Saturday, July 15, 2006

Who We Are 3

Who are we?  What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 3


I wish here to draw a timely distinction between nationalism and culture.  In the wake of World War II with its horrific consequences for the partial extermination of the Jews and minorities of all types and the present escalating conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians which could destabilize the Middle East, such an understanding of vital distinctions is important.

I will return momentarily to my favourite philosopher A.C. Grayling who succinctly and eruditely puts it: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars.  And one should not confuse culture with nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture.  Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.”(The Meaning of Things, pp 78-79)

For these posts I will keep Grayling’s timely words and insights in the background.  Indeed nations are “artificial constructs” and our modern nation was constructed by a variety of geniuses, scholars, poets, artists, poet-revolutionaries, members of the IRB, the Irish Citizen Army, The Irish Volunteers, educationalists, hero-teachers and professors as well as the many more run-of-the-mill ordinary foot soldiers and revolutionaries, both men and women, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

While I agree with Grayling that cultural heritage is not the same as national identity, I feel that the latter is mainly a judicious (for some) picking of various bits and pieces from the prevailing cultural heritage.  Obviously this picking may be injudicious or even inimical for others – as we see from the legacy of unrest we have north of the border here on the island of Ireland.

Who are we, then?  What aspects of culture and identity have we inherited from the above motley group of inspirers? We see ourselves reflected in the following:  (i) our main spoken language – Hiberno-English, (ii) the official language of the State – Gaeilge, (iii) our sports – the G.A.A. pre-eminently, though soccer has become a very important sport with respect to our national identity – witness the army of followers during Italia 90 and USA 1994 (iv) our written word, the works of our poets and scholars mainly in English, (v) our written word, the works of our poets and scholars in Gaelic, (vi) our music and song, both in Irish(Gaelic) and English, (vii) our folklore – the stories told from generation to generation, (viii) our sense of being the “victims” of seven centuries of inept and at times oppressive English rule – this is still part of the psyche of the modern Irish from my experience of teaching in secondary school for the past 26 years.  There is still a lot of that sense around that our Irish-ness is defined by the historical British oppression of our country, (ix) up until the early 90s of the last century there was a collective sense of lack of self-confidence, if not an outright sense of national depression consequent on seven centuries of oppression and badly handled finances of the national government, (x) however, our relationship with England has always been ambiguous to say the least.  While I would not agree with the excesses of revisionism, I have to state that our history is not as simple as the oppressor-oppressed polarisation would have us believe.  Ireland gained much from England over the years.  I had an uncle on my father’s side who served in the British navy during World War II and four uncles on my mother’s side worked as tradesmen and labourers in England also at that time.  Many Irish emigrants married into English families as a result of emigration etc. Likewise many southerners fought in the various Irish regiments during the First World War.  Also financially and culturally we Irish and English have been linked for centuries.  So we have to avoid outrageous and black and white simplifications, (xi) From the 90s onward a new sense of optimism has grown as our financial position has escalated at an almost exponential rate, allowing us the enviable position of being per capita among the richest nations of the world.

There concludes this post.  The above 11 points are random – just as they came into my mind while writing.  One thing is sure, though, as we grow to incorporate our new Irish citizens from the different countries alluded to in a previous post, we will certainly gain new insights into our culture and our nationhood, because both these categories are not simply set in stone but rather are dynamic and growing.     The above picture is one I took in March 2006 of my TY class at Delphi Adventure Centre. These young men are part the future of Ireland. The group contains one lad from the Ukraine. Other class groups would contain more nationalities. I look forward to an all-inclusive society and nation in the future years of the 21st century.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Who We Are 2

Who are we?  What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 2

There are many aspects of culture that define us Irish as a people.  One could fill pages just listing these various items.  Here I’d simply like to concentrate on literature, not in general but rather with respect to two of our greatest writers of the 20th century, namely W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett.  Why these two, apart from the fact that they were singularly gifted and both recipients of the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature?  Simply, the reason is that there are two equally brilliant exhibitions on these two profound influencers of our Irish identity, both at home and abroad.

I have visited both exhibitions twice and will revisit them a few more times before they are finished.  Why? Well, there is so much to take in at both that one could be overwhelmed.  The seasoned exhibition-goer will return several or more times to dip his/her parched tongue into the wells of inspiration.

The first exhibition is entitled simply “The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats,” and is hosted by the National Library of Ireland.  The introduction to this marvellous exhibition states succinctly that as well as allowing us into the imaginative world of our greatest poet it provides “insights into the social, cultural and political aspects of Ireland in the late 1900s and the early twentieth century.” This it does with tremendous power.

Declan Kiberd tells us in his introduction to Inventing Ireland that it was “the grand destiny of Yeats’s generation to make Ireland once again interesting to the Irish, after centuries of enforced provincialism following the collapse of the Gaelic Order in 1601.” (p. 3).  This was a cultural revival of unparalleled significance for the birth of our future independent state.  This“Celtic Dawn” was the result of the combined influences of many people, not just W.B.Y., of course.  I will return to these wider influences later.  

The exhibition shows all the influences on Yeats from Celtic Mythology, The Occult or Black Magic (Yeats was a practising member of The Golden Dawn), spontaneous writing, arcane symbolism from many diverse sources, art, literature, Sligo and its environs, his being besotted with Maude Gonne all his life and his dabbling in eugenics and in experimenting with reading his poetry in a musical fashion to the accompaniment of a psaltery etc Then we also see Yeats the politician or Senator and can read some of his speeches to Seanad Éireann.

The Beckett exhibition is a feast for the eyes.  It is interdisciplinary in its conception, as our Samuel was always besotted with art.  While living in Dublin he was seldom a week without visiting the National Gallery or the Municipal Gallery.  As the brochure to this wonderful exhibition points out: “the Gallery and its collection had a profound effect on his formation as an art lover, thinker and writer.” He would later visit the galleries of London and Paris and other European cities.  These encounters “not only enriched his personal life, but also informed his work as a writer and dramatist.”(Page 1).  What moved me most were the three marvellous Jack B. Yeats's which Beckett owned: A Morning (1935/6), another called “Evening”, I think, and one of two dock workers talking in Sligo. [I’ll have to re-check the names of these last two on another visit – I’m recalling from memory here].

I highly recommend both exhibitions. Finally check out these sites to get some relevant information. http://www.nationalgallery.ie/ and http://www.nli.ie/ The picture I have placed above is one I took today. It shows my own footprints in the sands of Donabate beach. Culture is about our collective journey as a people, is it not?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Who we are Part 1

Who are we?  What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 1

These are all big questions.  They have been in my mind for some time now.  I have been reading two books with respect to these questions.  (1)  Inventing Ireland by Declan Kiberd and (2) Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002 by Terence Brown

To answer the question “Who am I?” is a cognate philosophical question of deep relevance and consequence which I have discussed before in these pages.  The question “Who are we as a people?” is equally as complex and no less relevant.  We can look profitably, of course, to history and even to prehistory dating ourselves back to the ancient Celts who came to this small island some thousands of years ago.  Today, quite often, to quote Humpty Dumpty, the term “Celtic” can mean what those who use it choose it to mean.  As Dr John Davies points out, the word “Celt” was first used by the Greek writers in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. and they used it to refer to a people or peoples inhabiting the region to the north of the Greek colony of Massalia, that is, today’s Marseille. (See The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day, Cassell and Co., 2000, pp 6-7).

Then there have been many other peoples (I was almost going to say races, but the definition of race is very complex indeed so I’ll omit referring to race and instead use the word “peoples” or “nationalities” as they are less loaded words.)  We Irish as we are today have been formed from the mixing into our Celtic blood of Danes and Vikings, Normans and Anglo-Normans, English (Anglo-Saxon) and indeed Scottish peoples.  And without doubt, we are all the richer because of this admixture of nationalities.  In short, whoever we are, our identity as Irish has been formed in that melting pot.

Today, as we welcome Poles (150,000), Chinese (60,000) Lithuanians (45,000), Latvians (30,000), Nigerians (28,000), British (25,000), Americans (6,000), Romanians (5,000), Philipinos (5,000) and Pakistanis (4,500) [figures from a recent study in The Irish Times – Who We Are, 25th May, 2006] to our shores, we will in like manner over the coming centuries allow their seed to be crossed with traditional Irish seed as these peoples intermarry with the “native” Irish.  In such a fashion will the Irish nation be strengthened and indeed become equally as Irish as we are ourselves.  How is this seeming contradiction or paradox true?  Well, quite simply, if it is not true then the implication is that we ourselves are not really Gaelic Irish as we have been formed by much cross breeding between the nationalities I have listed above.  If we accept ourselves as being really Irish we will have to accord the same dignity to our non-national colleagues or fellow citizens because they will go on to have children born in Ireland who will themselves eventually intermarry with the traditional Irish.  Our culture is embracing of all and is indeed truly syncretistic.  Our nation and our sense of who we are will be consequently strengthened. Our nation will be as strong as this great evergreen tree, a picture of which I took in Newbridge House a few weeks back. Though the branches are many, the trunk is one.