Patrick O’Sullivan poses a question about our cultural identity
I came across a book of late called The Irish by the late great Sean O’Faolain.
The latter, celebrated for his short stories, also wrote books about famous figures in Irish history: among them Daniel O’Connell and Countess Markievicz.
O’Faolain was born in 1900 and educated at the National University of Ireland. He spent a year as a commercial traveller but gave it up to fight on the side of De Valera in 1921. His book about the Irish was first published in 1947.
Having discussed the Celts and the old Gods, he described the coming of Christianity. He was full of praise for a poem by W.B. Yeats, The Unappeasable Host, in which memories of Celtic and Christian Ireland were all mixed up together. Yeats poem was the “interweaving of centuries of bright imaginings and dim rememberings, of irrational terror and delight”.
Then O’Faolain dipped into the works of the early poets themselves, then the lives of saints and scholars, quoting as he did from The Anglo Saxon Chronicle: ‘Three Irishmen came to King Alfred in a boat without oars from Ireland, from where they had slipped away because they desired for the love of God to be in a state of pilgrimage: they knew not where.’ Then the influence of the Normans and the Munster Plantation, followed in turn by the Plantation of Ulster, the creation of a new peasantry and the rise of the Anglo-Irish gentry. O’Faolain’s view of the latter was fairly caustic.
While they brought more civilizing gifts than any previous colonist, politically and socially ‘they were either wicked, indifferent or sheer failures’. Their achievements were so removed from the lives of the native Irish that they became part of English rather than Irish cultural history. O’Faolain acknowledged the role of Yeats and the like in the foundation of the national theatre, however. He reviewed the rebels among them Tone, Emmet, O’Connell and Parnell, and all the leaders of 1916 and after. After that he focused on the church, the writers and the politicians.
Although the book was first published in the 1940s and revised two decades later, it is a mark of its achievement that it still gives plenty of food for thought, all of which begs the question: What does it mean to be Irish today? There are some who would say that we have been so swamped by the popular culture of Britain and America that being Irish amounts to very little today.
Maybe no more than wearing a green leprechaun hat on St. Patrick’s Day, or waving green plastic shamrocks at a rugby or a soccer match involving the Irish team.
We seem to have developed a penchant for aping and imitating some of the worst talent shows, or so called talent shows and reality shows from across the water and elsewhere. In the case of the latter, in particular, we have Irish variations of all that is crass and forgettable in their overseas counterparts. If the formula worked elsewhere then it will work here too: this seems to be the thinking behind much of this output. New technologies mean that so much of what we see and hear is internationalised. This is inevitable, but does it mean that we have to slavishly imitate all that is mediocre elsewhere and all for the sake of creating something equally mediocre ourselves, albeit with a greenish tinge?
De Valera’s vision of the comely maidens dancing at the crossroads may have been too romantic, too isolationist to appeal to many of us today, but it could be argued that the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
The upheavals in church and state have, of course, challenged our view of Irishness too in recent times. There was a time when religion was at the heart of our national identity and consciousness, but the shock waves of revelation after revelation have inevitably taken their toll. In like manner, our faith in the political system has been sorely tested too. On a lighter note there were some who were critical of John Hinde’s postcard views of Ireland. I have to admit I have always loved them for their romance and sense of atmosphere.
Happily, our national games are played with the same intensity as ever, the colour and drama of All Ireland Final day unforgettable still. Likewise our traditional music and dance are more popular than ever. It was Padraig Pearse who wrote Tir Gan Teanga, Tir Gan Anam, country without a language, country without a soul. I wonder what he and his fellow patriots would make of Ireland today.
Would they be disillusioned that we have left so much behind, or would they be glad of our achievements, resigned to the fact that life is a work in progress and that changing times bring changing values? Finally, is the weather part of what we are? Are we shaped by living on an island ‘of dark green brooding under a sky that is one vast pearl?’