Since I’ve moved abroad, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Irish. In Ireland this isn’t too relevant of a question because almost everyone is Irish, but I’m currently living in a town where I am the only Irish person. I’ve always been proud to call myself Irish, but lately I’ve been wondering what does this mean? What makes Irish people different from others, such as the English and Americans? What is special about being Irish?
Part of the problem comes from language or more the lack of one. Only about 2-3% of Irish people speak the Irish language on a daily basis, for the rest of us it’s something that’s learnt in school but never used outside the classroom. For most people, their level of Irish is no better than any other foreign languages learned in school (not very high). Even those who speak Irish are also fluent in English, so we are to all intents and purposes an English speaking nation. English is my native language and I’ve never had more than a rough grasp of Irish (I’ve forgotten much of what little I had due to lack of use). My sister is fluent in Irish because she went to a school where everything was conducted in Irish, but she never uses it outside the classroom even with school friends who can speak Irish. Aside from the occasional government gesture, Irish simply isn’t used outside the schools and most people have little connection with it.
Speaking English has a lot of advantages, it gives us access to a huge amount of literature, music, television, as well as contact with people all over the world. It gives us a lot more opportunities to travel and work abroad. During times of unemployment, it opened a door to work abroad. Having fluent English is an enormously useful skill recognised all over the world. It gives us access to an enormous global market for writing and media. It lets our voice be heard all over the world, not just in Ireland.
But all of this comes at the cost of diluting our culture and identity. Most national movements and identities are built around the language. For many people, speaking the language is the clearest form of national pride and self-expression. Language is one of the strongest expression of culture and identity and the fact that we don’t speak our own language undermines our separate identity. After all, it is through language that we speak, listen, read and even think. At most, all we have is a different accent and a few different words and slang. As Padraig Pearse famously said “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” (A land without a language, is a land without a soul).
Like the language, most parts of Irish culture is being pushed to the fringes, only carried on by the elderly in remote parts of the country or as shows for tourists. In fact, you could split culture between Gaelic culture (traditional culture) and Irish culture (the culture as practiced by the vast majority of Irish people). Gaelic culture is the typical stuff tourists come to see, the language, traditional music, Irish dancing etc. Yet few of these are practiced by the overwhelming majority of Irish people. So what culture do the rest of us have? Irish music still survives, but is never heard on the radio and I’d be embarrassed to play any in front of my friends. Irish dancing too, is limited in appeal and going to watch a dance is not a usual occurrence. Gaelic culture still survives, but it is marginalised and concentrated among older and more remote people. The rest of us have only brief interaction with it on rare and special occasions.
Most other elements of Gaelic culture have died off and only survive in museums. I’m not even sure what traditional clothing would look like, if it even exists, but I’d guess a shawl for women and a tweed coat and flat cap for men. While in Germany over the summer, I was shocked to see some people casually wearing traditional clothes, a completely unimaginable sight in Ireland. Nor I’m sure if traditional Irish food exists, as people usually ate what little they had, rather than going out of their way for something special. There is the traditional stew, but this is losing popularity as is the Sunday roast. An Irish fry is still popular, but what’s the difference between it and an English fry? Bacon, sausages and eggs are eaten all over Europe, not just in Ireland, so that’s not much of a distinctive identity. Even the most stereotypical of Irish foods, potatoes, no longer dominates. On the streets of Ireland, you see restaurants of many different ethnicities and styles, but no specifically Irish ones.
There aren’t any special Irish festivals apart from St Patrick’s Day (which was originally created in America in the 19th century by Irish emigrants). Even this is little more than a day of parades (containing a random mash of groups and marching bands) and a night of drinking. There is no serious engagement with traditional culture, people don’t make any attempt to speak Irish or read literature or do much except drink. Even though Halloween was originally a Celtic festival, the holiday we celebrate today is essentially the American version of trick or treat. Nor do people light bonfires at Lughnasa anymore.
Sport is the one area where traditional culture is holding its own and there is an overlap between Gaelic culture and Irish culture. Gaelic football and hurling are still the most popular sports in Ireland and receives huge support at all levels of society. They are sports with a long history and have been played in Ireland for hundreds if not thousands of years (in fact one of the ancient Irish myths mentions hurling being played). They are not simply copied from other games, but genuinely unique Irish sports. Large numbers still play at local clubs and stadiums are still filled. Yet even it is coming under pressure from foreign sports like soccer, rugby, basketball, even cricket and American Football are becoming popular.
The other main centre of Irish culture the pub, is a source for socialising, music and entertainment. Yet, is drinking a part of our culture to be proud or embarrassed of? Nor are pubs holding strong, many are closing and those that remain are becoming more American with little overt signs of Irish or Gaelic culture.
The biggest problem with Gaelic culture and Irish identity is that it has a strong inferiority complex. Many people are embarrassed or mocking of traditional culture, seeing it as suitable for peasants in bygone time, not modern time. Many people would imagine Gaelic culture as belonging to old men in a barren cottage, alive only in history books and black-and-white films. Part of this is the fault of British rule (in fact a large part of Irish identity is defined by not being English) which for a long time supressed and discouraged Gaelic culture and mocked those who kept to it. Partly poverty is to blame, it is hard to be proud of your country if it is too poor to support you and thousands leave every year. Much of traditional culture is associated with poverty, whereas English and American culture is associated with success and prosperity.
I am in a somewhat different position to most Irish people in that, although born and raised here, my father is American and I have dual Irish-American citizenship. Yet this has never been an issue for me. There has never been a conflict in identity or culture between the two sides of my heritage. The music, TV, clothes and language is pretty much the same. Sure, Ireland is nowhere near as religious, gun loving or generally conservative as America, but it could pass as a liberal state. I visited America many times without any major culture shock. Sure there are differences in accents, expressions and attitudes, but these are pretty minor and comparable to regional differences that every country has.
I don’t know if we have traditional values, or if they are worth keeping. For example, Ireland was an extremely religious country up until about twenty years ago, yet most people would view this as a negative part of our culture. Catholicism was seen as a key part of Irish identity and to be Irish was to be Catholic. Yet the Catholic Church abused its power to such an extent that they are now one of the most disliked organisations in Ireland and few young people are religious. Ireland was a very narrow minded, insular island, which was unwelcoming to those who didn’t fit social norms. A lot of these values have faded away and for the better. Ireland is a lot more welcoming to people of a different ethnicity, religion and sexuality, which is definitely a change for the better.
We do have a shared history. We all feel some connection to the past, to the Famine, various rebellions and the fight for Irish freedom. It is possible that there will be a surge in national feeling around the centenary of 1916 next year. But does that have any relevance for today? Is our identity stuck in the past? The Troubles in Northern Ireland shattered the naive belief that war was a glorious fight for freedom and showed that instead it was often dirty murder and indiscriminate slaughter. This has put a serious damper on over displays of nationalism and flag waving isn’t too common in Ireland (outside of sport). People are now questioning whether violent rebellions like 1916 should be celebrated or moments of pride.
There is a connection with the land. At its core being Irish means being born on the island of Ireland, even more so than having Irish heritage. Identity is linked to the land and most crises of identity come when someone leaves the land. But does this just mean we have a regional identity? After all, everyone feels a connection with where they were born, but that doesn’t make every region an independent country.
What we do have is a common identity, which at its core is what culture and nationality is all about. If people think they have their own identity, that’s all they need for an identity. If people think they are different from others, that makes them different. But is that it? Is Irish simply a label we use for ourselves without having any significant meaning? Is there no major difference between ourselves and the rest of the Western World?
What does it mean to be Irish? Fucked if I know.
What Being Irish Means to Me
Talking Ourselves Up (and Down)
First of all, to be Irish means to constantly talk about being Irish. And not just talk about it, either. You get extra marks if you write, sing, paint, dance or sculpt about it.
As a character in Flann O'Brien's The Poor Mouth put it, though on the subject of the Gaelic language rather than Irishness per se:
If we're truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
Just as "what is philosophy?" is itself a philosophical question, pondering the nature of Irishness is actually to be Irish-- to be actively Irish, to be a practicing Irishman or Irishwoman.
If you are a novelist, you can write novels about Catholic guilt, the legacy of the Celtic Tiger, and the post-colonial mindset. If you are a dancer, you can go the full Paddywhack route and, just possibly, make untold millions. If you are a painter, off with you and your canvas to Connemara and paint some thatched cottages. (Such Gaelic picturesqueness would be laughed out of court on the stage or screen, but is still legitimate for the visual artist, provided he messes about his brushwork a bit, or really layers on the paint.) If you are a guitarist, you can write songs about busking on Dublin's Grafton Street.
There are forms of Irishness for every taste. You can be Irish in a revolutionary left-wing way, and find yourself overbrimming with solidarity for oppressed peoples everywhere, especially the Palestinians. (Never mind the Israelis. Having millions of people all around you who are dedicated to your obliteration, and who lob bombs at you on a regular basis, doesn't count as being oppressed.) In this case you bash the Catholic Church for its homophobia, misogyny, and reactionary attitude-- for instance, all the priests and nuns who irritatingly threw themselves in front of the Republican firing squads during the Spanish Civil War, just to be difficult. You can still be a Mass-going Catholic, but in that case you have to call even louder for women's ordination, contraception, etc. etc.
One of the great benefits of being Irish and left-wing is that you can still be a nationalist. If you were left-wing and English, or left-wing and American, this option would not be open to you. But the magic words "post-colonial" make it OK in our case.
You can be an Irish liberal. In fact, Ireland is now the most liberal country on the face of the Earth, with the possible exception of Sweden. American readers should be advised that "liberal" doesn't mean here what it means over there. In America, liberals get worked up about stuff like National Public Radio, Medicare and the minimum wage. In Ireland, and Europe, liberalism is mostly to do with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But especially sex. Irish people discovered sex in the sixties, and they still haven't got over the revelation. They are now desperately trying to make up for lost time.
Was Ireland Really Conservative?
Careful readers may have detected an unsympathetic note in my description of the Irish left and Irish liberalism. But this isn't the whole story.
I hate to use the phrase "spiritual DNA". But I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.
I think that a certain sort of liberalism is encoded deep in the spiritual DNA of all Irish people. Even though I am only thirty-five, I can distinctly remember a time when most of the adults I knew would have been staunchly Catholic, opposed to divorce, opposed to abortion, -- and decidedly liberal.
But what do I mean by liberal?
Well, it was a different sort of liberalism to the more recent sort that wants to batter down every tradition, every moral authority and every taboo. It was a kind of liberalism that sought to be open-minded, to see things from the other fellow's point of view, to have a heart for the down-trodden. It was preoccupied with South African apartheid, with the Irish travelling community, with racism, with being nice to Protestants, with being understanding towards every form of disability. Sometimes it veered into quasi-Marxism, but mostly not.
I think this "soft liberalism" stemmed partly from the memory of being an oppressed people, partly from the emigrant experience and the encounter with anti-Irish prejudice, partly from the fact that hardly anybody in Ireland was wealthy, and partly from the stories sent back by Irish missionaries in Third World countries. (Yes, I said "Third World".)
When I think of this sort of Irish liberalism, I think of a teacher I had in secondary school. He wore a rather hippy-ish beard and jeans, complained about the treatment of Travellers in Irish pubs, got us to sing along to folk songs that he strummed on the guitar, explained to us how awful life was in the USSR (which was just about to fall apart), prepared us for our confirmation, and showed no sign of being anything other than a fully convinced orthodox Catholic. (Of course, I have no idea what the private religious opinions of my teachers might have been. It wasn't an officially Catholic school, but all the religious instruction was Catholic.) This man seems a representative type to me.
It's often said that Ireland was a very conservative country up until very recently. This is both true and false. It's true in the sense that most Irish people were Catholic and nationalist. But it's not true in the sense that they would have thought of themselves as conservative. Catholicism and nationalism were both so secure that they didn't need to be defensive or assertive. They could afford to be generous and magnanimous. "Irish conservative" has a jarring sound to it. (Irish priests and nuns were especially "left-wing", not theologically, but politically and culturally.)
I know that everybody has a tendency to idealize the society they grew up in, and I suspect I have fallen into this trap here. Probably most ordinary Irish people were less Catholic than I remember. But I still think my point is more or less sound.
And anyway, this article is about what being Irish means to me-- me, me, me! I don't have to be objective!
The Inevitable Litany
Every "What Being Irish Means to Me" article needs a litany-- a check-list of the images and associations that swarm in the writer's mind when he thinks of Ireland. Here are mine. I'm going in for free association right now.
Spirals. The Celtic and pre-Celtic spiral decorations that were so often used as decoration in Celtic and pre-Celtic times, as on the ancient passage grave at Newgrange, and which were often used as an emblem of Irishness in more recent times.
The "Pale". The idea that Dublin is The City and everywhere outside Dublin is "the country". (Wishful thinking on my part as I think the fewer cities a country has, the better-- from a cultural and social point of view.)
Club Orange (a fizzy drink unique to Ireland). And other Irish brands, like Lyons and Barry's Tea (and the "minstrel" coupons people used to collect from their boxes in the hope of winning a car). Tayto Crisps. People (mostly in rural Ireland) who call all crisps "Taytos". Denny rashers and sausages. Galtee rashers and sausages. Bórd na Móna peat briquettes, and all the advertisements that call them to mind. And let's not forget the famous "Going home" advertisement for the Electricity Supply Board.
A former street sign for the Irish School of Motoring in Dorset Street, Dublin, which took advantage of the fact that the map of Ireland looks a bit like someone sitting down. They simply tacked a steering wheel onto the "hands". I loved that sign.
Sex and the Irish
Chastity. Irish people probably recognized my earlier joke that Ireland discovered sex in the sixties to be a variant of the oft-repeated quotation that "there was no sex in Ireland before the Late Late Show" (a long-running talk show that began in the sixties). Of course, there was always sex in Ireland-- not only in the obvious sense that the nation reproduced itself, but also in the sense that every Irish romantic ballad (like "The Star of the County Down" or "Molly, my Irish Molly") was, ultimately, about sex. But it was sex sublimated into romance and chivalry.
When it comes to sex, I think it's ridiculous to complain about repression. Unless we are prodigies of purity, sex has to be repressed, and channelled, and veiled. And this for many reasons-- to protect childhood innocence, to make possible easy friendship between men and women, to prevent the inevitable erosion of decency and humanity and respect that comes about when the sex appeal of other people is a common subject of discussion, and (perhaps most of all) because too much sex-talk is a great enemy to gentleness and sentimentality.
Of course, I grew up in a time that was far distant from the Playboy of the Western World riots in 1907, when theatre-goers protested that the purity of Irish womanhood had been insulted by a particular line of dialogue. But we still hadn't quite descended to the depths of Brendan O'Carroll or Graham Norton, with their tedious sexual innuendos. There was still an appreciable difference, in this regard, between Ireland and other anglophone countries.
It's hard to put my finger on the change. One example: it is often said that Riverdance, which made its debut in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1994, put the sex into Irish dancing. I have nothing at all against Riverdance, but I think Irish dancing was fine when it was determinedly un-sexy, with long skirts and thick shoes being the order of the day.
I remember greatly enjoying Irish dancing classes in school (when I was too young to be awkward about it). I had an enormous crush on a girl in my class, and I spent the whole dance looking forward to the moments when we would link arms. Isn't that enough "sex" to be getting along with?
I think some of this Irish tendency towards chastity might endure, despite the sea-change that has occurred in Ireland in the last thirty or twenty years. My wife Michelle, an American, told me that she noticed Irish men tend to avert their eyes when a scantily-clad young woman gets onto a bus. In America, she tells me, such a woman would almost certainly be pestered by some of the male passengers.
We Were Poor but We Were Happy
Poverty. Growing up, I was always aware that nearly everybody in Ireland was only a generation or two away from poverty. We were always hearing stories about the Great Famine, the slums of Liverpool and New York, and (more recently) the inner city of Dublin, with whole families living to a room, children playing football with pig's bladders begged from a butcher, and bags of broken biscuits being a favourite treat. Far from being ashamed of this, there was a kind of ferocious pride in our origins, and more than a hint that it was wealth and affluence that should bring shame, not poverty. And surely this was getting the priorities right, after all?
I don't want to claim that, until we were corrupted by the Celtic Tiger, Ireland was a land of pure-hearted souls who eschewed material wealth, because I don't think that's true at all. I actually think there has always been a strong vein of materialism and greed in Irish society. A play like The Field by John B. Keane didn't come out of nowhere. Irish literature is full of disputes over land, of "gombeen men", and of social snobbery. But I do think there was an ideal of noble poverty, and that there was a suspicion of ostentation and conspicuous consumption which was very healthy.
I think this still lingers, to some extent. Why else do Irish rugby fans-- traditionally drawn from the more affluent classes-- sing "The Fields of Athenry", a song about the Great Famine? Why would they want to recall, in stadia all over the world, the time of our greatest tragedy and destitution-- unless it is a kind of reminder to themselves of where they came from?
A deep respect, almost a superstitious awe, towards formal education.
The very word "scholar" has a particularly Irish accent to it, at least as I hear it. From the Golden Age of Irish monasticism, to the days of the medieval filli, the Irish bardic class who enjoyed great social prestige (and wrote belly-aching odes when they weren't treated well enough), to the internment camps of Irish political prisoners that became known as "universities of revolution", Irish people have prized learning and culture to an extraordinary extent. The schoolteacher enjoyed a high social prestige. Winning a scholarship was a heroic feat.
When I think of this particular aspects of Irishness, I think of a listener who phoned in to a radio show, to comment on Ireland's amazing 1-0 victory over Italy in the 1994 soccer World Cup. From the accent and voice of the listener, one could tell he was from a rural background and of fairly advanced years. At one point, he made some comment like: "Every time Italy got into the Irish parallelogram..." Of course, he meant "penalty box". But it seemed to me then, and it has seemed to me since, one of those errors that are illuminative of a whole mental landscape-- in this case, the Irish attitude towards formal education, where a word like "parallelogram", that carries with it all the glamour of the class-room, is irresistibly attractive, and obtrudes itself ahead of the correct word.
(EDIT: I was wrong about this, as Mick points out in the comments section. The "parallelogram" is actually a Gaelic games equivalent of the penalty box, something I didn't realize.)
Incidentally, I think this Irish reverence for learning is now a thing of the past, belonging to a previous generation. The students I serve in UCD library are charming, polite, friendly kids, endearing in every way. But I never get any impression that they enter the Groves of Academe with any kind of reverence or awe, or that they are particularly impressed by books or literature or learning.
I once asked Michelle what Shakespeare plays she had studied in school, complacently expecting my own class-room exposure to Shakespeare would be much more extensive. I was staggered when she reeled off a list of titles that put Shakespeare's place in the Irish school syllabus to shame.
But, despite the loss of much of our intellectual seriousness, the afterglow of this attitude is still there, especially amongst older people.
The Leprechaun Makes His Appearance
The supernatural. Banshees, fairy forts, the prophecies of St. Colmcille, the prophecies of St. Malachy, Tir na n-Og (the Land of Youth), Halloween (which we gave to the world), holy wells, even (though they were only ever a comic turn) leprechauns...my Irish childhood seemed saturated in the supernatural. Of course, some of it was meant to be taken entirely seriously (like the Resurrection of Our Lord), some of it was to be taken with more scepticism (like folk legends about various early Irish saints), some was presented in a "Who's to say?" kind of spirit (like tales of the Banshee), and some stories were presented as being mythology and nothing more (such as Oisin's voyage to the Land of Youth).
But here's the thing...somehow, I never got the impression that any of it was entirely untrue. It's a very hard thing to explain. If anybody asked me, when I was aged ten, whether there was really a Land of Youth and Oisin had really travelled there on a magical horse, I would say: "Of course not".
But, somehow, I felt that all these tall tales inhabited a kind of flickering realm half-way between truth and fiction.
I recall the lines of Yeats in which he ponders the cult of Cuchailin, an Irish mythological hero who was a particular favourite of Patrick Pearse, the leading light behind the Easter Rising of 1916 (an armed rebellion against British rule that made its headquarters in the General Post Office in Dublin):
When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side.
What stalked through the post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?
What indeed? Nothing supernatural, of course. But still...
And then there's...
But I give up. I could write an article ten or fifteen or twenty times the length of this one, and still feel I hadn't really got my teeth into the subject. I haven't mentioned Ireland's Own magazine, smoky old photographs of harvest fairs on the walls of Irish pubs, Irish ballads, the Buy Irish campaign, The Late Late Toy Show, the Irish language, the awareness of being a little island in a big world (as eloquently expressed in this ad), or a hundred other aspects of Irish life.
Nor have I answered the question in the title. What does it all mean to me, in the end? But that would require an even longer article. I've already posted several such articles on this blog, and still feel I haven't got to grips with it.
So what does being Irish mean to me?
Ultimately, I think I can only answer, in true Irish style, with another question.
Can I get back to you on that one?