Friday, July 13, 2012

Why I am Irish

I used to be English, you know.

I was born in Dublin of Irish parents, and I never set foot outside Ireland until I was twenty-seven. I have no more English blood in me than most Irish people (I know there are Dixons somewhere in my lineage). And yet, for some considerable time, I made the conscious decision that I was spiritually English rather than Irish.

I have to admit that, to a great extent, this was a reaction. I come from a very nationalistic background, and I attended Irish language schools without ever developing a command of our native tongue. I was genuinely horrified by the murderous campaign of the IRA. Teenagers (and overgrown teenagers) are all about forging their own identities, and I didn't have much interest in inheriting a ready-made one, especially one that put me (as I thought) in the same camp as Sinn Féin.

But it was more than just rebellion. I was (and I am) an ardent anglophile. English humour, English poetry, English accents and English history spoke to my depths (as they still do). I thought names like Brompton, Kent and Hampshire were far more poetic than Salamanca, Luxor or Casablanca-- or, indeed, Connemara or Béal na mBláth. My soul thrilled at all the elements of Englishness: roast beef, strong tea, hedgerows, hot water bottles, deliberately mispronounced French, eccentrics building useless machines in garden sheds, ghost stories, hopeless last stands, noble yeomen, bumbling fops, dreary weather, nonsense verse, colourful pub names, muffins, the Beano-- the whole lot.

I can't remember what finally led me to accept and embrace my Irishness. Perhaps it was realising that Sinn Féin didn't have a copyright on national pride. Perhaps it was leaving school and not having to struggle with Irish tenses anymore. Perhaps it was the growing left-wing attack on all patriotism, on the very concept of the nation.

Irishness isn't like Englishness. I imagine that, to the English, Englishness is a comfortable pair of slippers, crisp and bracing air, a cosy pub-- something you can ease back into, stretch your arms in, luxuriate inside. Something that is invisible most of the time. But being Irish requires more of an effort. It is something of an assertion. We don't speak Irish naturally. We even use many Irish-English phrases, like roola-boola or craic, rather self-consciously. When we watch Irish films, we feel like we are watching foreign films- at least I do. There is the same feeling of slight mental strain. We know less about medieval Irish history than we know about the Venerable Bede and the Peasant's Revolt.

But all this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I absorbed, in my childhood, the idea that a nation was an ideal rather than a thing, and I prefer that way of looking at the matter. A nation wasn't just a population with the same language and customs, who found it more desirable to be self-governed than to be governed from abroad. A nation had a soul. Self-government was only a means to an end, and that end was a deeper and deeper development of national uniqueness. I may have resented having to get my tongue around the Irish language, but being taught Irish mythology, history, dancing, sports and music-- and absorbing the idea that all these things were cultural treasures, to be guarded and cultivated-- had a profound and (I think) beneficial effect on me. Either it actually made me a traditionalist, or it brought out my latent traditionalism. I came to see the good things of life as being fragile, inherited, and requiring constant loving attention. It also made me see society as being, not just a modus vivendi between strangers, but a kind of joint project, even a shared quest.

(Of course, this was all before my reaction against Irishness, which came in my teens and lasted till my twenties.)

I have reached the age at which nostalgia begins to bite, but it does seem to me that the Ireland of my childhood-- and especially the Ireland of my family and school background, which was nationalist, working class intellectual, labourist and Catholic-- swarmed with ideals and ideas, most of them still in the air from the Irish Revolution and Irish Renaissance of the early twentieth century. The Dubliners (the folk band) have come to stand in my mind as the perfect example of this all-sympathising idealism. "Lord of the Dance" was a Christian hymn, "Joe Hill" commemorated a fallen trade union leader, "A Nation Once Again" and a hundred others celebrated the Irish struggle for nationhood, "Raglan Road" took you into the realm of poetry and high culture (which is an idealism of its own), "Danny Farrel" drew attention to the plight of Travellers, "The Button Pusher" protested nuclear weapons. And to my childish mind, there was no contradiction or even tension between Christianity, liberalism, socialism, aestheticism and nationalism. In fact, they were all somehow draped in the Irish tricolour. James Connolly, Eamonn De Valera, Christy Moore, Patrick Pearse, W.B. Yeats, Phil Lynnot, Brendan Behan, Cu Chulainn, Granuaile, Saint Patrick-- they were all batting for the same side, all part of the same wild jaunt into the Celtic utopia.

My childish imagination was peopled with piano-playing and poetry-reading slum-dwellers, political prisoners learning Gaelic, ancient Celts perpetually building dolmens and passage tombs in the solemn light of dawn, homemade bread, Druids in Persil-white robes, gaunt intellectuals in overcoats and jam-jar spectacles discussing poetry over pints of stout, barefoot children walking to school through the fields, open air clandestine Masses, earnest-faced men in shirtsleeves puffing on cigarettes and discussing whether to call strikes, jovial and scholarly priests, and a whole gallery of other scenes and characters that seemed all of a piece to me. And underneath all of them, linking them together, was an intense excitement, a reaching towards the millennium, a vision of life as a many-splendoured thing, a spree into the sublime and the transcendental.

Maybe it's just nostalgia. Maybe I am projecting. Maybe I am wrong to contrast the (just about) still-idealistic Ireland of my childhood with the irony-heavy, rights-obsessed, hedonistic, pop-culture infatuated, disenchanted Ireland of my maturity. But I can't help feeling that the ideologies that were still alive in Ireland when I was a kid-- nationalism, trade unionism, liberal humanism, art for art's sake, hippydom, and a host of others-- were all good stepping-stones to Christian faith. They all treated life as something both intensely serious and potentially glorious. They were all aimed towards a jackpot of some kind, whether that was the artistic masterpiece, the socialist revolution or national revival. And the pay-off, they always hinted, would be beyond our wildest dreams; pressed down, shaken, overflowing.

I get the impression that today's partisans, of whatever cause, don't hold out any such bright prospect. I don't imagine gay rights activists think that gay marriage will usher in a golden era. Feminists today seem to aspire to mundane goals, compared to the galloping romantics of the past, who expected we would all start dropping capital letters and dismantling armies once the patriarchy fell. Student politicians want to retain free fees, rather than reshape the world. In some ways that's a good thing, but...

But where has it gone, the visionary gleam?

I may be wrong, but I think I was lucky to catch the tail-end (perhaps merely the echoes) of an idealistic era in Irish life and culture. I think it likely that anyone who has been seized by the vision of some overwhelming, all-demanding, transformative cause is that much closer to religious faith. And I look at Ireland today and I really do think I see a country that has ceased to believe in anything.

(P.S.: Re-reading this, it seems fist-bitingly pretentious and barely coherent. I got carried away! What the heck. Let it stand.)

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