Ossian’s Ride

by Henry Farrell on August 14, 2019

Caragh Lake, the epicenter of the future

[Caragh Lake: the epicenter of the future]

In 1959 the famous British astronomer Fred Hoyle published his novel, Ossian’s Ride. It was the wildest science fiction, 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, organized around the principles of scientific discovery, was constructed on the shores of Caragh Lake in County Kerry. Britain was left on the sidelines, wondering what had happened.

Hoyle wasn’t really interested in talking about Ireland, a country that he did not understand very well. Instead, he wanted to score points in an internal fight over British identity.

Hoyle was really responding to the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who regularly denounced Hoyle as a secular atheist on radio and had written his own science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, a decade before. The villain of Lewis’s book was a sinister institute called NICE, which Satanic aliens wanted to impose contraception, lesbianism, secularism and surrealist art on an unsuspecting Britain. Lewis wanted to preserve old Britain against the filthy tide of modernity.

Hoyle riposted with a novel where rational and benevolently ruthless aliens used an organization called ICE to pull 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.

The irony of history is that Hoyle’s parody is now the truth. Today’s Ireland has its highways and its contraceptives. The referendum for marriage equality passed in a landslide, and the Taoiseach is a gay man. Ireland’s voters have embraced modernity with enthusiasm and a barely tolerable degree of self-congratulation. Irish Catholic reactionaries are a tiny, bitter minority.

It wasn’t NICE or ICE that transformed Ireland, but the Treaty of Nice and the 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.

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, Brussels fonctionnaires 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. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson models himself on Winston Churchill, while 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 few several decades, and return to a better era for Britain. They think of the Republic of Ireland as a joke or a historical mistake. They cannot understand why it is still committed to Europe and indeed now standing in Britain’s way, by refusing to capitulate on the “backstop.”

The fight between Lewis and Hoyle has been renewed. 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.” 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 at all. No diabolical forces need be invoked: Europe has helped Ireland become a modern and truly independent country, and most Irish people are happy that it has done so. They 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.

Tomorrow, Hoyle’s intellectual descendants are gathering in Dublin for the 77th World Science Fiction Convention, which brings together writers and fans (many of whom aspire to be writers themselves). Probably, some of them planning novels that depict 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.



Brad DeLong 08.14.19 at 10:42 am

Important for today, I think, is that the aliens in _Ossian’s Ride_ are _refugees_…


wp200 08.14.19 at 11:18 am

They better hurry with their novels on the horrors of Brexit-ridden Britain.

In just 78 days the future will be here.

I predict:
– less of a log jam of lorries then expected, as lorry drivers can check webcams / traffic apps and will just stay home.
– massive bailouts for British farmers.
– British patients being treated abroad because that is easier than (legally) shipping for instance radioactive iodine to the UK.
– a devaluation of the pound of about 20% (on top of the devaluation of the last 3 years).
– the government to have no visa-arrangement in place for EU-visitors after Brexit and then screw it up so Premier League clubs can’t buy EU players in the winter transfer window.


Russell Arben Fox 08.14.19 at 12:04 pm

Europe has helped Ireland become a modern and truly independent country, and most Irish people are happy that it has done so.

“Most”? How visible a presence does contemporary Irish conservatism/Euro-skepticism have today? I’m sure it must exist, but compared to English conservatism/Euro-skepticism, which has been imported by (or exported to) American conservatives of various types for various reasons for decades, I’m not sure I know anything about it at all.


Omega Centauri 08.14.19 at 2:21 pm

So has Ireland recovered from the debt-guarantee blunder of a few years back? If so they have done it quietly. Quiet thriving is a good strategy in a world looking for scapecoats to blame.


Dipper 08.14.19 at 3:03 pm

Dipper – you are banned from commenting on my posts in future. kthxbai


DCA 08.14.19 at 5:20 pm

Not that it is anything to laugh about, but I did when I read “that ungodly hybrid of Bertie Wooster and Roderick Spode”.


Monte Davis 08.14.19 at 5:32 pm

“Daniel Hannan, a Lewis fan and key intellectual architect of Brexit…”

There’s me educated: I never knew hot-air balloons had architects.


Chetan Murthy 08.14.19 at 5:39 pm

This reminds me of Cosma Shalizi’s brilliant post (which I search for in vain, sigh) about how the Flynn effect might be viewed as a progressive and genetically-selected propensity to be able to deal productively with meaningless bureaucracy and bureaucratic rules. Y’know, the things that make a complex society — too complex for any individual to really comprehend it — work. His opening gambit was to ask us to imagine that aliens had come down and done this to us (b/c it surely isn’t any sort of naturally-adaptive trait, outside of the artificial setting of complex modern society) …..

It was really brilliant, and geez I wish I could find it. Sigh.


Chris Grant 08.14.19 at 6:16 pm

“. . . C.S. Lewis, who regularly denounced Hoyle as a secular atheist on radio . . .”

Just to clarify, the abstract you linked to says that Lewis took issue with the things that Hoyle said on the radio, not that Lewis’s denunciations were broadcast on the radio.


Thomas Bach 08.14.19 at 8:27 pm

This “ungodly hybrid of Bertie Wooster and Roderick Spode” is just about the greatest description ever.


HcCarey 08.14.19 at 8:57 pm

I’m still mad at my father for not taking advantage of the possibility of irish citizenship when I was young. Now there’s no chance.

The self -congratulatory quality of Irish leftism signals trouble, I think. I think they’ll see their own nativist movements soon. But yes modern Ireland is a miraculously progessive European nation and the English can piss off. Pelosi today reiterated there will be no trade agreements with the US that that abrogate the Good Friday Accords.


HcCarey 08.14.19 at 9:15 pm

Also the the brexiteers think of Ireland at all? Did they just assume “oh we own Ireland they’ll do as we say?” It’s kind of remarkable–Varadkar is supposed to just go long with Boris because Boris says so. England shot itself in the foot, and now Johnson is demanding that Ireland shoot itself in the foot as well or else England will shoot its other foot. Be my guest!

Has anyone tested the water supply at Eton for lead?


marcel proust 08.15.19 at 1:14 am

Chetan Murthy wrote:

This reminds me of Cosma Shalizi’s brilliant post (which I search for in vain, sigh) … It was really brilliant, and geez I wish I could find it. Sigh.

Is this what you were looking for?


not feeling very nymous 08.15.19 at 3:27 am

Chetan @8: I think your memory has improved on Those Voices Again.


Dr. Hilarius 08.15.19 at 6:12 am

Chetan Murthy @8: This may be the link you are looking for: http://bactra.org/weblog/523.html


SusanC 08.15.19 at 7:02 am

Flynn effect might be viewed as a progressive and genetically-selected propensity to be able to deal productively with meaningless bureaucracy and bureaucratic rules.

Flynn’s book says the effect is fast it cannot be genetic. (The rest of what you said might be right, though).


bad Jim 08.15.19 at 8:39 am

I am going to make use of my obnoxious pseudonym to raise a reasonable issue I have yet to see addressed: Scottish independence and EU membership would lead to a border issue nearly as intractable as the Hibernian conundrum. The legendary violence along that line made it into history, though it may have faded from memory. We’re well aware of what might happen with hard borders in Ireland; wouldn’t a hard border in Scotland also raise some risk? Given an independent Scotland, mightn’t some Irish Unionists, confronted with a Republican majority, accede to an independent identity?


Wats 08.15.19 at 9:28 am

@bad Jim It’s a fair question. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, indicated some time ago that she would leave NI in the event of a united Ireland and it’s something that one occasionally hears from some unionists. One woman I know told me she while she would welcome a united Ireland but her husband had declared that he would leave. I suspect that if push were to come to shove, very few would opt to leave home. Whether Scotland would be more attractive than England, I’m not sure although perhaps it would be a natural choice for Rangers fans. I don’t know that an independent Scotland would be especially attractive, however. It does raise a slightly different question about how unionists would interpret their Britishness in the event of the UK breaking up. It’s not hard to imagine how one might be British within a united Ireland (although it would necessitate a range of practical and symbolic accommodations), but what form this Britishness would have to take if ‘Britain’ (both UK and GB) ceased to exist as such is less clear. Perhaps it would boost ‘Northern Irish’ as a regional identity, or a revival of the less inclusive ‘Ulster’ identity? Hard to see how successive generations could think of themselves as British when the rest of the British have called it a day.


Lordwhorfin 08.15.19 at 5:41 pm

If the English fools like Rees-Mogg think that they can ‘reconquer’ the Irish Republic and that Europe will stand aside, they are going to realize a bill of goods that will end Britain and upend the world.


Joshua W. Burton 08.15.19 at 10:51 pm

No, Cosma wrote several witty and important things like this (then wisely retired undefeated), but the particular one Chetan Murthy @8 is thinking of is, I’m all but certain, this one.


Joshua W. Burton 08.15.19 at 10:56 pm

…as not feeling @14 rightly said. Sorry to repeat; I missed it and was responding to @15.


b9n10nt 08.16.19 at 2:29 am

Imagining the soundtrack to this post:

Dublin in the rain is mine
A pregnant city with a catholic mind
Starch those sheets for the birdhouse jail
All mescalined when the past is stale, pale
Dublin in the rain is mine
A pregnant city with a catholic mind
Slick little boy with a mind of Ritz
Pulling that thread for the next big fix, this
My childhood was small
My childhood was small
But I’m gonna be big
But I’m gonna be big
My childhood was small
My childhood was small
But I’m gonna be big
But I’m gonna be big
But I’m gonna be big

-“Big” by Fontaines D.C.


otto 08.16.19 at 12:29 pm

Re Irish Conservativism, “conservatives” in Ireland are basically pro EU, just like in Germany and many other states. Its a treaty system designed primarily for market-based prosperity and works pretty well as such.


Sasha Clarkson 08.17.19 at 8:12 am

Thank you for posting this Henry:
it’s about 50 years since, as a teenager, I read both Ossian’s Ride *and* CS Lewis pretend SF trilogy. I say “pretend” because they *are* works of religious propaganda as are, in part, the Narnia books too. I didn’t realise what Lewis was up to to start with, but I eventually developed a strong antipathy towards him -made stronger after reading a collection of his poetry.

I almost forgot about Ossian’s ride, as it didn’t make the same impression on me as Hoyle’s ‘The Black Cloud’, but I remember looking at maps of Ireland in atlas and encyclopaedia to check which places were real :)


Dermot Ryan 08.17.19 at 8:17 am

otto is correct. Conservatives in Ireland are pro-EU. The dominant party in the current coalition is a conservative one.

I take it the post is correct that Hoyle knew little about Ireland, because that would be pretty normal for people in the UK then, and now. But the satire does seem to depend on an unexamined UK attitude: that the Ireland of the late 19th and early 20th century was the way it was due to some inherent quality of the people and place, and to imagine it as modern was in the realm of fantasy. In fact, the place just needed cultivation and to be left to use its own expertise to decide how to develop, like anywhere else.

The attitude was very common. Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons where he laments the business of Empire being constantly interrupted by “a small poor, sparsely populated island” kind of ignores that it wasn’t sparsely populated or by European standards especially poor until after Great Britain decided to incorporate it into the United Kingdom. Only took five decades of being in the UK to ruin it utterly.


J-D 08.17.19 at 10:23 am

There is a page on Wikipedia with the specific title ‘Euroscepticism in the Republic of Ireland’.


anonymousse 08.17.19 at 1:08 pm

“They better hurry with their novels on the horrors of Brexit-ridden Britain.
In just 78 days the future will be here.
I predict:”

Not much of significance. English ate bananas before EU, English ate bananas during EU, and I predict the English will eat bananas after Brexit. Similarly: the Canadians (and millions of others, in dozens of other countries), never members of the EU, have always eaten, and will continue to eat, bananas.



Sandy Leibowitz 08.18.19 at 8:43 pm

WHO knew that EATING BANANAS was the standard by which nations are measured?
Un grand MERCI for such insight!


ph 08.19.19 at 5:37 am

Hi Henry, I don’t have much to add on this other than to note that Ireland seems a better place today than at any time in the last fifty-two hundred years. I just watched your old interlocutor Brink Lindsay in very focused discussion of 2020 with Bob Wright.

Brink’s never made more sense. Shocking! Only 53 minutes, but covers populism, health care, UBI, and education. https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/57127?in=00:01


Henry (not the famous one) 08.19.19 at 11:04 pm

And I always thought that Irish science fiction began and ended with “The Dalkey Archives.”

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