I noticed brisk days and early sunsets. But when I was walking in Dublin and noticed the leaves changing colors, I realized the utter strangeness of this year.
After my first two months at college, I remember someone saying, “It’s been like Camp Swarthmore. But now I’m realizing it keeps happening.” I’m not on vacation. This is my life.
I’ve grown familiar with it, though of course I’m in the easy part. Ireland is not exactly a challenging place for an American quasi-tourist to navigate. And as comfort exceeds discovery, it’s become time to move on.
My move to Scotland and the lazy symbolism of changing trees gave my thoughts on Ireland a chance to congeal. Ireland is an odd nation. With 4.6 million people, population wise, it’s a blip. But it weighs heavy in the imagination. Or at least it does in mine.
Some of this is captured by Terry Eagleton: “The Irish are endlessly fascinated by themselves…it’s only a marginal people who have an identity problem, and so keep examining themselves all the time.” I rarely had a conversation where the phrase “Irish people do/think/say” didn’t pop up.
The British colonization of Ireland cemented this obsession with developing a distinct identity. Case in point: Why does every sign in Ireland have the Irish language translation beneath it, when English is the only language used outside of a few isolated spots? And why do Irish students have twelve years of Irish language education? When the English seized control, English became the language of business and politics, a symbolically representation of foreign control.1 Irish language clubs developed, nominally to preserve the language, but also to developed alternative Irish histories, creating a mythological past in opposition to the British vision of the Irish as a backwards people. These groups were organizational hubs for Home-rule politics, and in some cases fomented revolutionary activity. In the North, this approach was copied and expanded in Nationalist Catholic communities, most notably among IRA members that attempted to generate an alternative set of state services within the UK rule.
The fusion of Ireland’s physical isolation, independent identity, economic underdevelopment,2 and Catholic control over primary education led to a fundamental sense of Irish identity as distinct from the rest of the world.
As a result, Ireland was Rousseau’s paradise. In my modern political theory seminar, my professor described Rousseau’s politics as culturally isolationist. In his constitution for Corsica, public education was to emphasize the history and culture of the small island, imprinting an idea of nationhood on its citizens. The combination of the colonized nation’s identity crisis and the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information has left Ireland with a strong sense of itself as itself (the highest per capita rate of Nobel Prizes in literature doesn’t hurt). An older man I talked to described his Catholic education on Ireland: “We didn’t know anything else. We pitied the rest of the world. They were wrong”
But what’s interesting, and what deviates from this theory, is how “Irishness” has transformed into something like an international brand. Ask many white Americans if they are Irish, and they’ll likely affirm with pride. Hell, I’m Scotch-Irish and I always say yes for simplicity’s sake.
And yet, this wasn’t always true. For a large chunk of American history, the relationship was more like this:
So what happened? It’s worth remembering that the Irish came to America as refugees. Before the famine, over eight million people lived on the island, including the North. Now there are around 6.5 million. The psychological effects still echo. I spent a night in Ballina, where I was told “the people are a little cold. The famine hit hard here.” There is a monument along the promenade in Galway to a girl who died from starvation, unable to summon the energy to eat. Ireland, overpopulated and neglected by its colonizers, sent its citizens abroad.
Many went to America, around five generations ago.3 The immigrants struggled against attitudes like the one above, with the Know Nothing Party and the KKK actively persecuting them. In defense, they turned inward, creating strong community bonds. The combination of Irish mythmaking and their displacement to a strange country, the idyllic fantasy of a lost homeland bloomed.
Now, Ireland is a diasporic nation. Generations later, people return to a homeland passed down through a game of telephone. 7.3 million people visited Ireland in 2014, 1.6 times the number living there. And for those that visit, there’s a version of Ireland that’s marketed and sold. This was clearest to me when I went to Blarney. Divorced from history, there were fairy gardens, a stone holding a cursed witch. But in the old stories, the ones Eddie Lenihan recorded, the fairies were among the fallen. Not devils, but certainly not angels, comfortable spilling human blood. More than pretty fairies, they were a way of understanding the contingency of the world.
Alternatively, there is the world of Temple Bar in Dublin. 6 Euro for a Guinness, “traditional Irish music” including U2 and Coldplay sung over an accordion, drunk Americans in Shamrock hats. A Dubliner told me once: “What’s the one thing you won’t see in Temple Bar? An Irish person.” But it’s also a fantasy, a world where Ireland is the historic home of hedonistic paradise, ignoring how colonial era pubs were more the home of the landowners than the Irish.
The modern reality of Ireland is, of course, more complicated than postcards and Aran wool sweaters, and the meaning of Irishness is being renegotiated. The authority of the Catholic Church was mortally wounded by sex scandals and their unwillingness to adapt to modern social mores. Ireland’s membership in the EU opened their border to more cultural diversity than the island had ever experienced. The Celtic Tiger era cemented Dublin as a financial center, and their tax policy has made the little island a tech company paradise.
A version of the island is packaged and sold as bus tours and nights on the town, but its an echo of something. The modern Ireland has the same concerns as most developed nations. The night I stayed with a family in Cork, the conversation turned to zero-hour contracts, where companies could call in staff at any time but did not promise any labor time. Or there’s companies dodging tax contributions by laying off their workers for the holidays, so they technically were not year round employees. Or the scandal around Apple’s .005% corporate tax rate, which broke when I was there. There’s a massive housing crisis, with families crowded into hotel rooms, and hostels filled with the homeless.
But some of the core remains. While many signs promising “Traditional Irish Music” are directed towards tourists, there’s also a pub in every town where locals gather to hear the old songs. Parish pump politics abound, with MPs attending parishioner’s funerals and christening and focused on the locality, even if it’s to the detriment of the nation as a whole. Stereotypes about the Irish openness and friendliness are broadly true (though that’s the experience of white man with red hair, a bit of a limited sample). The scenery is beautiful, even magical, and its easy to see why so many people fought to claim the land as their own. And as far as myths go, I’ll repeat my favorite Irish saying: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
- Eagleton notes this leads to little quirks: “There is no word in the Irish language for ‘no’, as you may have noticed when you ask the Irish if they’d like a drink. But there’s no word for ‘yes’ either. This is why, if you ask the Irish whether they are married or have a job, they tend to say ‘I am’ and ‘I do’ rather than ‘yes’. Many speech habits in Irish-English..are carried over from the Irish language. ‘Are you after having your dinner?’ meaning ‘Have you had your dinner?’, would be one such instance.”
- It’s worth noting that some Irish still hold a grudge against the English for this. “The English took our trees,” said one woman, gesturing to the grassy Connemara mountains, reflecting the attitude that the English ravaged Ireland, only leaving once they had taken most of what was worth taking, leaving Ireland in poverty for most of the 20th century. By contrast, younger people (under 60) tend to attribute it to corrupt politicians and clergy, one going so far as to say the Irish would have been better off sticking with the UK. But the transition in Ireland to a developed country has been remarkably rapid, a rush that started in the 1990s. Even middle aged people remember when horses were more prevalent than cars, and a two-car family remains novel.
- Eddie Lenihan told me about an “American Wake” for those leaving. In the old understanding, the souls of the dead stuck around for the Wake before moving on to the next world. With the American Wake, one saw the dead dancing at the party, and their second life was assured, if they managed the brutal Atlantic crossing. But it was sadder than the wake for the traditionally dead. Those leaving for American were never seen again. A few cards, some money if the family was lucky.