The major theme of the novel is contained in the many contrasts between the idyllic past and the brutal present. Mervyn recalls his youth, when Catholic and Protestant played together on the town green, and contrasts it to the present, when the divisions are absolute. Ideology has replaced community, and the causes seem to be rooted in history and myth, the two most important elements of Irish culture. Irish history is, in a sense, incomplete. The eight hundred years of English occupation were not ended by the uprising of 1916 or the war that followed. The six counties that make up Northern Ireland remain as a challenge to those who wish to emulate the heroes of 1916. Mervyn insists, however, that the terrorists of the 1970’s are not the heirs of 1916 but a terrible parody of the earlier rebellion. The novel does not suggest a political solution to this historical dilemma; it merely asks people to behave decently and humanely, as they once did.
The other cause for the terror in Ireland is the dependence of the Irish on myths, ballads, and poems to form their social and political attitudes. When Deborah throws Mervyn’s book into the fire, she is suggesting that those old myths and stories have influenced or formed the minds of the terrorists. The Irish myths speak of an Ireland that is uncorrupted by foreigners, and they are filled with celebrations of heroic deeds. The terrorists have turned the dream into a nightmare, however, and the heroism into brutality. In a prologue to the novel, Benedict Kiely has placed four quotes; the first two comment directly on the action that is to follow. The first is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The second is from William Butler Yeats: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” Nothing Happens in Carmincross is a plea to wake from the nightmare of history and to turn away from the “fantasies” contained in myths, ballads, and poems. As Conor Cruise O’Brien observed, the novel reveals the “inner logic of the culture of Catholic Ireland: the ballads, the folk traditions, the received version of history, the popular assumptions, even the jokes, in a way pushing us unwittingly along in the direction of holy war.”