On Ossian’s Ride

From the Series: Europe in the Balance

In 1959 the British astronomer Fred Hoyle published his science fiction novel, Ossian’s Ride, depicting a future Ireland miraculously transformed into a technological superpower. Vast highways crisscrossed the Irish countryside. The discovery of cheap contraception (manufactured from turf) broke the control of the Catholic church. A shining new city was constructed on the shores of Caragh Lake in County Kerry. Britain was left on the sidelines, wondering what had happened.

In 1959, the notion that Ireland could be more modern than Britain seemed preposterous. Britain saw Ireland as a dusty reflection of a world it had long left behind, while Ireland’s tiny band of modernizers saw Britain as an ever-retreating mirage of what it might one day become.

This made Ireland a useful foil in an internal fight over British identity. Hoyle’s book was a response to the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who regularly denounced Hoyle as a secular atheist and had written his own science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, a decade before. Lewis had satirized the men and women trying to modernize Britain as members of a sinister institute called NICE, which was destroying British culture and society on behalf of Satanic “macrobes” from space. Lewis wanted to preserve old Britain against the filthy tide of modernity, inveighing against contraception, lesbianism, secularism, and surrealist art.

In Hoyle’s book, ICE, the “Industrial Corporation of Eire,” was a front organization for aliens that were pulling the priest-ridden republic next door into the technological age. His satirical portrait of Ireland told British readers that the world was being transformed around them, and that even their most backwards-seeming neighbor would outstrip them if they didn’t embrace modernity.

Hoyle’s parody is now the truth. Great autobahns cut across the four green fields. Contraception is legal, and a referendum allowing same-sex marriage passed with a decisive majority in 2015. Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) is a gay man. In an era when modernity seems to be going into reverse in many parts of the world, Ireland’s voters have embraced it with enthusiasm and a somewhat unseemly degree of self-congratulation. The Irish Catholic reactionaries who once dominated society are a tiny, bitter minority.

It wasn’t NICE or ICE that transformed Ireland, but the Treaty of Nice and other European treaties before and after. European funding helped build roads, European market access helped build companies and inward investment, and European tax and regulatory loopholes helped build the Irish technology industry. Economic growth helped spur a profound political and social transformation.

European politics also leached the poison from the Anglo-Irish relationship. Ireland was no longer an “island behind an island,” but a European state, enjoying equal status with the United Kingdom in a shared political community. The common market led to the abandonment of customs posts between the North and the Republic. Like Hoyle’s aliens, European Commission fonctionnaires (officials) were not particularly cuddly. Still, their interventions helped build a modern and confident country.

Now it is Britain that has fallen back into the nightmare of history. The country that birthed modernity in the factories of Manchester has lapsed into a waking dream, in which past memories of empire blur into current fears about immigration and economic stagnation. A chasm of mutual resentment has opened between globally oriented cosmopolitans in London and elsewhere, and the inhabitants of post-industrial and rural England, who feel left behind by the new economy.

The new prime minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, models himself on Winston Churchill, while the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that ungodly hybrid of Bertie Wooster and Roderick Spode, pines openly for the Victorian era.

Pro-Brexit conservatives want to reverse the last several decades and return to a better era for Britain. Some view the Republic of Ireland as a joke, a collectivity of yokels pretending to be a real country. Others regard it as a historical mistake, arguing that more intelligent British rulers would have retained Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Neither can fathom why Ireland is still committed to Europe.

Ireland’s relationship with Britain has become the main obstacle to a deal on Brexit. Britain wants to pull out of European customs arrangements when it leaves Europe, which would demand the creation of a new “hard” border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and risk reigniting the conflict in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom agreed to a “backstop” that would prevent this from happening, but now wants to renege on the deal, since any solution would either keep the United Kingdom inside European arrangements, or separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

This fight has revived the old conflict between Lewis and Hoyle. Daniel Hannan, a Lewis fan and key intellectual architect of Brexit, boasts that he has used the phrase “that hideous strength” to describe the European Union’s threat to Britain for over twenty years. He suggests that the European Union, like NICE, is a “diabolical plot to subdue Britain in the guise of a benign bureaucracy.” In his understanding, politicians—including Irish leaders—are willing to take self-destructive decisions that advance integration because the European Union has the mysterious power to make politicians act against their own interests.

Yet from the perspective of Ireland, there is nothing mysterious. No diabolical forces need be invoked. Most Irish people look at Britain as Britain once looked at Ireland; a grotesque and somewhat terrifying example of how badly things can turn out in a country not unlike, and intimately connected to, their own.

In summer 2019, Hoyle’s intellectual descendants gathered in Dublin for the 77th World Science Fiction Convention, which brings together writers and fans (including aspiring writers). Likely, some attendees were planning novels about the horrors of a Brexit-ridden Britain. Perhaps one will complete the circle, spinning out an unlikely future where Britain rediscovers the power of rational thought (with or without alien intervention) and is miraculously transformed into a technological superpower again.