Friday, February 27, 2009

The Tale of the Sheep and the Tiger

While taking a stroll through the Jardins de Luxembourg in Paris last week I spotted a photography exposition evoking ideas associated with the 27 states of the European Union. Naturally enough, my first thought was ‘what images would they choose to represent Ireland? The theme for the selection of photographs seemed rather random. There were three photographs representing each country, one of the parliament and the other evoking cultural and environmental themes. Having passed images of British industry in the 50s, the Berlin wall and the sky-scraping financial district of Paris’s La Defense, my irrepressible and perhaps fatuous sense of national pride filled me with fervid anticipation of the photographs representing Ireland. Then, there it was: a green field with sheep on it overlooking a blue sea. It was the classic cliché, the postcard image, a brochure for Bord Fáilte etc. I wondered if this was really the Ireland of grass and tree, stone and sea, the island of romantic dreams, Yeats country, or rather an ‘abode of lost ones each searching for its lost one’, the land of throes and interminable woes, Beckett country. Looking again at the sheep I was tempted to ask: who are the sheep in the photograph? Who are those woolly grazers oblivious to the world? Then an outrageous thought beset me .We are the sheep gently poised on the side of the cliff moments before the waves of the world financial crisis wash us away. We are the lost sheep of Europe, a bloated ovine carcass rotting upon the shores of the western Atlantic. There’s a thought to be going on with!
When I went home that night, I reflected again on the idea of the Irish landscape and the ovine hypothesis. As we all know, sheep are rather gregarious creatures; when one of them leaves the flock the others tend to follow. But how could one tell this particularly Irish fairytale? Once upon a time we (the sheep) were ruled by the British, let’s call them the dogs.(no offence intended!) Now the sheep didn’t really like being ruled by dogs but they did what they were told. Then one day, a few brave lambs decided they’d had enough and so they started a revolution. At first the rest of the flock almost choked on their cud. They repeated what their masters told them and called the revolutionaries a pack of black sheep. But when they saw the terror of the dogs they rapidly sheared their wool and disguised themselves as wolf-hounds. The dogs panicked and left but were soon replaced by a pack of real wolf-hounds, the Church. The sheep capitulated. As luck would have it, the sheep eventually realised that the wolf-hounds couldn’t really bite and so they happily returned to their old pastures. But grass was scarce and some had to leave the country. Thousands followed. Then one sunny day, a strange creature with stripped skin arrived on the island. Let’s call him the Celtic Tiger or neo-liberal economics. The tiger inspired shock and awe among the flock. He was wild, exotic, exiting and seemed to have magical qualities. Some distrusted him but the tiger was very cleaver. He said. “Hey, you too can acquire stripped skin and large teeth if you do as I say, and if you follow me you will run just as fast as I! So let me by your guide and guardian.” The sheep followed. Now the problem with tigers is that they need jungles in order to survive and sheep are not too comfortable in jungles! The tiger decided to create an artificial jungle by taking the sheep’s wool. It was proof of his magical powers. The sheep thought it was a great idea and happily donated. However, as the jungle got bigger it became more and more difficult to find the tiger. Some began to doubt if he really even existed. Then one day, a storm blew the woolly jungle away and the poor sheared flock was left bleating upon the Atlantic shore. The tiger had abandoned them in search of new flocks. The end.

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