Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

As a quick introduction, my name is Frank Ó’hÁinle and I am a twenty-one-year-old Irish law student. Throughout the course of this piece I would just like to share my own personal experience of Stoicism with you all, as well as examining the application of this ancient Greek philosophy to the Irish generally in terms of their predisposition towards melancholy and despondency.

In particular the opening paragraphs will focus upon the indomitable Irish spirit in terms of their outlook towards the uncontrollable circumstances that were imposed upon them throughout history, with the latter paragraphs focusing on the melancholic aspect of the Irish psyche particularly a predisposition towards focusing on the negative experiences which happen to us all. Hopefully you enjoy my piece and it sparks an interest in the application of Stoic philosophy to your own lives.

I “discovered” Stoicism at the age of nineteen following my first year of my undergraduate degree. The Summer after first year is what I would consider up until this point to be the nadir of my fortunes, for a multitude of reasons. Several things had not gone my way and despite considering myself to be quite a tough individual, I had reached a point where I was feeling down and out. I struggled to come to grips with this despondency and subsequently was unable to push through this relative low point in my life. I do not find a need to discuss the individual concerns as you could substitute them for any other multitude of factors and still find Stoicism applicable. A primary practice of Stoicism is to avoid overly focusing on the circumstances one finds themselves in if they are outside of their control, as such an in-depth discussion of these prior issues of mine may well prove to be counterproductive.

As per Marcus Aurelius writing in the Meditations:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

An avid fan of history, with Ancient Rome being a particular area of interest for me, I returned to the last good emperor Marcus Aurelius and was shocked to find that he had produced an absolute masterpiece in the quiet moments of his life. In between running the known world, Marcus had found the time to express in harrowing heart wrenching detail his own struggles and how he had found the strength within himself not only to persevere, but also to make the world he had found himself in a better place in the process.

Delving into this work I found answers to questions I had never dared to ask and a way in which I could rebuild myself into the man I had once thought I was but had now discovered that I could not have been further from becoming. Taking this full Summer to rebuild and reorient myself with who I wanted to be, and casting away all that, had held me back in the past. This was by no means easy but taking each day as it came I found myself becoming a Stoic, I was now able to accept the locus of control along with the concepts of Amor Fati and Memento Mori, these concepts at this point have been written about at length by far more skilled authors than myself, so I will not fill out my piece with unnecessary descriptions of them.

As well as Roman history, I am also a devout follower of the wonderful trials and tribulations that make up my own heritage as an Irish man. Having read of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato and many other Stoics in the past I began to draw comparisons between these great men of antiquity and their teachings, with those of a more Gaelic origin. Taking for example the general unwillingness of the Irish to ever break and accept the culture of the English, despite seven centuries of subjugation, I could witness the Stoic’s unwillingness to allow external factors beyond their control to overly affect them.

An Górta mór or “the Famine” as it is referred to in most textbooks, involved the death of one million Irish people by means of starvation, malnourishment, cold and illness, while one million more of them were forced to emigrate in order to survive. In a span of some four years, one quarter of the population was now gone from the island never to return.

During this time of suffering and loss, the British authorities set up soup kitchens where, if an Irishman renounced their Catholic faith (along with much of their identity) and took on the Protestant faith (with the equivalent English identity), then they would be fed. Yet the Irish identity persisted regardless, as many refused instead accepting their circumstances in the way of Amor Fati.

Rather than looking for an easy escape from their struggles which would necessitate an immense compromise of their ideals and very conception of who they are, the Gaels instead persisted embracing what had come their way and ensuring their very cultural identity would survive. This is most reflected in the writings of Epictetus who himself would have to learn to embrace the life of a slave and the trials and tribulations that came with it throughout his life, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Yet it is in the fate of Joseph Plunkett that I see the greatest of Irish Stoics. Suffering with tuberculosis, Joseph was effectively given a terminal diagnosis. Yet unknown to his physician who had given this diagnosis, Plunkett was a part of a revolutionary bid – to win Ireland’s independence or to give their lives in the attempt. With the Rising set to occur on Easter of the year 1916, Joseph Plunkett left his sickbed along with the love of his life and their unborn child, knowing full well he would not return.

During the events of Easter week Plunkett contributed in his own way, despite his illness making an active combat role impossible he aided in the organisation and planning of the Rising, right up until his illness left him forced to spend the dying days of the revolution bedridden. His very presence and fortitude in ensuring he did what was required of him, inspired the men to continue to resist despite the overwhelming odds facing them. With the fires mounting in Dublin the decision to surrender was taken and at the mercy of the British authorities it was decided to make an example of the leaders of this insurrection, among them Joseph Plunkett.

Following on from this, the leaders of the Rising were executed daily each meeting their fate unwilling to bend to what they viewed as tyranny. Saddest among these deaths were those of James Connolly and the aforementioned Plunkett. Connolly, a socialist born in Scotland to Irish parents and a former British soldier, saw what the scourge of Empire was forcing upon the Irish people and sought to sever the link between the two countries regardless of what the personal cost may be.  Mortally injured during the Rising having taken on the primary command of the Irish armed forces, Connolly would have died without intervention in the coming days, yet he was executed by firing squad while tied to a chair.

Plunkett’s demise has however, since been immortalised in the poignancy of the song Grace. Before it came time to face down the firing squad, Joseph Mary Plunkett was allowed to marry the love of his life Grace Gifford in order to legitimize their unborn child. With a Stoic calm in the mould of Seneca meeting his demise in front of the Roman centurion sent to ensure his death, Plunkett bade his newlywed wife farewell mere moments before he did the same to his life.

Like the Stoics, Plunkett attached no great significance to his death. He had lived his life as well as he could and contributed to something greater than himself as his memory and that of his compatriots would allow the spark of Irish freedom to ignite and six years later attain its ultimate goal, a free and independent state. Plunkett and Connolly, like many Irish rebels before them, understood that living well was the key determining factor to dying well. As is reflected in the words of Seneca the Younger, “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

So far, my article has focused upon one aspect of the Irish psyche, that of its courage and ability to endure, yet its other hemisphere betrays these Stoic values to a degree. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his description of the Irish, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Another core aspect of the Irish people generally, which has been noticed not only by those visiting our shores but by the more introspective among us, is that we tend towards feelings of melancholy and despondency. Such an aspect of our nationwide consciousness draws a stark contrast to the above element of endurance and also much of what it means to be a Stoic. This is further evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers and poets, with the likes of William Butler Yeats devoting much time to elaboration upon the topic. This leaves the Gaels in a rather odd position of naturally displaying the key determining factor of the ancient philosophy, while on the other hand displaying the emotional element which it is designed to overcome.

I have noticed this even in myself, despite my time studying and learning from the Stoics while also applying their teachings, I find unexpected and severe feelings of sadness overcoming me at the strangest of times. In response I tend towards sad music and short moments of introversion, despite my overtly extroverted personality. I have noticed this behaviour in friends and family members also.

One need only turn on a broadcast of the news for the day and despite there being twenty-six positive headlines, one of my family or friends will focus upon the one negative part of the broadcast. As further evidence of this, a recent study in Ireland has revealed that in parts of the country, radio listeners spike when lists of the deceased are read out over the air. Of course, it must be noted that this is a generalisation, and not all of us maintain this inner sadness and inability to avoid focusing upon the negative aspects of our lives, yet as of the present it remains a pervading element of our society. One which has shown a degree of prevalence in the cultural expressions of the Irish people, whether it be through means of music or that of our artists and storytellers, much of it speaks to that darker element of our way of thinking.

To return to the G.K. Chesterton quote, it would seem that when focused upon a goal and in the middle of that battle, the ordinary Irish person throughout our history has been able to maintain a Stoic resilience and ability not only to endure but to thrive despite everything which has attempted to break them. Yet when devoid of this purpose, we tend towards this form of melancholy which seems singularly unique to the Gaels. In a modern world, however, such overarching goals have now been replaced by a culture of individuality. As such, this willingness to endure and fight for what it is we held to be right has been overcome by the more negative half of our national identity. I found myself falling into this trap, aged nineteen, and was fortunate enough that my love of the past led me towards a mentor of Aurelius’ ilk, yet not all of us are as fortunate despite Stoicism’s resurgence.

Having done much research into the topic of the Irish psyche and history, I would highlight it as a case study of an area in which the benefits of Stoicism can be seen by all. In my own life I have been able to remove an obsession upon controlling my life and its ultimate course, whether I will be wealthy or married with children in the coming years is beyond my control along with an innumerable myriad of other possibilities. My happiness is no longer contingent upon such uncontrollable external factors, but rather upon who it is I decide to be day by day and the impact I have on those around me.

In accepting this I have found strength where once there was doubt and uncertainty, while I came to find my way of living a better life through Stoicism at a relatively young age, I would like all of you to note that it is never too late to change your outlook on life and in doing so to become the best version of yourself possible. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, yet as was evidenced above in embracing our better selves we not only improve our own lives but also those of the ones around us whether wittingly or not.

My own story provides an example of this as I still have to consciously work on myself day by day in order to avoid returning to the pitfalls which hampered me pre-Stoicism. Whether it is my nightly ritual of finding three things which I can be thankful for throughout my day and three things which although they were initially perceived as negative experiences in that same day can be looked at as blessings in disguise, if I allow my perception of them to be altered.

There are countless other small exercises which I practice throughout my regular day and I would hope to write a further article describing in greater detail how I practice Stoicism on a daily basis in order to aim for personal mastery. Yet as my friends and family will attest, I have become a better more capable friend, son, nephew etc., whose impact upon those around has been a positive one for having embraced the life of a Stoic and all that such a way of being pertains to.

While we can’t all be revolutionary heroes who usher in a new era for an entire people, we can contribute in ways which help to improve a universal whole the consequences of which through the invariable ripple effect can never truly be calculated. Embrace what is good in who you are and work to improve that which holds you back, whether it be a melancholy ingrained in you from a young age or some other unhealthy behaviour or habit which has thus far held you back. In particular, Epictetus elaborates best upon such an outlook on life, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” As a result, you never know you may end up changing the world in the process and leaving it a better place for you having come through this way.

Frank Ó’hÁinle is a final year law and history student, currently studying in the University of Limerick. He is an aspiring author, who attempts to achieve some degree of balance between the practice of Stoicism in his every day life, writing, work as a bartender and at some stage perhaps his actual undergraduate degree. You can contact him here

8 thoughts on Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

  1. Brian says:

    Great read, as a fellow Irishman it can be disheartening learning of our difficult history but as your article points out stoicism can be a way to separate ourselves from such uncontrollable sorrow and strive to improve ourselves.

  2. Brian Thompson says:

    Great read, as a fellow Irishman it can be disheartening to learn our troubled history. Glad to hear how the stoic attitudes of past Irishman have inspired you to take change in your own life.

  3. Thanks for the moving and instructive perspective on the Irish, Mr. Ó’hÁinle –both re: the Stoic disposition that has seen the Irish through so many hardships, and also the strain of melancholy that one finds in much Irish music, poetry and literature (of which I am a big fan, though I am not Irish!). A good example of both tendencies, perhaps, is Sinéad O’Connor and The Chieftains haunting ballad, “Foggy Dew”, which recounts the 1916 Easter Rising. The beginning lyrics are strikingly beautiful:
    “As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
    There Armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
    No fife did hum nor battle drum did sound it’s dread tatoo
    But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell rang out through the foggy dew…
    But there is, in my view, an interesting difference between the Irish disposition (if one may generalize rather shamelessly) and that of the Stoics; namely, the Irish sense of humor. The Stoics were, to put it mildly, not great humorists or given to rollicking and ribald jokes (or limericks, since you are studying at the very place!). There may be occasional witticisms in some of Seneca’s letters, but, by and large, Stoicism is mostly a humor-free zone (which is not to say that the Stoics were unfeeling or without joy–a common misunderstanding). I wonder if it is the renowned Irish sense of humor that has allowed the Irish people to integrate the seemingly contradictory emotional poles you describe–navigating, so to speak, between the shores of resolute Stoicism and deep melancholy. I’d welcome your thoughts on this question.
    Best regards,
    Ronald W. Pies, MD

  4. Victoria Neilson says:

    Thank you for giving us a little snippet of Irish history, I’m truly touched and inspired. =)

  5. Crichel says:

    It’s a complete myth the British authorities demanded conversion in exchange for food aid. A few mostly Irish protestants attempted the practice but it was never widespread and was widely denounced by members of both faiths in both countries.

    • bergo says:

      Hi Crichel. would you have a trusted source to back up that statement?

      • Crichel says:

        Whilst the burden of proof lies with the author, if you Google ‘souperism’ you’ll find numerous sources. It’s also a nonsense to claim Protestantism was the equivalent of ‘English’. Numerous Irish nationalists have been protestant e.g. Wolfe Tone, Parnell and many more. It’s pretty poor that a law student of all people failed to do some basic fact checking before writing this rather saccharine diatribe.

  6. Loved this, but have a question which probably won’t or can’t be answered.
    I am an 80 year old first generation Irish American Catholic woman, expecting to see an acknowledgement of the Catholic faith contributing to Irish stoicism. Is not the stoicism of the faith proclaimed by Jesus Christ integral to those who fought and died before conceding to English identity? Perhaps as a 21 year old there is less adherence to the faith than of old, but I will not presume that.

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