whose existence as a holy city was permanently linked to the Virgin Mary to whom they perpetually prayed. How love of Mary survived in Communist days can hardly be judged: God did not exactly share rule with Lenin and his successors, but divine wings were faintly audible, Nikita Khrushchev of the Ukraine interjecting ‘Thank God’ in mid-oration even during his mastery of the USSR.
The most obvious effect of this has been the impact of the Russia destruction of Mariupol, the holy city, on former supporters of pro-Russian politics. In Russia itself the Russian Orthodox Church has noisily supported Mr Putin’s invasion, although dissident prayers may have been said during remote Masses. Orwell’s Animal Farm satirised that church as Moses the Raven, always talking of Sugarcandy mountain while blatantly supporting the ruling pigs once it has returned to the farm, following initial exile after the Revolution (it was conspicuously the favourite of the human farmer’s wife Mrs Jones in pre-revolution times). It had been very conscious of its subordination to the Czarist and to the later post-Revolutionary regimes, cut back by Khrushchev but encouraged by some of his Soviet successors under whom state authorities worked closely with churchmen on their charitable and social duties. Stalin had publicly used the Russian Orthodox church as a legitimate weapon against Hitler. Essentially, it was an arm of the state, analogous to the Church of England, but not to the Church of Scotland which asserts its spiritual superiority over the state (exemplified by its role in the creation (or reconvening) of the Scottish Parliament). Tory complaints against the wise criticisms of government by Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury are demands that the Church of England remain in the subordinate status where Henry VIII had put it. It is Russia’s misfortune apparently to lack its own Justin Welby.
But Ukraine’s Orthodox priests, whether in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or not, are producing their own Justin Welby. Those in allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchite have broken from it within the last few days. Longstanding Orthodox opponents of the Vatican now declare that they share Pope Francis’s demand for peace.
They have bluntly answered Moscow by declaring that Russia invaded Ukraine, and Ukraine did not invade Russia, thus replying to Putin’s lies, and to his Moscow Patriarchite supporters’ applause. The slaughter in Mary’s city strikes at the spiritual identity of the Ukrainian people. The readiness of their official Russian coreligionists to justify continuation of that slaughter has smashed their historical unity. Putin’s declaration that Mariupol was destroyed by the Ukrainians is met with contempt in the west, but to Mary’s citizens it is sheer blasphemy. The Russians have made gigantic progress in uniting the religious sects of Ukraine against them. And those religions, whether held fiercely or tepidly most of the time, summon up ancient loyalties. That fervour once animated Ukraine in mutual Christian hatreds through endless European conflicts; today, more and more, it builds up Ukrainian nationalism. It is as though Putin has accused Mary and Jesus’s other female disciples of having crucified Him.
Western journalists worry that the Ukrainians led as prisoners (disguised as refugees) into Russian oblivion will be brainwashed and lose any memory of their Ukraine identity. But it is the same Mary who maintains that identity wherever they are, and her name is inseparable from that of her city from whose ruins they have been enslaved.
Psephologists are unlikely to find much help in trying to separate Ukrainian nationalism from Marian devotion. There is no difference for certain humans in such a situation. Nationalism is more easily expressed today, but the call of Mary comes from a deeper, older ancestral soul. Its force would be all the greater because few might answer it aloud, other than in Christian churches such as St Michael’s great cathedral, the glory of Mariupol from its opening in 1997 singing the divine praises over the Sea of Azov.
The Dublin antecedent is interesting. Victorious Irish nationalism hated to admit that during the previous century or so many prominent Dubliners were proud of their city, their island, and their United Kingdom. Then came the shelling of Sackville Street bringing revulsion from the UK. In Ukraine today prominent political personalities, once proclaiming pro-Russian identity, now repudiate allegiance or even alliance with the great Slav brother, in language as obscene as they can make it.
The Institution slaughtered in the streets of either city was the pre-existing Union of hearts.