17 March 2007

St Patrick's Day Musings: What Ish My Nation?

Famously, an Irish soldier, MacMorris, in Shakespeare's Henry V exclaims:

Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

This quotation is often used in literary discussions of what it means to be Irish (particularly in the post-colonialist context e.g. 'What ish my nation?': Towards a Negative Definition of Irish Identity by Eugene O'Brien).

Traditionally the Irish media, on this day and indeed the rest of this week, 17th March St. Patrick's Day, we are often treated to discussions of what it means to be Irish. Whilst we are not yet as confused as the English/British seem to be (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, and I personally can claim British citizenship as well as Irish though I choose not to). However, there is certainly an impression that we Irish are becoming more confused as to our national identity.

The truth is that, as a comparatively young nation, coming into existence in the early 20th century, we have a recent written tradition that defines the national identity. This "Irish literary revival," the flowering of literature and cultural activity at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, is now seen in retrospect as a fundamental part of the process of creating an environment where independence became possible. Although some of the literature of this period may now seems idealistic and distant from "modern Ireland," it is still a rich tradition to draw on. In combination with this more recent literary and cultural heritage, we have a long oral and written history going back two thousand years and more; the Irish language being one of the oldest written languages in Europe. I find that most Irish people are not fully connected with this, and that Irish language enthusiasts often promoted the wrong parts of this tradition.

For me Ireland now shares most aspects of a wider trans-national European culture. When I travel in Europe I always learn new things about its rich cultural heritage, but I still feel strangely comfortable in countries where I cannot speak a word of the native language (most recently for me Slovenia); but when I travel outside of Europe I definitely feel like a foreigner (for me most recently South Korea).

One could muse about how this common European culture was formed. Obviously the Roman Empire united much of what is now Europe (but not Ireland). Subsequently the Christian Church (particularly though its adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire) provided a pan-European cultural norm that lasted until the end of the Middle Ages, and the Reformation introduced a new paradigm. Since then a common membership of a scientific and modernising culture, linked to the 19th century European empires (such as the British and the French) and finally the integrated European project that is the EU, has bound Europe together culturally. Indeed most European legal systems derive from Napoleonic models. Ireland, on the fringe of Europe, but part of the largest world empire of all, the British, was the first part of that empire to break away. This was a complete political schism in the end, neutrality during the second world war, rejecting the Commonwealth, whilst maintaining unique political and cultural links. In a way Ireland has much in common with Canada, Australia (and to a lesser extent India), all parts of the old British empire.

We effectively rejected our own language in the period of our greatest austerity after the great hunger (the Famine of the mid 19th century); Irish speaking families brought up their children speaking English in the hopes of enabling emigration to English speaking Britain, America, Canada and Australia - an implicit emigration for opportunity policy (a default mode of operation for Ireland up to the 1990s) that could be argued has worked given the strength of the resultant Irish diaspora. In the census' taken since 2000 the Irish population is increasing for the first time since the huge blow of the famine when nearly half of either died or emigrated.

Now Ireland is the poster child of the EU - look what we can do - transform an agriculturally dominant stagnant economy with most of its children leaving to work abroad (Ireland in the 1980s) into a globalised economy leading the world in terms of ICT and biotechnological innovation (with the help of our American friends) - a bridge between Boston and Berlin, a model of the 21st century state, in balance with the external forces that threaten to rip many counties apart. And of course the EU has prevented further war in EU (except for the fall-out in Yugoslavia, and that was before it was partially absorbed into the EU).

Of course, if you actually count the unbroken years of operation of a democratically elected government Ireland is actually one of the older nations in Europe, but we think of ourselves as young, perhaps this is the anthropomorphic use of the American cultural ideal of the teenager and the young?

So, to help those lost souls searching for the core of Irish identity, in the honourable tradition of weblog listings, I offer up this list of books and poems that each have something to say on the topic, whether directly or indirectly. In no particular order, and each with some personal musings, I give you:

  • [<1000-1300 Old and Middle Irish] The Táin translated by Thomas Kinsella (These are the stories of Cu Cuchulain, the Ulster Cycle of old Irish poetry, fantastic, and exotic, a must read. It is hard to give a date for this as some of the original poems passed through the oral tradition from periods potentially BC. The two primary manuscripts we have date from the 11th and 14th centuries, c.f. Wikipedia Entry:
    The Táin Bó Cúailnge has survived in two main recensions. The first consists of a partial text in the Lebor na hUidre (the "Book of the Dun Cow"), a late 11th/early 12th century manuscript compiled in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, and another partial text of the same version in the 14th century manuscript called the Yellow Book of Lecan. These two sources overlap, and a complete text can be reconstructed by combining them.
    Well, you just have to read that don't you?)
  • [1729 - English] A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift (Swift's satirical argument that the solution to the Irish famine was to eat some of the children was taken as a serious proposal by some readers at the time.)
  • [1911 - English] The Crock of Gold, James Stephens (A fantastic tale set in rural Ireland, that pokes fun at the traditional elements of Irishness whilst honouring them).
  • [1914 - English] Dubliners, James Joyce (I've included this as you have to read Joyce, but Ulysses, or Finnegan's Wake, can be a daunting task! So instead dip into this collection of short stories, or just read the last one, "The Dead". It is hailed by many as the best collection of short stories ever. I love the incidental details such as bottles of Guinness being placed by the fire so that the cork can raise out by itself and bring the drink to the right temperature in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" - a healthy antidote to modern chilled stout).
  • [1916 (1889-1939) - English] Easter 1916, William Butler Yates (This is a single poem Yeats wrote at the time of abortive uprising in Dublin in Easter 1916, arguably the defining moment politically for modern Ireland. If you want this in a bigger volume try Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats that contains selected poems and four verse plays including "Words on a Windowpane". Some of this stuff can still bring one to tears, it is woven into our cultural fabric in so deep a fashion.)
  • [1939 - English] At Swim-two-birds, Flann O'Brien (A really funny book. One part is based on a translation of a Middle Irish text, Buille Suibhne, The Madness of Sweeney; another on the legendary Finn McCool, or Fionn mac Cumhaill.)
  • [1975 - English] North Seamus Heaney (Heaney, a Nobel laureate, has always focused on what it means to be Irish, and is perhaps more gut trustingly honest about it in the earlier poems such as those in this volume.)
  • [1981 - English] Translations, Brian Friel (A colleague of Heaney's on the Field Day project, Friel is perhaps Ireland's best playwright of the 20th century, and this play is a masterpiece. It's best to actually go an see it performed if possible, but the script is good to read too - though you do need a bit of practice to enjoy reading plays in my experience. It is set at the period when British army forces are preparing an ordinance survey map of of an Irish-speaking part of Ireland.)
  • [1990 - English] Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Joseph J. Lee (A very influential recent history of Ireland.)
And hey, I know I haven't mentioned any Shaw, Beckett, and original Middle Irish material, and so on. This wasn't designed to be comprehensive, more personal.

In researching this post I found this excellent site: Island Ireland. This an excellent resource for Irish literature, with many useful links. Note that I've updated this entry over 17th and 18th March, as I filled in the details of why I like each text...

Posted by mofoghlu at March 17, 2007 11:45 AM | TrackBack
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