Irish Roots

May 23rd, 2011

John Grenham


I don’t like talking to the television, but a few nights ago had a loud argument with RTE’s What Have the Brits ever done for us? The problem was not the harmless premise – “they left us a lot that’s good, so let’s not blow up the Queen”. The problem was the use of the words “them” and “us”.

The working assumptions behind the programme seemed to be: 1) They came over here and sat on us for 800 years. 2) Then we got rid of them and they all went home. 3) They left lots of cool stuff behind, like Georgian streets and canals and the civil service and the tax system. Otherwise sensible people were then asked to discuss whether Swift or Wilde or Yeats would have fared worse if their writing had been in Irish.

This is like asking how good the Divine Comedy would be if Dante had written it in Japanese. The thinking behind it is so unhistorical that it’s almost … English. Swift and Wilde and Yeats (and Synge and Beckett and their cousins and all their extended families) were Irish. Their mother tongue was English. Their mother culture was not English, but was closely related to England. Most were descended from settlers who came to Ireland in the 17th century, but by the start of the 20th century, after nine or ten generations, their sense of themselves had mutated a long, long way from the root stock, and many of the boundaries between them and the native Irish had eroded. They were us.

Part of the emotion evoked by watching Queen Elizabeth lay the wreath in the Garden of Remembrance last week came from recognition of that strange old intimacy. “Anglo-Irish” includes “Irish”. And they haven’t gone away, you know.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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