Patrick Freyne: ‘We are a nation of alcoholic, backside-baring stoics with mother issues’

Carrolls Irish Gifts shops are as apt a symbol for contemporary Ireland as anything else

Carrolls Irish Gifts is a chain of  shops to which tourists go to learn our ways and defer to our traditions. You can often find these shops by following the confused foreigners respectfully garbed in the traditional green tutus, false ginger beards and floppy leprechaun hats of our people, hats historically associated with Patrick Pearse.

There is a famous saying: "The past is a foreign country." However, here in the Free State we don't like that phrase because an English man said it. In Ireland we prefer, "The past is entirely made up", which is why Carrolls Irish gift shop is as apt a symbol for contemporary Ireland as anything else. It follows in a long tradition of imaginative medieval monks and 19th-century toffs, who thought it would be nice if our burgeoning nation had a coherent sense of self and cobbled together a load of old guff.

The shamrock is an Irish equivalent to the heart symbol, which means that there is a particular clingy, neurotic, alcoholic form of Irish love. And there is

There’s a lot to take in. These shops are awash with Sino-Celtic craftsmanship (some Irish iconography is apparently made in Chinese factories) and baffling signifiers. Behold the cultural defeatism of a fridge magnet declaring: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Contemplate the darkly ominous wish, “May the luck of the Irish be there with you”, found here on wall plaques and pottery statues and fridge magnets and novelty underpants. This is, if you understand our long history of war, hunger, colonisation and religious repression, a terrible thing to say to anyone.

There’s also some classic sheep-daubed Rubik’s Cubes (it is said that if anyone completes one, we will get the Six Counties back), a red-lipped wide-eyed statue of St Patrick (which makes him look like a Ritalin-charged child with a beard), a ceramic toilet-shaped ashtray declaring itself to be “For your butts” (definitely a word we say here in this country) and a cuddly sheep holding a shamrock that says: “I [shamrock symbol] Ireland.” This means, I think, that the shamrock is an Irish equivalent to the heart symbol, which means that there is a particular clingy, neurotic, alcoholic form of Irish love. And there is.

Cultural appropriation

I have so many questions. Like, for example, is the sight of a healthy-looking Yank donning the red fright wig, leprechaun hat and shiny green waistcoat of my people an insensitive form of cultural appropriation akin to blacking up? Well no, it’s not. Encouraging foreigners to cosplay at being Irish is basically cultural policy in this country. And there is a lot of traditional Irish clothing to be found in Carrolls.

There's an Irish flat cap "as worn in the Quiet Man", a film made by John Ford in the 1950s about the best way to crush a woman's spirit. The model for this in the advertisement is, refreshingly, an unthreateningly handsome scowling redhead with what we, in the old country, call "a ceann mor Éireann" (a big Irish head).

There are American "varsity-style" Dublin sweatshirts which, I suppose, go down well with the type of American tourist who wonders what sort of hamburgers the ancient Irish ate and what late-night talk shows we watched in the time of Brian Boru.

And there’s more! There are Aran sweaters, leprechaun wigs, an array of patriotic fake nails, coloured wristbands and a “Tricolour Unisex Punk Rock Long Wig” much like the one your great-great-grandfather wore while tearfully surveying his blighted potato crop during the Famine.

When all is said and done, however, my favourite item of Carrolls clothing is the "Carry Me Leprechaun" outfit. In this costume the wearer puts his or her legs into a sort of smaller leprechaun costume featuring a leprechaun head at around waist height and fake bejeaned legs at the wearer's hips, thus designed to make it look like they're being carried around by a small, smiling Irishman. The original title of this costume was "British Imperialism" but nowadays we prefer to call it "busy Facebook executive".

There’s plenty of merchandise celebrating Irish heroes you’ll know from the history books. There’s “Paddy Bear”, for example, the cuddly carnivorous Celt who aided St Patrick (probably), now largely used to shill chocolate. There’s “Looney Leprechaun”, an arse-baring drunk and Proclamation of independence signatory, who can be perceived gurning and displaying his bare buttocks from a range of collectible shot glasses. There’s also “Seamus the Sheep”, our first minister of finance, and a disturbing candle named “Séan the Shamrock” who has his arms outstretched and a leering tongue hanging from his mouth that suggests a #misefreisin movement for fictional characters isn’t too far away.

Séan looks drunk. Then again, our nation's delightful alcoholism is also a recurring theme. You can buy shot glasses and hip flasks and Guinness merchandise and a baseball hat with a built-in bottle opener and the words "Dublin Drinking Team" above the brim, like your mam wears. There's even a babygro echoing a Carlsberg ad ("Probably the Best Baby in the World") and, presumably, they've also got one with the phrase "baby's first hangover" written on it (legal note: they do not have such an item).

There's also some merchandise celebrating the ancient hostelry, The Temple Bar, which dates back to 1840, according to its sign. When The Temple Bar people opened their snug in 2013, a sign declared its origins to be in 1694 and suggested that this part of their bar was "Dublin's oldest pub". Their dating methods were based, I think, on the notion that there was a pub at the same location in times past. This was good news for me. Using the same logic, I decided to start call myself "Dublin's oldest man" and go free on the bus. Or "omnibus" as we called it when I was a lad.

The Irish are also a philosophical lot and there are plenty of wise old sayings imprinted on bronze and pewter plaques and ornaments hereabouts. Several are marketed as “Mother’s Blessings”. “Mothers hold their children’s hands a while and their hearts forever,” declares one fridge magnet, featuring a four-leaf clover and, in the original design, the phone number for a psychotherapist. The Irish mother is a key part of the Irish psyche, so there is also a bronze wall-plaque, that declares, boastfully, “God’s most precious work of art is a mother’s heart”. That’s before we get to the shamrock-daubed “Mum’s Bed and Breakfast” tea-towel which offers up the services of “caterer”, “chauffeur” “seamstress” and nurse” among other highly trained specialities in return for “hugs, kisses and gifts” and “recognition”.

These days most psychologists would recognise this as an overly transactional approach to love but sure it did us no harm and would you pass me another of those Looney Leprechaun shot glasses?

Carrolls have our number: We are a nation of alcoholic, arse-baring stoics with mother issues, a whimsical take on life and a history dating back as far as ancient 2013. Welcome to Ireland, come into the kitchen, but tread softly because you tread on our dreams and we have a terrible hangover apparently.

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