Sunday, February 28, 2010

"The Irish don't know what they want and are prepared to fight to the death to get it."- Sidney Littlewood

I chose this quote because it made me laugh , and because it says so much by saying so little, I believe there is a lot of truth in its message.

Before moving to Ireland, I began reading books by Irish authors. Initially, I wanted to start to learn more about Irish history, but I got side tracked. I read some books by William Trevor, Maeve Binchy and Colm Toibin. Although I enjoyed the actual stories and the writing, I found the underlying familiarity most compelling. There were characters and reactions and relationships that I had seen before. I just couldn't put my finger on what that was. It was very difficult for me to put the connection that I was feeling into words. Was it my Irishness?

What does it mean to be Irish anyway?

Over the years, particularly around St. Patrick's Day I would get a mass email that went something like "You know you are Irish when..." and then it would be a list of funny drinking-related criteria. Then there is the "Irish Goodbye" (just leaving a party or a bar without saying goodbye to anyone usually in a huff), something I have performed countless times.

Author Tim Pat Coogan writes in the preface of his book "Ireland in the 20th Century":

"The Irish worldwide are one of the globe's success stories, emerging from slum, swamp draining, coal mining, brawling and boozing illiteracy, to the scents of the rose garden of the white House in the case of John F. Kennedy."

Examples like these (the Kennedys are even more revered in Ireland than in Massachusetts it seems) are the type that stir the feelings of pride in Irish people. Drawing from your culture to find hope that anything is possible and strength that you can overcome anything, is such a valuable gift. And the Irish seem to have it in spades. Being in Ireland conjures up thoughts about my great great grandparents leaving this country, and how they would feel about me being able to come here under such good conditions. Proud (of themselves) I hope.

Having said that, there is also something about sharing common challenges, flaws or hardships that help groups relate to each other. Like the opening quote for today- it seems admirable, but isn't it really just dumb?

My sister gave me some books by Colum McCann for Christmas and among them was a book of short stories that take place in Ireland. One of them is entitled "Everything in this Country Must" and is a story about an Irish Farmer whose favorite horse was stuck in the river during a storm and was close to drowning. The man and his young daughter struggled to pull him out, but were not having any success. Finally, the farmer was overjoyed to see headlights coming towards them through the storm. Help was on the way, only when he realized that the car was filled with British soldiers he was filled with hate and anger. The soldiers worked hard and eventually rescued the farmer's beloved horse. The farmer was sullen and withdrawn when his daughter invited the soldiers back to tea. At the end of the story, the soldiers drove away and the farmer went down to the barn and shot the horse.

This is the kind of story that feels like a familiar Irish story. By no means do I want to dilute the very long, very oppressive, very real experience that the Irish have had with the British. The ideas of hating one thing more than you love another, cutting off your nose to spite your face, finding the only power that you can when you feel powerless even if it hurts you, are the tragic elements of the Irish. There were so many conditions in Irish History that contributed to the fear of being vulnerable, the secrecy, the belief (hope) that if you don't think about it, it will go away and the reflex of putting down people or groups that you are afraid of.

All cultures have their history, both positive and negative. Learning about your culture and trying to understand it with some objectivity can really help you understand yourself and those that you came from. It is only when you start to learn that you can DECIDE which elements to identify with, which to perpetuate and also which to leave behind. Just try not to forget that those who came before you are part of the reason you are able to be who and what you are today.

These are just a few of the thoughts and observations that I have had. You will see this subject again!

1 comment:

  1. Lauri -

    Thanks for the great blog. I've just spend the last hour skimming the whole thing, and I really like it, especially the early entries when you were so honest about your feelings of trepidation after you moved here. I felt/am feeling/will continue to feel the same way, and I'm approaching my forth month here. It's also nice to find an American transplant in Ireland who is not a student. I haven't been able to find many of us out there. How long do you plan to live in Ireland? You can get my side of the story over at my blog, Keep up the great blog!