Friday, August 23, 2013

Being Irish

Stereotypes are not normally my weapon of choice. Like any good liberal, I consider them skewed, unreliable and dangerous. But I'm not so naive to think that they are without a semblance of truth. In fact, the only way to invoke stereotypes without projecting spiteful prejudice is to do so in reference to whatever race, nationality or sect that you yourself illustrate.

It's from that shaky platform that I commence this brief dissection of Irishness. And therein lies the first shortcoming of stereotype. What does it mean to be Irish? When I worked in a Montreal restaurant a few years ago, my boss often joked about how he couldn't leave me alone around alcohol. Too often, drunkenness colours how the rest of the world, and we ourselves, understand Ireland.

The Irish obsession with drink needs no further analysis. For me, it concludes with the assertion that our psyche is tormented by a discomfort with sober reality. Our relationship with alcohol might therefore be seen as a continuous attempt to escape. This helps explain why the Irish funeral often reaches the same alcoholic intensity as the Irish wedding. Or why winning and losing at our favourite sports often yields a similar degree of intoxication. It seems anything that solicits higher emotional levels than normal requires the treatment of drink.

So it's our emotions that we are running from? This sounds valid enough. After all, we have only recently discovered that an earnest engagement with the mind can take place outside the confessional box. Catholicism, of course, is another great expression of the Irish character. But its fixation on guilt has probably caused much strife in our minds. The sentiment that Catholics' ritualistic obsession with the crucifixion encourages self-criticism is hardly weak. I don't remember learning about the death of Christ; rather, it feels almost innate. The routine exposure to an ancient preacher dying a painful death to divinely legislate for human wrongdoing is the backdrop to many an Irish childhood, when more intricate falsehoods about ourselves formulate regardless.

A less explored explanation for uneasiness in Irish people comes from our turbulent history. It's still less than two hundred years since Ireland underwent the devastation of a famine that decimated the island's population. I'm not sure what the psychological effect of being in the perpetual state of having nothing to eat has on a people, but I suspect it's quite profound. That's not to suggest that the Irish condition was more content before the 1840's, but the sheer magnitude of the Famine underlines it as probably the most unforgettable episode in Irish history. The transfer of this trauma from generation to generation is likely to have diluted over time, but its impact must somewhere endure.

Songs, stories and commemorations might be an obvious manifestation, but discontent with our national selves could also play out in proclaiming our “pride” in being Irish. Here we sometimes drift into embarrassingly murky waters of tediously claiming common heritage with whatever we deem as success. Dabbling in this kind of nonsense means subscribing to the notion that Irish people have "that little bit more about them". What else could propel the notion that Barack Obama, a symbol of African-American emancipation, is actually from County Offaly?

Not so long ago, a friend of mine recounted an experience he'd had while studying in Italy. As he related another merit to Irishness, a Turkish classmate interrupted him: "Yes Yes Yes. We get it. Everyone's fucking Irish!". Shocked and appalled, the Irishman asked his fellow student to elaborate. It was then that he became aware of his habitual invoking an Irish person's involvement in human achievements they commonly discussed. While listening, I remembered how I once told a pair of English girls that Irish writers were “the greatest of them all”. That might not have been such an absurd statement had I actually read authors from every other country, analysed accordingly and generally had a semblance of an idea of what I was talking about. Instead, I readily repeated a lazy quasi-racist mantra veneering as "national pride".

In Ireland itself, feeling such greatness is a lot less likely. Contrarily, the traditional Irish community tends to view pride as a taboo. It's not that we are unwilling to recognise achievement, it's just we feel we really shouldn't recognise it in ourselves. Nobody wants to be thought of as "having notions" about themselves.

The paradox of proclaiming Ireland's greatness to others while frowning on individual pride at home is interesting. It suggests that being Irish only contributes to excellence when it happens in the world's view. It's probably more accurate to say that it doesn't contribute at all, that any Irish person who achieves does so because of themselves alone. In reality, it has nothing to do with the other 4.5 million people who call themselves Irish.

It may seem self-deprecating to raise these problems with being Irish. So it's worth pointing out that there are plenty of things about Ireland that I enjoy and adore. But it would be so much healthier if this could happen because of proximity to them, as opposed to frivolous association with them. Constantly referring to Irishness is actually a laboured assertion of self-superiority. That it's most proudly proclaimed under a tirade of alcohol is evidence enough that it's just an expression of fundamental insecurity. The fatalist in me concedes that this is the inevitable nationalism of a formerly oppressed country. But as an idealist, I'd like to think being Irish doesn't need to come across as so utterly mindless.