Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gearóid Ó Colmáin on Ireland’s crisis of identity

When the week’s work is completed and the country is gripped by a Saharan thirst, bar stools shake all over the country as animated drinkers try to come to terms with themselves and their world through communal intoxication. In most countries this is referred to as a drink-problem or as anti-social behaviour; in Ireland it is called ‘culture’. But although there is much harmless good-will and mirth to be perceived in Irish pubs, there is an ineluctable truth in the old adage ‘in vino veritas’, there is truth in wine, or beer as the case may be, and this truth is not always palatable. Nevertheless, it spills out among certain circles when pints are poured; that is, the vexed question of the ‘effing foreigners’. One often hears phrases like “ there are too many fucking foreigners in this country or those bleedin foreigners are destroying our culture”.

But there were many aspects of the Irish education system in the past that laid the foundations for xenophobia. The prevailing ideology of the early Free State was that foreign influences were dangerous and corrupting. This conservatism is deeply ingrained in Irish culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic Church encouraged cooperation with the British Imperial State and began to say mass in English to a populace who could not speak this language. This was one of the main reasons why the language died out in many parts of the country. However, as soon as the Free State was formed, the Church promoted the Irish language as it was perceived as a bulwark against ‘foreignness’. In both cases, the highjacking of Irish identity by a conservative institution hampered any attempts to escape from the nightmare of history. Thus, Ireland entered the post-modern world, the world of mass communication, the global village, without having had the chance to come to terms with modernity or its place within it. We have gone from an agrarian society under the yoke of a medieval church to a post-modern society under the yoke of mass media. In a multicultural Ireland with reactionary racist elements, the Irish language could be used as an emblem of pure-blooded celticity distinguishing us from the foreign intruders. It could then become an instrument of a racist nationalism.

But the reality is that the immigrants have shown more of an interest in the Irish language than the ethnic Irish themselves. Where they differ is that while they may learn English and embrace Anglophone culture, they do not abandon their own languages as our ancestors did. It is perfectly conceivable, then, that the future of Irish will be safer and more vibrant in the hands of the ‘New Irish’ than the Irish of the past. They might become yet become ‘hibernensis hiberniores’ more Irish than the Irish themselves, as the 11th century Norman invaders were called.

It is worth bearing this in mind as we approach one of Ireland’s great cultural events: Bloomsday. Bloomsday is celebrated on the 16th of June every year to mark that day in the Dublin of 1904 which Joyce immortalized in his book Ulysses. Leopold Bloom is a Dubliner of ethnic Jewish extraction, an outsider in his own city. He is attacked in a pub by such characters as ‘The Citizen’ whose dog speaks Irish! The Citizen scolds Bloom for not being ‘really Irish’. Joyce lampooned what he saw as the closed reactionary elements of the Gaelic Revival. His own view of the Irish predicament at the time is poignantly depicted in the opening chapter where an old woman representing Ireland (the Sean Bhean bhocht- the poor old woman) delivers milk to the students in the Martello Tower. She is addressed in Irish by an English man called Haines( la Haine is French for ‘hate’). She does not understand him and asks:

“is that French you are talking sir?”

When she is told that the gentleman is English and believes we ought to speak Irish in Ireland, she replies;

“sure we ought to…. And I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows”.

No other chapter in Anglo-Irish literature reveals more profoundly, more incisively the paradoxical nature of the Irish psyche and the trauma of colonization. Although Joyce himself had little Irish, (he was apparently taught some Gaeilge by none other than Padraig Pearse), his Italian writings spoke favourably about the language revival in Ireland. Unfortunately, the magnum opus in Irish comparable to Ulysses in scale and profundity has yet to be composed. Joyce’s work is an attempt to take the temperature of his time and place, to capture the essence of his people in all their complexity. Even though it is set in Dublin, the work is uniquely cosmopolitan, almost prescient of today’s multicultural city. It is an odyssey of the mind probing the collective consciousness and perhaps our collective unconscious(although Joyce disagreed with Freud on these matters). His aim as set out in his previous work was to ‘ forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race’. The challenge for the artist of today is how to forge the uncreated conscience of the many races; many ethnicities, many languages that constitute our country and our world.

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