Last February, Ireland gave the English a good thrashing in the Six Nations rugby tournament. Though always a nice thing to see, this occasion was particularly significant: Against all historical odds and despite the 300 protesting supporters of ultra-nationalist group Republican Sinn Féin the game took place at the magnificent Croke Park ground in Dublin. For more than a century, since 1884, only games of Irish origin have been permitted to be played at the Gaelic Athletic Association stadium; and the GAA, cherishing its historical connections to various advocates of Irish Independence and nationalism, has always been particularly hostile toward the hosting of English sports such as soccer or rugby at that. Furthermore, the last notable official English presence at “the Croker” was Ireland’s first Bloody Sunday (November 21st 1920), when British security forces massacred fourteen civilians at a Gaelic Football match, in retaliation for the IRA assassination of fourteen British Intelligence agents that same morning.
Once the venue had been decided, the question of playing of national anthems, which is customary before any international match, provided another hurdle. There was the perception that the sounding of “God Save the Queen” in the stadium would be distasteful given the historical circumstances. Even I, the most stoical of Irishmen, felt a little strange about it. Yet the songs of both countries were sung without incident, and the Irish team proceeded to hammer the English into that controversial ground. To see an Ireland/England international rugby tie at the GAA’s most prized stadium then, was to witness the first pace towards a potentially historical leap in Anglo-Irish relations, away from the specters of past tragedies, and out onto the fresh terrain of possibility.
I watched the game hunched over a computer in a university library with earphones in, squinting at a tiny screen and trying not to transgress the silence. Though I wasn’t in some loud and rousing pub with a paunch full of stout, I was inexplicably emotional. I felt as if a historical weight was being lifted before my very eyes. As if maybe this 43-13 victory over the English might in some way bury that bloody hatchet we have between us.
To see an Ireland/England international rugby tie at the GAA’s most prized stadium then was to witness the first pace towards a potentially historical leap in Anglo-Irish relations.
As if history had revolved and there had been an admonishing and atonement. When I realized I was wondering if the result of a sports match could compensate for all our historical woes and sufferings, I felt like an idiot. But then why were radical nationalists so upset if this was only a game? Perhaps, in effect, these occasions do serve as a sort of sublimation process for transcending grievances.
Apart from the abstraction that is history, the way we assert the Anglo-Irish relationship has so many particulars that one inevitably ends up qualifying each attempt to address it. Thus you have the perennial “I have nothing against the English, but …” sentences that never get beyond their own preambles. As much as I want to say the airing at a rugby match of the Irish or British anthems is only the airing of “a song” it can never be completely divested of politics. They are after all national and convey a sense of political history. And if it appears weird to hear the synthetic “A Song for Ireland” succeed our national anthem, we must realize our complex Nationalist/Unionist divide requires it. The gesture of giving the Unionist rugby players and supporters an alternative hymn of their own is precisely a perpetuation of the political divide it attempts to circumvent.
But what if English and Irish and Unionists in between tried to transcend our messy historical construct? I feel that if we don’t “out” certain features of this cultural constituency soon we might never be able to make that step. I question whether dissident nationalists could ever accept that our violent troubles were over, because they’d have to think about the Irish differently, not as oppressed, not as rebels, but as a people on the brink. Insistence on a stagnant self-perception is an easy way to shirk the re-thinking of our identity. But to ignore how this identity must evolve is to mire our culture in cliché, to refuse to grow as a people.
The English have their own unknowns to deal with. They have no “national” song, “God Save the Queen” being the anthem of the United Kingdom and not England alone. Some assert that their identity revolves around Britishness rather than any actual Englishness. On the other hand, the Scots and the Welsh are currently nurturing new forms of national spirit and culture partially accommodated by devolution of power to local assemblies. Since then they have been busy developing a broader sense of themselves that is no longer summarized by the old stalwart assertion of merely “not being English”.
Insistence on a stagnant self-perception is an easy way to shirk the re-thinking of our identity.
The inaugural Black Welsh Film Festival, for example, featuring films by local ethnic minorities, took place in Wales in 2005. In Scotland the thriving “Independence Movement,” a multipartite, cultural-political coalition, holds regular rallies in a campaign for national sovereignty featuring not only the usual academics and politicians, but speakers from the world of cinema, music, and literature. The diversity of input from such a cross section of Scottish culture makes for an assertion of identity that is complex and rich.
Whether we, the Irish, are ready to shed the clichés history has attributed to us I am unsure. Nevertheless we should be trying. We could start by exploiting the model of “not being English” in order to not be other things–to not be a nation of notorious drinkers; to not be a country of romantic heroes whose defeats become the stuff of poetry; or the inhabitants of a backward turf indoctrinated and managed by a domineering church. Though not an answer in itself, this might provide the impetus for forward movement.
Of course we have started to make some transitions, particularly with the success of the Celtic Tiger economy, which grew 10 percent from 1995 to 2000 and 7 percent from 2001 to 2004, bringing wealth and stability to the country. But these changes are only economic in any mass sense. There’s nothing wrong with that, but wealth will not lead us to who we want to be culturally.
What we need is a new objective, a new vocabulary, one that is different from the resistance we asserted under the yoke of colonial oppression. I have no answers as to what this might be, but I feel we must at least begin to give it thought. I remember when we played football, or rugby, any international sport, the chant would go up in the stadium, “you’ll never beat the Irish.” That was the sole objective, not quite to win, just not to lose.
James Baldwin once said of the condition of his fellow African Americans at the time of his adolescence, “you were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” We are a nation whose history is such that at moments even mediocrity would have been a luxuriant alternative, having had to battle famine, broad destitution and poverty, colonial oppression and imperial mismanagement of our affairs or absence thereof, and the stifling regime of church dogma. Of course this is not the type of mediocrity Baldwin was referring to.
What we need is a new objective, a new vocabulary, one that is different from the resistance we asserted under the yoke of colonial oppression.
Ours and theirs belong to two different catalogues of injustice. At any rate, what I want to underline is that, for the entirety of our modern history we Irish have been struggling to attain something as comfortable as bourgeois mediocrity. Indeed, we fought literally for it. We committed atrocities and had them visited upon us. We nurtured martyrs at our breasts and then sacrificed them accordingly. And all this to get to where we are today, which is quite precisely bourgeois mediocrity itself.
For how can one describe contemporary Irish life as anything else? In France they have a specific phrase for this sort of phenomenon, they call it metro, boulot, dodo (metro, work, sleep). We have always been a little bit more piquant and optimistic than the French in our ways. We have managed to elaborate their formula into “Luas , work, pub/dvd/pizza, sleep …” We also have sports at the weekend and girls’ and lads’ nights out. We have shown that we can handle affluence by infectiously building houses and possessing three cars per family. We now own (own!) property in France, Turkey, Spain, and the like, and can avoid the dour Irish winter by whizzing off to Lanzarote. But what does this mean? Where is it going?
When Padraig Pearse, the father of Irish independence, stood out on the steps of the General Post Office and in his rebel’s uniform proclaimed the free Irish Republic in 1916, he did so against a tide of public opprobrium. He was countering the comfortable mediocrity that had settled in merchant Dublin under British rule, and he was doing so almost purely on principle. How long has it been since we have thought hard about that word? Has it been so sullied by its religious hijack that we refuse to consider it? Principle is what makes for progress, that other P word that has been so abused of late in Ireland.
The last time I was home I complained to my mother about the ugly outbreak of housing developments, spewed up randomly as “investments” across once splendid landscape. (A third of the total number of houses in the country have sprung up in the last decade, mainly in rural areas.) She replied, “What can you do? You can’t stop progress.” If money is the principle that leads to progress epitomized by a superfluity of ugly housing estates, then we need a new version of both P words. And we shouldn’t just provide token replacements, the kind of thing that transforms the kitchen into a breakfast bar or a miniature fountain into a “water feature.” The new vocabulary needed in contemporary Ireland is not a mere re-naming of old phenomena. It is the language of true cultural aspiration, an interrogative lexicon that functions like a battery of tools to open ourselves up and peer into the minutiae of our own cultural mechanics. In our progress we have replaced religion with money; fine. But the field of culture must not be left fallow.
Culture indeed, a dangerous word for the Irish. Dangerous, because thus far we’ve sold pre-packaged versions of ours to tourists, slapped noisy shoes on it and sent it dancing across the world. I live in New York, where what passes for Irish culture are the bawdy pubs of Midtown, with their brawling cops and firemen, the Brooklyn windows and their inflatable shamrocks; the Patrick’s Day Mass where the green clad hoards exact a well-rehearsed “Ar n’Athair” and then stomp off down Fifth Avenue to the pub, in marching unison with a rousing “GO NAOFAR D’AINM, GO DTAGA DO RÍOCHT” like my primary schoolmates who used to chant “THE BELL IS GONE!” when morning break was over … it all amounts to so much noise and precious little content. So the bell is gone. And … ?
This “and” is precisely the problem for future Irish culture. We can laugh off the New Yorkers with their archaic concepts of Irishness if we want, but what are we feeding them? After all, we are the ones selling them “shilaylees” when they come to visit. But cashing in on their fantasist delusions about our country has its price. There are still people in New York City who speak in a contemporary sense of “the war with the British”; people who believe Ireland is populated by ancient toothless men shoving donkeys down rain-slackened backroads; people who believe that their Ireland, the one in their cozy dreams, abounds with red-blooded males of correct sexuality who thump and fight and drink and hate. They use these dreams to maintain themselves in abject ignorance. That’s bad enough. But their ignorance is what delineates the parameters of our cultural possibility; and it does so as long as we, we Irish, refuse to challenge all of this redundant tack with something original of cultural worth. We should vigorously interrogate our situation through all cultural media, and stop miring our formidable energies in exhausted homage to a difficult, defining and almost definitive past. Our tradition will always be there, but it mustn’t prevent us from innovating.
For me, a lot of things were drab growing up in an Irish village in the early eighties. It rained too much. In winter it got horribly dark very promptly every evening. The secondary school I attended was built in the early sixties and mainly consisted of provisional prefab buildings that were meant to endure five rude years after their inauguration to be replaced finally by fixed facilities. The fixed facilities came in 2000.
Our tradition will always be there, but it mustn’t prevent us from innovating.
Ten years after I graduated. (It’s funny to use the verb “graduate” when referring to this place; we used to employ the phrasal verb “to get out” back then–it was a more accurate description of the spirit.) I vividly remember seeing rats crawling around the rubbish under room nine, the geography room. You could see them through the fissures in the floor, where it sloped. That was what we did in Geography, watch the rats, scratch ourselves, never complain that the teacher spent all her time writing letters, ignoring us. She was in the union and couldn’t be fired anyway.
After a gray day there, at 4pm one was finally released, and in winter time, precipitated into the cold, dull evening to try and salvage something out of the thirty remaining minutes of daylight, feeble as it was. I generally used to walk my dog in the rain and stare over at Sliabh na mBan mountain, dreaming of anywhere else. The village was empty then. My brother had had to leave to find work, as had practically all his friends. No late teenager or young man or woman was left. Now that some of these people have returned to a booming country where such a thing would be unimaginable I don’t know if anyone will ever remember that particular sense of emptiness. Although I know I will. I will never forget it.
It was a worrisome time of rain and darkness. Statues were reportedly moving, and hoards of the devoted would huddle in front of various grotto shrines to the Virgin, saying rosary and appealing in abject repentance to an apparently angry God. Nuclear apocalypse was always a real and present threat. Our dour history teacher had told us if there ever was an outbreak of hostilities between the US and the USSR, we should run towards the bomb, survival in the aftermath would be what he termed slow death.
I never got why we should suffer. I knew nothing of America or Russia. I could hear my siblings listening to records with lyrics like “mother do you really think they’ll drop the bomb?” Cheesy as it is to think of now, I remember a teenage sense of poignancy upon hearing a song on the radio which asked if the Russians loved their children too. Of course explosions were going off much closer to home. I tried, in my adolescent way, to understand the meaning of such things as hunger strikes, riots and car bombs, cross border snipers and violence at funerals. Unemployment was about fifteen percent officially, but believed to be closer to twenty percent unofficially, a stark political lesson about truth in itself. I remember one day my brother came rushing into the kitchen half-triumphant, half-incredulous and more than a little ironically, holding aloft the announcements page in the local newspaper because there actually was a job advertised. Mind you, it was only one. He himself had to emigrate later to Liverpool (Liverpool!) to find work.
Being twelve years old at such a time was certainly a troublesome thing. I had just started secondary school in the aforementioned establishment, and had, for the first time in my life, to wear a uniform. You felt somehow that you were joining the indefinite droves, droves of multitudes of bands of people destined for some mass disaster. Emigration. Unemployment. War. Terror. Nuclear annihilation. The rite of passage that was entry to secondary school was ultimately the death of innocence.
Things have certainly changed enormously in very little time, and I am sure that now Ireland is a pleasant, comfortable place to grow up. This is definitely a laudable achievement. Wealth and all its accoutrements seem to have taken hold. The country is a bustle of building and commerce. Next to Japan there are more Play Stations in Ireland per capita than in any other country; a sea change compared with what one used to appropriate as toys when I was young (namely fertilizer-bag superhero capes, cardboard-box spaceships, stick bow and arrows). All of this augurs nicely for the present. However, this needs to be seen only as a basis, not a summit of achievement. We have finally ensured ourselves some material comfort. We are no longer the destitute Irish; no longer a nation that exports its young like livestock; no longer a land torn by war and atrocity; no longer the vassals of British Imperialism …. that is all very well and good. As a fledgling Republic and people we have overcome monumental hurdles in the Twentieth Century. We now need to face the many challenges of the Twenty-First. Not least among these will be to figure out exactly how to assert ourselves as a people and a country as we proceed confidently through it.
Damien Lennon is an Irish writer living in New York City. He has published poetry, journalism and short fiction in Ireland, France and the US and is currently working on his first novel.