Frank McNally on why Ireland has unsuspected soul-brothers in the Balkans

Savouring the sweet sounds of Irish Stew on a bus in west Cork

The Kerry-born novelist Rebecca West, whose magisterial book on 1930s Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I’m still working my way through slowly, had an obvious soft spot for the Serbs too.Photograph: Baron/Getty Images

The Kerry-born novelist Rebecca West, whose magisterial book on 1930s Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I’m still working my way through slowly, had an obvious soft spot for the Serbs too.Photograph: Baron/Getty Images

 

In Prague in the early 1990s, I met an affable Bosniak who had recently escaped from Sarajevo, a city under siege.

At least I think he was a Bosniak, which would mean he was born Muslim, or at any rate that he had a Bosnian sense of identity, as opposed to affiliation with the other ethnic groupings into which Yugoslavia was violently disintegrating. But back then we were all undergoing a crash course in the tortured politics of the Balkans, so some nuances may have escaped me.

The reason I met him was another course: I was part of a group from DCU doing a journalism project in Charles University, to which he had come from the opposite direction. Like Sarajevans in general then, he attracted a lot of sympathy from us. And the situation at home clearly pained him, maybe worsened by guilt at having made it out.

The modern capital of Serbia is located on what was once a Celtic settlement called Singidún –  the last syllable of which meant 'fortress'

In short, we saw him as one of the good guys in the conflict. He was good company too. Which made it all the more jarring when, one night in the pub, laughing at a joke from one of the Dublin visitors, he said: “It’s funny – you Irish are so like the Serbs.”

A slight chill thereby descended. Was he perhaps mixing us up with somebody else in the Balkans? If we were not most like Bosnians, then surely it was the Croats, or the heroic Montenegrins? Not the Serbs, who had his beloved Sarajevo in a stranglehold and were committing multiple atrocities?

But yes, he really did consider us to be Serbian soul-brothers. And I think he meant it affectionately. Although I don’t recall him expanding on his theory, the context seemed to be that we were gregarious; liked drinking and telling stories, and had very long memories, especially about past injustices.

He may not have been the first to sense a likeness, either. The Kerry-born novelist Rebecca West, whose magisterial book on 1930s Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I’m still working my way through slowly, had an obvious soft spot for the Serbs too.

Croatian visitor

She was of mixed ancestry: half Scottish, half Anglo-Irish, not much Kerry. And it may have been partly because of her confused identity that she so loved Yugoslavia in general.

But as confirmed by a recent Croatian visitor to Ireland who has also read her book, West had a hierarchy of affections among Yugoslavs, with the Bosnians on top, then the Serbs, then the Montenegrins, and somewhere after that the Croats, who she found “a bit dry”.

Anyway, memories of my presumed Bosniak friend came back to me earlier this week on a bus in west Cork. Because, while googling the origins of a certain local ballad on my iPhone, I became briefly diverted to the history of Belgrade.

Celtic settlement

The modern capital of Serbia, as I now learned, is located on what was once a Celtic settlement called Singidún – with some variant spellings – the last syllable of which meant “fortress”, as in so many place-names of Ireland and Scotland.

By the first century AD, the Romans were calling it Singidunum, and building on the original town. But subsequent visitors included Attila the Hun. For that and other reasons, there is little trace of the Celtic era now.

It explained, however, the thing that had set me reading about it: my discovery, via the aforementioned ballad, of a weirdly-named band from modern Belgrade: “Irish Stew of Sindidun”. Their music is described as “Serbian Celtic Rock”, although they began life circa 2002 doing straight covers of Irish ballads before starting to write their own stuff and veering towards a punk style. The Pogues are an obvious influence.

Irish Stew, as they’re known for short, are not the only such band in Serbia. There is another called Orthodox Celts, also one named Tír na nÓg, in similar vein. And as far as I can tell, none of these have any connection with Ireland other than affection for its music, which they play skilfully on fiddles, flutes, and banjos, so that you wouldn’t know they were from Eastern Europe except, sometimes, from their accents.

One of the pronunciations they struggle with, for example, is the letter V, which tends to sound more like W. Such details apart, they appear to justify the point my Bosnian friend was making 25 years ago.

Hence the strange but stirring connection I felt on the bus in Cork the other day as I listened to Irish Stew’s lead singer urging me to rally “beneath the flag of green” – wherefrom, loud and high, he would raise the cry: “rewenge for Skibbereen”.

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