Friday, March 9, 2012

Light culture: Irishness

If you are mostly Irish as I am but with a name that camouflages the fact, the temptation is to simply deny it. On the other hand, a fiercely proud Irish woman from my church pegged me as Irish the other day. She walked up and said, "How did an Irish boy like you end up with a  French name?" I asked her how she knew. She said, "You couldn't have that face and be anything but Irish." I briefly felt like I knew what it must be like to be a light-skinned black person or a Jew caught trying to pass by one of my own who knew the things that would give me away as what I really am.

I have been thinking about this a lot this Lent as I recall my mother who was very ambivalent about her Irish background. She associated it with bitter and pointless protest. Yes, what the English did to the Irish was inexcusable and yes the English are in denial about it and will never admit they were wrong but you only hurt yourself nursing the anger that inspires.

And then so much of Irishness has come to be associated with Kelly-green appliqués of drunken leprechauns holding glasses of Guinness and that is all rather embarrassing—especially at this time of year.

And here is a challenge for you: how many great Irish erotic love stories can you think of? A book of great Irish love stories would be very thin indeed. Here is a typical Irish love story: A woman tends her dying husband whom she never loved and muses about the boy she should have married forty years ago only he was murdered or something; meanwhile, the house smells of 150 years of boiled suppers and her husband is wheezing his last breaths through diseased lungs and the neighbours are all peaking at her suspiciously through the curtains because the priest is spending too long having tea with her. Nowhere in the story does anyone get any. Ever.

(Which is doubly odd if you consider how hot Irish women are. Surely somebody somewhere had a great time with one of them once as opposed to living one of those awful Frank McCourt stories.)

And if there is one thing less inspiring than Irishness, it is the idea of Celtic culture. A bunch of vague airy-fairy new age mysticism that bears no relationship to any historical Celtic culture. In my fantasies I sometimes imagine jumping into a time machine bringing a bunch of actual Celt warriors into the present and turning them loose on modern Celtophiles and fantasy fiction dweebs: the body account would be immensely satisfying.

And yet Irish is what I am and I keep trying to come to terms with it. There was a tin whistle among my mothers things and no one else in the family wanted it. I took it because I couldn't bear to think of it just being thrown away. I began playing it this Lent.

She also had several copies of Dubliners in the house. She gave a copy to everyone sooner or later. She thought The Dead was the greatest thing Joyce ever wrote. She also loved Brendan Behan and John Millington Synge. Predictably, she had little patience for Yeats.

I picked up Finnegan's Wake the other day and read a few pages and found it easier to read than I expected. It's shorter than Ulysses, which I hate. Anyway. I think it's time to re-examine this stuff. Heck, maybe there even is a great Irish erotic love story out there.

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