Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Inflated acts of generosity: making a song and dance of our kindness

Ceire Sadlier writes from Zambia about the very Irish way of being kind.

Sat, Dec 3, 2011, 11:28


Ceire Sadlier writes from Zambia about the very Irish way of being kind.

Ceire with her daughter Juno and former President Kenneth Kaunda at a St. Patrick's Day event at the Irish Embassy earlier this year

“People are very fond of giving away what they need most themselves. It is what I call the depth of generosity.” – Oscar Wilde

I have been very homesick for Ireland this week and I yearn to be completely immersed in all things and people Irish. It got me thinking about what makes Irish people better than every other nationality in the world. In particular, I was thinking about how generous Irish people can be with their time, their care and with things of monetary value.

My conclusion is that although Irish people are only marginally more generous than others, we inflate our acts of generosity by making an enormous song and dance out of them. Giving and receiving is not a simple, quiet gesture in Ireland. It is argumentative verging on aggressive. Each party of an unselfish transaction is left dissatisfied if there isn’t a fuss made out of the exchange. Each gesture must include exaggerated refusal and insistence in equal measure, otherwise it is just rude.

The Zambians, the mainland Europeans – they’re not less generous, but more logical about it. I have asked you if you wanted it, you said no. My understanding of that is that you didn’t want it, so I didn’t offer again. Or vice versa. You offered it to me, I wanted it, I took it, I said thank you.

This, to an Irish person, is a soulless bestowal.

My husband and I are still learning to stop trying to do the Irish polite, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!’ thing because it has left us high and dry several times here in Lusaka.

Ceire with husband Maurice and daughter Juno at Victoria Falls

My husband was out one evening and told me he would get a lift home with the person he was meeting. He called me later to say he needed me to pick him up. The person he had presumed was going to give him a lift had, as anticipated, asked him if he wanted a lift. “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to put you out of your way.” Maurice graciously offered, reaching for the car door handle waiting for the driver to insist. “Alright, see you next time!”, the driver said and sped off leaving Maurice behind.

Can the person be blamed for leaving Maurice standing like a pleb on the side of the road? I mean, how many times does he have to ask, for God’s sake? In Irish terms, the answer is, a lot. Offer politely 3 times, insist strongly 4 times and, if necessary, physically force the person to accept your offer. That is reasonable in Irish terms. Then get home and complain to your wife that you were late because you had to give some fecker a lift.

Generosity is a complex thing in Ireland. Irish people seem to not want to put anyone to any trouble for them, but think that people who don’t go to any trouble for them are lazy bastards. And when we go to trouble for people but they don’t resist our generosity fervently enough, we think they are ungrateful bastards.

For example, if you pop by someone’s house and they ask if you are hungry, can they rustle something up for you, a sandwich? Even if you were so hungry that you were licking the inside of your handbag for old crumbs you would still say, “God no, I wouldn’t want to trouble you.” This is on the pretense that the person will of course say, “Are you sure, its no trouble, it will only take a second.” or go into full on Mrs. Doyle mode and force feed you like a fois gras duck.

It’s a ritual, a dance, an act and you have to know how to play your part.

Going back to Oscar Wilde’s quote, Irish people do give away their most prized possessions at the drop of a hat upon the even the most passive complimentary comment towards it. This is the other insistence – denial game. It could be food, it could be clothes, it could be a 1000 year old ming vase.

“Oh, do you like it Margaret? Have it. Sure I never use it, it’s only just sitting there. Take it, here take it. Let me put it in a bag for you.”

This is where Margaret has to tread very carefully.

Margaret must strongly decline the offer. “No, are you mad? No, no, no Mary I really can’t. No, no, absolutely not.”

But not so strongly that Mary thinks that Margaret was being disingenuous about the compliment.

“It is gorgeous, but no, I really can’t.”

Then, after Mary has given the item to Margaret using scary physical force, Margaret must spend anywhere from five minutes to the rest of her life telling Mary that she is “too good”.

But if Margaret accepted Mary’s first offer, then you can be sure that Mary would have been left completely deflated and dissatisfied by her own generosity to the point that she might feel that Margaret virtually stole from her.

“Where did that manky vase go?”, her husband might ask.

“Margaret took it. That greedy bitch.”

Ceire blogs about the hilarities and frustrations of Lusaka life here: