Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Patriotism and National Character Again

The Much-Vexed Question

The subject of patriotism and national character is one that I have discussed at great length (or perhaps tedious length) on this blog. I had a long discussion about it with another Catholic blogger, Young Ireland, starting here. I've also had many other posts about it.

Indeed, it's a subject that I've been discussing all my life, since my family (going back several generations) is steeped in the Irish republican tradition. I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of debates and discussions about republicanism, Ireland, patriotism, nationalism and so forth-- debates that went back many generations. Over my own life, my attitude to the subject has gone all around the houses, from the most ardent romantic nationalism imaginable (at one point, in my teens, it seriously bothered me that foreign embassies were not technically Irish territory), to a predictable reactionary phase where I became positively anti-Irish. I've also become utterly bored by the subject for years at a time.

More recently, I've come to the point of view that I expressed in this post. Basically, that view is that I wish Ireland (and every other country) had a vibrant national identity, but I don't believe that it does, and I don't expect that it will regain one. I fully expect the process of cultural globalization to continue and accelerate. I don't think there's any point grieving over this.

After all, what do we have in Ireland that makes us so different from the rest of the world? Our national sports, hurling and Gaelic football, are more popular than they've ever been, that's true. Traditional Irish music seems (from what I can see) to be in fairly robust health. But the Irish language has been on life support for almost a hundred years now. We don't really have a national cuisine or a national dress. We mostly shop in multinational chain stores, we mostly watch American TV and movies, we mostly read non-Irish books, and so on.

So, not so long ago, I decided I would stop fretting about this-- it hurts too much-- and just resign myself to living in the global village.

And yet, and yet...

Surprised by Patriotism

Sometimes, the pangs of patriotic feeling take me by surprise. Yesterday, I was sitting watching television with my father, and he was (as usual) flicking from channel to channel.

He flicked onto the Rose of Tralee, and instantly I was back on my aunt and uncle's farm in Limerick, sitting with my mother and aunt in the front parlour, with buttered scones and strong tea and the Rose of Tralee on the television.

Most of my readers are not Irish, and may not know about The Rose of Tralee. I suppose you could call it a beauty contest, but it's a world away from Miss Universe (though I've never seen Miss Universe). The organizers always stress that the winner is chosen on personality as much as looks. It's very much family viewing, and about as erotic as wellies. Young women from all over Ireland and across the world come to Tralee in County Kerry, stand on stage to be asked a variety of innocuous questions, and then recite a poem or sing a song or do some performance of some kind. The most insipid girl wins.

I sat on the couch, feeling I had been transported back to my aunt's parlour, with my uncle's glass and porcelain fish decorations standing on the cabinet, and my aunt's country-wife accent breaking the silence every few moments. (My aunt's naive style of television commentary lingers in my mind. Once, when she was watching Roots, she said: "I hope he doesn't try to escape again for he will be severely reprimanded." That was probably more than twenty years ago and I can still hear her exact tones. God rest her soul.)

"You can see that girl couldn't be anything other than Irish", my father said. He often makes this observation, both about Irish people and people he suspects of having Irish blood. I don't know if he's right of if he's imagining it.

But if he's imagining it, I'm imagining it, too, because I looked at the girl on the screen and I also thought that she looked utterly Irish. He said it was in the eyes. Personally, I think it's in the lips. I think Irish people tend to have rather thin, mobile lips that protrude a little in the centre of the mouth. Maybe I'm seeing something that's not there.

Elusive Irishness

And at that moment, as I sat watching The Rose of Tralee, the most delicious sensation of being an Irish person, comfortably ensconced in Ireland, washed over me. I didn't care about globalization. I didn't care about the past or the future. I didn't care about itemizing a check-list of genuinely indigenous elements of our culture. I felt that Irishness was something too elusive to be analysed like that. It was something as diffuse and yet as penetrating as a scent, or an atmosphere, or a mood. It was in a tone of voice, a quirk of expression, in the vaguest acquaintance with the history of the Cromwellian plantations or the Brehon Law, in childhood memories of watching The Late Late Show and the Rose of Tralee. All the Starbucks and multiculturalism and podcasting in the world hardly made a dent in it. There was no need to worry about it, or assert it. It was just there.

Normally, this is the kind of vague claim that makes me want to throw things at the one making it. But in that moment it seemed as indisputable as gravity.

Having an American wife has often made me think similar thoughts. When I first went to America, I was so geared up at the thought of seeing The New World that, when I got there, I felt a bitter disappointment. Nothing looked all that different. When I got home, I wrote a post listing the differences I'd noticed between America and Ireland. (I was pleased when a student left a comment telling me it had helped her do an assignment.) But the differences seemed rather trivial to me, and not worth making a fuss over.

Stepping into a Sauna

But then, on another occasion when I flew into America-- when I wasn't thinking about American national character at all, or the difference between Ireland and America, or anything like that, and my mind was absorbed on a completely different subject-- I stepped from the plane into Philadelphia airport and the sheer American-ness of my surroundings struck me like the heat of a sauna. I don't think it was something I could have noticed the first time I visited America. It needed time to get under my skin. Nor can I even begin to analyse it.

I find the same thing in my interactions with Michelle. Time and time again, during a conversation, we have found ourselves baffled by mutual incomprehension, until-- after much unspooling-- we realise that we have been using exactly the same word or phrase, but understanding completely different things by it. (For instance, "anti-social" means "unsociable" in America. Michelle was greatly amused to see a notice on an Irish train urging passengers to report anti-social behaviour.)

This is the least satisfactory of conclusions to me. It niggles. A phenomenon that is barely visible when you are looking for it, but which grabs you from behind and even knocks you over when you are intent upon other things, seems like the worst of both worlds. I still think that national identity is more meaningful and secure when it is based upon definite practices and institutions, things you can point to and photograph. But this nebulous kind of national spirit is, I suppose, better than nothing.

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