Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day and Various Assorted Thoughts

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my readers!

Since this blog is called Irish Papist, and since my main themes are Catholicism and Irish cultural nationalism, it would seem amiss not to post about St. Patrick's Day. I'm just going to write off the cuff and in a rather disorganised way.

First off, I want to deal with the concept of the 'plastic paddy'-- I hear it used a lot, and I don't like it. I don't think there's anything in the world wrong with people wearing inflatable green hats, glittery shamrock stickers on their faces, and leprechaun beards. I don't have any problem with green Guinness and rivers being dyed green and all that kind of stuff. In fact, I'm all for it.

I remember an ad for an Irish credit card which showed a young Irish man-- dressed fashionably and casually, like anybody anywhere in the developed world-- looking at various tourists wearing such accoutrements (presumably it was set on St. Patrick's Day), with a perpetual wry grin on his face. Captions told the viewer the cost of the various 'plastic paddy' accoutrements. When the man walked into a pub and greeted his friends, the caption was: "Knowing what it really means to be Irish: priceless."

I hated that ad. It reduced Irishness to some kind of abstract consciousness. I hate anything that's just an abstract consciousness, whether it's national identity or the kind of woolly "spirituality" which seeks to discard all religious forms, ceremonies and requirements.

I imagine very few of my readers would give the time of day to the concept of 'cultural appropriation', but I may as well point out that I think it's hogwash. I think it's great that St. Patrick's Day is celebrated all around the world. I think it's great that so many people who have either a tenuous connection to Ireland, or no connection at all, are drawn to Irish culture and want to identify with it in some ways.

The 'plastic paddy' phenomenon is closer to my own ideal and iconography of Irishness, anyway-- a cartoon version of it, or indeed, the thing itself in many cases. My post in defence of so-called kitsch explains this at greater length.

The reason I'm a romantic and cultural nationalist, rather than a nationalist simpliciter, is because I see nationalism as a project (a national project) rather than just an attitude.

I heard someone once saying: "Irish national culture is whatever Irish people do from the beginning of the day to the end". I couldn't disagree with that more. I see it as the pursuit of an ideal, a tradition, instead.

Today I went to Irish language Mass,  the first time I've done this on St. Patrick's Day. It was a priest I'd never seen before.  He was in his early middle age. He looked more like a scientist or a doctor than a priest, and I admired his air of objectivity and seriousness. His homily was about doctrine-- always a good sign. He spoke about his time amongst Lutherans and how much he pitied their loss of the cult of saints.

He also spoke beautiful Irish.

I value well-spokenness (if I may use the term) and I strive for it myself. Once, in work, a colleague said to me: "You speak very well. You should be doing the announcements for the library". Another time, at Mass, a woman said to me (during the sign of peace): "You're a beautiful speaker." Ha! I value those compliments.

Anyway, his Irish was very beautiful, both in delivery and language. I found myself thinking about the Irish language and my attitude to it.

In recent times, as I've mentioned on this blog, I've been drawn more and more to the Irish language, and i've made a big effort to improve my Irish. There are various reasons for this.

Partly it's because I've been a traditionalist for so long, and I've finally (and reluctantly) come to accept that the Irish language is by far the most important pillar of Irish tradition-- an indispensable one, in fact. Any attempt to preserve or revive Irish national identity that doesn't prioritise the Irish language is a waste of time. (Incidentally, I belive the converse, as well-- reviving the Irish language isn't worth doing, except as part of a programme to revive and protect all sorts of national traditions.)

Another reason is my increasing adversity towards homogenisation and globalisation.

But I think there's yet another reason, a much more personal one. Martin Heidegger described language as the house of being. I think he was right. I find myself being drawn to reading and speaking and hearing Irish because the Irish language seems flavoured and scented and coloured in comparison with English-- not intrinsically, of course, but through virtue of its relative unfamiliarity to me. It's as though Irish is a medium through which I can see and experience the world, concepts and the magic of words and ideas afresh.

It reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton quotation, about fairy tales: "Even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."

So how am I doing with Irish? Not too bad. I can have a conversation in broken but reasonably fluent Irish, with resort to occasional English words. (Even native Irish speakers seem to do this all the time. Some words just aren't translated to Irish, or the translations are obscure and hardly ever actually used.) I can read Irish language texts without a dictionary (though usually I could profit from one), and not too slowly. However, I would still be entirely incapable of writing this post in Irish, which frustrates me. (Not that I plan to start blogging in Irish-- since the majority of my readers are overseas, that would be rude and ridiculous.)

This year I resolved all my reading would be through Irish, unless I had a pressing need to read something in English, and I've mostly stuck to it. When I'm having a tea-break at work, I nearly always feel reluctant to yet again dip into An Sagart, the journal of the Irish Priests's Association, whose back issues I've been reading. I feel like reading something in English instead. But, when I do read An Sagart, I nearly always feel a frisson of pleasure, and an appetite to read as much Irish as I can.

So-- happy St. Patrick's Day! I haven't written anything about St. Patrick himself today, but I don't feel too bad about this, since I've written about him on previous Patrick's Days. I encourage everyone to read his Confession, or at least some of it. The St. Patrick who leaps off the pages is a very endearing, humble, human figure. The document is also the first text in Irish history whose author we know, so in a real sense it's the beginning of Irish history. It's easily found online. (I'm having computer problems so I won't bother to link it.)

I read it every St. Patrick's Day, so I'll be reading it later myself. Maybe not all of it this year, though-- it's quite repetitive, as St. Patrick was, by his own admission, a poor writer. Rather amusingly, he constantly lapses into vagueness, repetition, or Scripture when he seems just about to reveal some precious detail about his life or about the Ireland of his time. The text must be maddening for historians. 

But I'll read it in Irish this year!

(I've decided to read it over the St. Patrick's Day period from now on. It's not long but it's long enough to make reading it at one sitting irksome, especially when you've read it several times already. I mostly read the introduction to the Irish translation today.)


  1. I've read quite a bit about the Irish banks scandals of recent years. Although I wasn't living there at the period,a lady from church gave me plenty books about the subject which her sister in Crosshaven sent her. Listening to you description of the bankcard ad I can only think- OF ALL THE GALL! I'm not particularly wild about a lot of the "kitsch" St Patrick's day bits and pieces either(we have them in Australia in the odd shop here and there, all made in China [ not sure if Ireland's are made in China also, but our Australia Day flags are also from China,so....]) but we can do a lot less justice to our noble race than but buying a few green plastic bow-ties - many bankers have done much worse for the country.

    1. Indeed, I hadn't thought of that irony. However, it was an American credit card (the Irish arm of it). That's a good point about the Irish kitsch being made in China, but I'm still fine with it!

  2. It's just the age we live in.
    Australia has so much in the way of raw materials and yet so little is actually made here.
    Concerning the ad there's probably a further irony-Ireland can still benefit much from the "various tourists"after the finance and building sectors have proved to be so unreliable.
    And the interest of the country's Christian heritage Ti others can't be ignored either