Desperately seeking distinctive Irish quality of community spirit


NEWTON'S OPTIC:The founding principles of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) were "properly a true fit for the Irish character", the President told an audience that included members of the Larkin and Connolly families. ITGWU leaders Jim Larkin and James Connolly were of course English and Scottish respectively. She listed the qualities of this distinctively Irish (and presumably not English or Scottish) character as "spirit of community, care for others and making other people's problems your responsibility", writes Newton Emerson

She neglected to mention the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths or the laughter of happy maidens, perhaps because that presidential view of the Irish character was broadcast in March 1943, amid great rejoicing over the defeat of the Protestants at Stalingrad.

In fairness, the presidency is an office of platitudes and Mary McAleese must build her bridges through very thin air. But even the most vacuous rhetorical arch requires some support. What actual evidence is there for distinctive qualities in the Irish character of community spirit, caring for others and taking responsibility for other people's problems?

There is certainly no proof from the history of the ITGWU. Founded in 1909 to make tram drivers feel superior, its members relied on English assistance during the Dublin lockout while the rest of Ireland plotted against them. Veterans of the dispute later played leading roles in the Easter Rising and the Civil War, which were also noted for their lack of caring and poor community spirit.

Indeed, surveying the entire civilised history of Ireland from AD 1169 right up to last October's emergency Budget, the defining qualities of the Irish character would appear to be drinking spirits, blaming the other community for your problems and shooting people you don't particularly care for.

No doubt most of this can be blamed on the Nazis. However, it is still conspicuously difficult to find any positive reference to the Irish character from any respected source on the subject.

"Before a word is said about the Irish character," Irish-American novelist Wilfred Sheed once wrote, "let it be stated that very few Irishmen have it." He then added: "Dublin is the backbiting capital of the world."

Equally acerbic remarks were often made by Jonathan Swift, Flann O'Brien, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and William Butler Yeats, who was both a Protestant and a Nazi, although not always at the same time and only in ways that have apparently since cancelled out.

At least these observers of the national character deigned to remain in the country. James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were so taken with Ireland's spirit of community, responsibility and care for others that they left in their early 20s and refused to return.

Back at Liberty Hall, Siptu president Jack O'Connor was so taken with the President's speech on Sunday night that he made a speech of his own immediately afterwards, demanding a pay rise for his members and a tax rise on everyone else to pay for it.

Now that, surely, is the true character of the Irish.