Friday, April 29, 2011

What happened today?

Arthur Wellesley, aka The Duke of Wellington, aka the guy who defeated Napoleon, was born on this day in 1769. Unfortunately (in his eyes nonetheless), he was born in Ireland. 

Now there are many greats in Ireland's history that were born in Ireland but whose parents, or at least one of them, were English. Take some literary figures for example. Swift, Wilde, Yeats and Stoker are not strikingly obvious Irish names (I bet ALL of them are not Irish names), yet we definitely count them in the list of great Irish literary figures. Heck, I'm one of the few who would even count Shakespeare in the list!

But, we don't know for certain which, if any, would actually prefer NOT to be counted in such a list. Wellington definitely did not really regard himself as an Irishman, or if he did, he resented such a tag. We don't care. If he didn't  want to be one of us, we don't want him to be one of us! So there, Wellington!

That's the way I see the 'label' of 'Irishness' - you can claim or deny Irishness, but only with legitimate principles: and "it's St. Patrick's Day, I'm Irish" is not legitimate!

I bring up this issue on today of all days because there's a royal wedding happening in London. It will be watched by a couple billion people around the world, among them many Irish. Nowadays, we Irish have a strange relationship with the British monarchy (a relationship that will get even stranger, I bet, once and after the Queen arrives for a visit) - many Irish bought 'Candle in the Wind' after Diane's death, and, doubtless, thousands have tuned in today to watch the royal wedding. I am not one of them.

 So I wonder if many people in Ireland today have done 'a Wellington'.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter Monday 2011

It is, or was, Easter Monday, the anniversary of The Rising. What did I do to celebrate? I don’t know? Did I celebrate subconsciously? Did I mark the day when Irish people stood up and said ‘I did not sit idly by while...’ by sitting idly by?

Did you?

How do we celebrate such things?

Our ability and our want to celebrate such undeniably celebratory anniversaries are both frustratingly unquantifiable (for reasons I won’t go into right now). We don’t know what we should do. We don’t know whether doing something significant is too much, especially when we notice that most people.... do something insignificant – something having more resemblance to doing nothing than doing something special.

Today, as we were driving through my beautiful, wild county of Donegal, we passed by an obvious procession. A commemoration by a concrete cross. I sensed that it was something significant. Something celebrating the importance of this day, of this date, of history. Something I should stop for, witness, reflect, embrace, respect. Yet, we didn’t. We drove by. We drove by, somewhat convincing our ‘ignorance’ – as I would call it, I suppose – that we shouldn’t stop simply because we did not know what was going on or we didn’t know that such a thing would be going on.

And I thought: of all the sites we saw today; the great views, the harbours, the grassy roads, of all the permanent sites that make the place, what most connects us to this place is what we, as a people, have done here. We didn’t make these views, we didn’t form this inlet, we didn’t grow this grass. But, we erected this cross. Not because of the landscape. We erected this cross in this landscape to celebrate a unique occurrence and not a universal permanence.

We should have stopped. For, if I were to return tomorrow, the grassy road will still be there, as will the cross... but the commemoration has passed. And I had missed it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quitting the habit

“No smoking in this area” – that’s what the sign says. And yet, these two people are smoking ‘in this area’. Breaking the rules. Perhaps, as is likely, they do not actually see the sign – it is just a sheltered doorway, a good place to stand [on this note, why do smokers stand in doorways? Is this a way of compensating for the fact that they can’t pollute the air for everyone inside anymore so that now, they think, “at least we can ‘get’ them on their way inside”?]

Or perhaps they do see it, and intentionally invoke the anger of the sign’s maker or patron. Or maybe, probably worst of all, they have seen it, and have, without consciously reading and noticing the sign, made the subconscious decision that that very spot is the place to smoke.

Of course, when I witnessed this, I laughed to myself – the utter lack of...

Respect. Respect for authority. We Irish have a strange relationship with respect:
We have nicknames for monuments, nicknames which seem, oddly, to denote both a lack of respect and a curious affection.
A lot of us could curse the devil blue.
We rarely wait for the ‘green man’ to cross the road.
Drinking on the street is illegal, as is smoking on buses, and littering, yet why do so many Irish people continually disrespect the law in committing these minor yet prevalent crimes?

Well, for several hundred years there – ya know a while ago – we had these ‘minders’ called the British. We weren’t too happy with them. Didn’t like their oppression (who would?), didn’t like their language, and generally just didn’t appreciate their presence. We eventually had to put up with all these though. In order to get us through, and to annoy the British at the same time, we simply disobeyed their laws:

“You’re not going to Catholic mass!” “We’ll go to Catholic mass even more than we used to!”

“Don’t rebel, you wouldn’t like the consequences.” “You just gave me an idea for a lifelong goal!”

“English is a splendid language. Read great works by English authors in order to learn how to use the language properly.” “Your thoughts lack originality and your expression lacks personality. Read fantastic works by Irish authors in order to learn how to use the language properly.”

Disrespecting authority is a long-surviving Irish tradition. Naturally, when the British government in Ireland was replaced by an Irish government, we couldn’t wilfully change a national, and now natural, habit.

Even those who enforce and establish authority have a surprisingly hard time quitting the habit.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Book club

Welcome to the book club: now, for one of my favourite books. This particular work has, to the best of my memory, inspired and enlightening me more than any other.

It is not a self-help book.
It is not a book of philosophy.
It is not a book that I have written myself [as if!].

Tony Crowley has written an exceptionally cohesive piece that has retained its pedestal position on my book shelf ever since I first read it in 2007. Nothing else I have ever seen, read or heard has given me, as an Irishman, a more fuller explanation and understanding of Irish society over the last few centuries.

I’ve probably built it up enough by now. The suspense is probably killing you...

The book is called ‘War of Worlds: The Politics of Language in Ireland 1537-2004’. I want to share with you some interesting facts I’ve learned from this book:

1.     Even today, Irish people still harbour a sub-conscious inferiority complex of their own language and, by extension, their culture – the result of the English inculcating, over centuries, such sentiments and ideas into their everyday lives.
a.    Hence, the reason the Irish look abroad for the lead, be it in culture, trends, technology, speech, customs etc. instead of looking at themselves and their own culture.
b.    Hence, most times when you attempt to speak in Irish with an Irish person, even those who are fluent in the language, you are met with awkwardness and most likely an answer in English.
2.    It was the Catholic Church and not the opposing Church of Ireland that was the main proponent in teaching English, over Irish, to the Irish.
3.    That the Irish language is more important than any other aspect of Irish culture and that without it, the Irish culture will perish. And our forefathers knew it.

Some quotes:
·       ... A basic theme of modern Irish history had emerged: robbed of their native leaders and identity an increasingly degenerate people were united only in their hatred of England.
·       [DeValera once] told the Gaelic League that ‘it is my opinion that Ireland, with its language and without freedom is preferable to Ireland with freedom and without its language’.
·       ‘If you urge Irish speaking, the response is: “What good is Irish in America?”’... ‘it would be the veriest mockery to say to those people – “Don’t speak English, or emigrate: speak Irish, stay at home and starve, cry out yearly for doles, and send your children picking winkles instead of being at school, and earn the contemptuous pity of the world.’
·       Michael Collins noted on the central role which Gaelic had played in the period which ended with the War of Independence:
We only succeeded after we had begun to get back our Gaelic ways, after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language, after we had striven again to govern ourselves. How can we express our most subtle thoughts and finest feelings in a foreign tongue? Irish will scarcely be our language in this generation, nor even perhaps in the next. But until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds, we are not free.