Sunday, January 20, 2013

Little Towns in Connacht

Ballyporeen. Kanturk. Nobber. Borris. Trim. Monageer. Drumcondra. Cloone. Cullenstown. Skreen.

No, not all little towns in Connacht. My post title comes from that haunting poem by Patrick Pearse, "The Wayfarer":

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun...
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.

It occurred to me today that my own sense of patriotism, and of Irishness, is often sparked especially by hearing or reading the names of little towns or villages (or simply places) in Ireland-- most of all the names of places that are not especially storied, picturesque or notable in any way. They catch me off-guard. The very lack of associations or renown attached to their name, somehow, gives them a certain poetry, a certain lightness. Nothing ever seems more exciting to me than the ordinary. And the true essence of Ireland, I imagine, must lie in the ordinary Irish places that have no ancient monasteries, no famous festivals, no world-renowned flora and fauna.

Patriotism is something I think about a lot. Some people make a religion out of it. Sometimes a whole population will make it the focus of their entire existence. People are willing to die, kill and devote their entire lives to it.

At other times, and for other people, patriotism seems to be completely irrelevant, or even something to be opposed. "Insularism" and "provincialism" become evils to be avoided.

Most people's attitude towards patriotism and love of country seems to be an intriguing mixture of all the above. Well, intriguing and (for a literal-minded person like me) sometimes exasperating.

This seems to me to be a fair description of a particular Irish person's attitude to patriotism.

When Ireland are doing well in rugby, soccer or some other sport he becomes enthralled by it. He is willing to turn out and cheer in the freezing cold to greet sporting heroes returning from the scenes of their triumphs. He can become furiously angry if a referee cheats Ireland of a win. However, he loses interest in the team when they cease to be successful.

He reveres the memory of Irish patriots like Patrick Pearse, Robert Emmet and Michael Collins, and can become quite heated about the history of Britain's occupation of Ireland. He vaguely identifies with the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. He is disgusted at all the bombings and shootings that took place during The Troubles (and since then), whether they were carried out by republicans or loyalists. But he seems to view the 1981 hunger strikers like Bobby Sands as noble figures (even though they were members of the IRA).

He becomes upset when famous Irish actors, musicians and TV presenters are called British rather than Irish.

He is in favour of the Irish language but never speaks it or makes any effort to learn it. He is, however, rather apologetic about this.

If he works abroad for a period of time, he becomes quite sentimental about Ireland and hankers for products like Club Orange and Tayto crisps, which are only available in Ireland.

If he is from Dublin or another town or city, he can be fiercely proud of his Irishness while being dismissive of "culchies" (people from rural areas). Brendan Behan is an example of this. It doesn't seem to occur to him that the traditions and folkways of Ireland might be stronger in rural areas than in cities, which always tend to be more cosmopolitian and rootless, and that this might be a reason to cherish rural life.

He is proud of Irish traditions, from ceillidhs to Aran sweaters to hurling to Wren Boys, but he also tends to complain about whatever he considers to be "outdated" or "behind the times". He seems to see no contradiction in this.

He tends to see the Catholic Church as being a part of his national heritage, and to consider himself Catholic, even if he rarely goes to Mass and pays no attention to its teaching on transubstantiation or lying or contraception. In fact, he might be a "cultural Catholic" even if he is an atheist.

As for me, my attitude towards patriotism and nationalism (because yes, I am a cultural nationalist) are not all that clear or definite either. Most of all I wonder what investment of time and effort my cultural nationalism deserves. Should I work on improving my Irish, speaking it, learning more about Irish history and Irish mythology and so on?

Or would that be taking time from more important things, like the study of the Bible and the Church Fathers and the lives of the saints-- or from reading poetry and novels and history and improving my mind in general?

I don't know. But I do know that when I'm listening to the news or reading a magazine article, and I come across a name like Ballintubber or Toomevara, my heart gives a little leap.


  1. The above describes very well your average Irish person. If I may quote from a poem "Breathes there a man with soul so dead, that never to himself has said, this is my own my native land" by Sir Walter Scott - if some one was bold enough to run down our country, or country men they would soon find out that we were not dead nor indifferent.

  2. The above description fits me and I would say many Irish people. However I ,am reminded of the poem by Sir Walter Scott, "breathes there a man with soul so dead that never to himself has said this is my own my native land" if anyone were to run down our country , or countrymen , the would soon find out that we were not dead.