Being Irish in tough times


WHETHER AS an angry rock anthem from Mike Scott and the Waterboys on the Abbey stage, or in the musings of an opinion page writer on the state of Ireland, it seems that Yeats’s September 1913has become an irresistible metaphor for our sorry plight. “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone . . .”. Even “O’Leary” has a certain new, distinctly non-Fenian resonance.

But in truth, although the melancholy note perhaps strikes a chord, Yeats’s poem has more to say about the days of the Celtic Tiger and its get-rich-quick, money-as-the-measure-of-all-things values, indeed values epitomised by O’Leary, than it does about our current, anxious redefinition of ourselves.

Across town on the Gaiety stage Gar Public, in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, speaks for 1964 and perhaps, in contemplating emigration to America, captures more truthfully today’s perspective: “All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about homeland and birthplace – yap! Bloody yap! Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past. To hell with Ballybeg, that’s what I say!” For Ballybeg read Ireland.

Our theatre critic Peter Crawley, writing in today’s paper of Friel’s portrait of lives “suspended between memory and hope, a misty past and uncertain future. . .”, could be describing the way many young people now see themselves.

In truth, if we are redefining ourselves – our Irishness – at the moment, it is unfortunately largely in a discourse dominated by the negative. We are not Greeks. We are not Icelanders. We are not rich. We are not the citizens any more of a vibrant, confident state, but of a broken polity. We are no longer the masters we believed ourselves to be of our own fates, but hapless players of hands dealt to us by others, by huge uncontrollable forces beyond our understanding.

Old attachments and certainties to and about institutions like Church and State, to which our parents clung with what now seems naive optimism, and which to a great extent defined their sense of identity for good or ill, were castles built on sand.

Such realities, including that all-pervasive national pessimism that sadly infects even the columns of this paper, make the celebration of Irishness, the essence of St Patrick’s Day the world over, more of a challenge these days. However, reconstructing a national sense of self-worth, a rebranded, positive assertion of Irishness, will mean rekindling a sense of pride in what we have made of Ireland. Or rather, will remake. Crucially, it will mean citizens widely re-engaging to put right the broken features of our society, as writers in our series “Renewing the Republic” have been attempting. That is as much of a national challenge, and as difficult, as shoring up the banks and restoring the public finances.

For now, perhaps, we will have to resign ourselves to the more modest claim of our alternative national anthem: “Sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell,/ But I’d rather be Irish than anything else”.