Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Blaring of the Green

You're probably reading this on March 18, but I'm writing it on March 17, and as I write it, 500,000 people (according to the always-reliable Huffington Post) are jammed into the streets of Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

I am not among them.  I would not be among them if I were in Dublin.  I would not be among them if I were on the streets of Dublin.  I would be a lonely, somewhat foreboding spot of non-green, like a drop of antiseptic in the middle of a culture of bacteria.

Irish though I am, I have to admit that ostentatious Irishness, in all its manifestations, makes me wish I were Jewish.  Or Hungarian.  Or Jewish-Hungarian.  Or a mixed species, perhaps part greyhound.  I'd be quick, narrow-waisted, and glossy, and no one would ask me why I'm not wearing green.

It's always bewildered me that--despite the fierce strains of melancholy, loss, lyricism, anger, and alcoholism that have claimed permanence of place in the Irish character, like genes on a chromosome--most of what I think of as "postcard Irish" or "boarding-pass Irish" is so twee.  Sentimental ballads about Irish eyes; large men in boots hopping up and down without moving their arms; leprechauns, for Christ's sake.

Originally, leprechauns were something to take seriously.  In the first written mention of them, they're water sprites whose idea of a merry prank is to drag a sleeping man into the sea and drown him.  Only when he awakes and subdues them do they offer him three wishes in exchange for their lives.  Over the centuries, they've been housebroken and domesticated, turned into Munchkins with pipes and brogues and twinkles, eager to share their gold with whoever can get to the end of the rainbow.

I suppose it's twinkle that I most object to, and it's Vaudeville and Hollywood who are probably most to blame for that.  No Vaudeville show worth a nickel was without its "Pat and Mike" act, two dubious Irishmen with thick brogues and great naivete, who comically got wrong all the news of the day while unknowingly stripping away "official" perspectives to accidentally get things right--an unendurable stereotype that wasn't sweetened by the act-closing revelation that one of them possessed an Irish tenor perfect for the most lachrymose ballads of the day.

But Hollywood really poured it on.  Twinkle went widescreen in the movies, with Errol Flynn (born in Tasmania but transformed into a native of Ireland by Jack Warner's publicity people) twinkling at one end of a sword, and Barry Fitzgerald twinkling in a priest's cassock, and John Wayne, who had the world's most ponderous twinkle, slugging Victor McLaglen across half of County Cork and back again in John Ford's "The Quiet Man" while Maureen O'Hara fretted and fumed, all red-headed, at the edge of the screen.  The Irish, as Hollywood saw them, were always either fighting or drinking, or fighting and drinking, or fighting and drinking and crossing themselves.  And twinkling, always twinkling.

I prefer the magical, tragic, mist-enshrouded Ireland of Yeats and Synge and Augusta Gregory and James Joyce and even Wilde, an Ireland where the flow of words papers over the yawning chasms and lurking catastrophes of everyday life.  Where the real St. Patrick was kidnapped from Wales at the age of 16 and enslaved on the Emerald Isle, later returning to minster to a lonely scattering of 5th-century Christians.  Where leprechauns were dangerous, and the poor drew together against the absentee landlords who would starve them.  Where it's cold and raw much of the time and the peat smoke is choking in midwinter and only the whiskey lets in the light.

And nobody twinkles.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. A beautiful example of what the essay can be.

  2. Tim, I'm sure you're aware of those life lists birders use to keep track of their sightings. Well, I wish I'd had your piece with me yesterday as I traipsed around NYC yesterday during its marathon St. Patrick's Day celebrations. I'd could have used it to verify what I'm certain was an in the flesh sighting of everything you mentioned.

    Though by the end of the day the greyhounds might have been pink.

  3. Tell me about it Tim. I have some Irish blood myself, and Dublin is one of my favourite cities on Earth, but the whole 'Oirish' industry leaves me very cold. A terrible business has been born. Not least the ghastly theme pubs, and the idea one can sample a taste of the Irish experience merely by having a Guinness. They even make me nostalgic for the 'real' spit and sawdust Irish boozers in Kilburn, where, during the 'Troubles', a bucket was handed around late on a Saturday evening to raise money for the 'Cause.' And they were horrible places.

    Thankfully, as you point out, a real Ireland exists beyond the greetings card blarney, maudlin sentimentality and shillelagh waving.

    As Alan Partridge points out here

  4. Interestingly, I was at a small parade in the nort-west of Ireland yesterday and saw none of these things. I doubt you'll have seen much of it in Dublin (perhaps in the audience where I suspect the vast majority of people would see it as just a bit of craic - which is about an Irish a concept as you can get - but not in the parade itself). I've been to many parades, mostly in Ireland, but also Chicago, NY, Philadelphia, Boston - and the American ones are much different to the Irish ones. They seem to celebrate an Irishness that is largely unrecognizable in Ireland. The Irish pub phenomena is interesting in that they are a weird pastiche of pubs in Ireland, an odd simulcra. My sense is that the Oirish industry and paddywackery might be alive and well outside of Ireland, but it's in little evidence here except in the tourist industry.

  5. I have become an Irish fiction addict, and there is very little evidence of the "Finian's Rainbow" effect in them. I find the stark landscape of Ireland beautiful, and the writers to be enormously talented in showing us how it really might be. Also I have learned a lot about this people who have struggled with so much in trying to live their lives. Interestingly enough, I read an article about the Irish immigrants and they struggled as much with prejudice as the Jews did when they came here. I like your post because it highlights the contrast of the kitsch with what is really a strong, hardworking people with a lot of heart.

  6. Why, THANK you, Philip. I'll take that with a lot of pleasure, especially coming from a writer.

    Jeffrey, you're in more cities in a shorter amount of time than Angelina Jolie. Care to lend me some miles? And incidentally St. Paddy's Day in NY was one of the things that initially put me off my feed. So to speak.

    Rob and Lil -- that's exactly it. Boarding-pass Irish has almost nothing to do with real Ireland, which is an immensely complicated and deeply engaging (even fascinating) place. These "Faith and begorrah" images are as stereotypical as the big-hatted Mexican having a siesta beneath a cactus. And, yes, Lil, the Irish had a rough time of it here when they first came. And Rob, the Alan Partridge clip is hilarious and cringe-inducing, and God bless Steve Coogan anyway.

  7. First, to Lil: the Irish were victims of genocide before the word was used. The Irish potato famine wasn't a famine at all. The word implies there is no food bur Ireland is an island dotted with more lakes and streams than can be easily counted. in the late 1840's, there was a blight that killed the potato crop. There was plenty of other grains and vegetables and fish and fowl but Irish Catholics, the majority, were not allowed to eat any of what was available. There are two excellent books about the period, THE GREAT FAMINE and PADDY'S LAMENT, which are very readable and are good history, too. The English punished the Irish from the time of Henry VIII until the establishment of the Irish Free state in the 1920's. This is not to be confused with the Republic of Ireland which was born the same year as Israel. When Henry VIII decided to set up his own church over a woman, the Irish refused to convert. They lost their language, their right to own land, and their country. I have a St.Brigid's cross in my house. It is not a standard cruciform shape and it it made of straw. When Ireland was occupied by the British for a mere 4 or 5 hundred years, Christian symbols could cost life and limb. The Catholics created the cross believing The British soldiers wouldn't recognize it for what it was and it would disappear instantly when tossed into a turf fire.

    Thomas Cahill is the author of HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION. When the barbarians were destroying the books and scrolls of the Greeks and the Romans, Irish monks sent years making copies so that history wasn't lost.

    The experience of the Irish when they came to America was different than that of other groups. The prejudice was deeper because the Irish were hated and looked down on by the British and the United States is still an Anglo-phile country.

    The Irish can't be separated from catholicism when looking at the floods who escaped to the United States. Ireland, like everywhere else, has moved from its roots but until recently Ireland's celebration of St. Patrick's Day could not have been more different than that celebrated by the pseudo-Irish of the big cities into which they settled around the world. St. Patrick's Day was/is a holiday of obligation so Mass attendance is required. It is a family day that does not revolve around liquor consumption. "Faith and begorrah" is cinematic nonsense but faith was the foundation of life.

    The Irish don't eat corned beef and cabbage; that's an American invention. I have a pot of corned beef, potatoes,and carrots minus the cabbage on the stove now but there is no wearing of the green. Two of my grandparents came from County Cork, one on each side of the family, and one came from Sligo and the other from Roscommon.

    Should anyone be wandering around Dublin, a trip to Trinity College for a look at the Book of Kells is worth doing.

  8. It sounds like I have more reading to do, which is fine by me. All I will ever see is reproductions, but the ones I've seen from the Book of Kells are beyond beautiful. The sad and true thing is that America is an Anglophile nation which negates faith over religious affiliation. And faith is far more important to me.

  9. Still mourning the death of Bartholomew Gill, one of my favorite writers, and, Tim! You must not be familiar with the In Death series by J. D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts, who created the world where the extremely sexy Irish Roarke reigns.

    1. Half of my ancestry is Irish. I don't go to parades, but think about Irish Republican history and cultural contributors. Have read some Irish authors, will read more.
      I was reminded of St. Patrick's Day when my 5 1/2 year-old-neighbor told me her family was going to the parade and then coyly said, "We have Irish blood." O.K., so do it and proud of it and my other family's Russian/Polish/Jewish blood, too.
      So here is the heritage of two peoples who were mistreated and poor when they arrived here, both verbally abused, both denied jobs, both facing discrimination.

  10. I did an English paper on The Draper's Letters to the People of Ireland by Jonathan Swift- you might like his wit in this work!