A man took a seat at The Dory on Bridge Street the other evening and ordered a Jameson’s. The man next to him said, “You like the Irish, same as me,” pointing to his drink.
“I do,” the newcomer said. And noting the man’s accent, added, “Whereabouts did you call home over there?”
“I’m a Dublin man.”
“Ah, God, me too,” he said, and clinked his fellow Dub’s glass. “Small world.”
“Tis,” his new friend answered. “Where in the city are you from?”
“Oh, for the love of God. Me too. What street?”
“No! That’s my street! What number?”
The bartender turned away, went to the end of the bar and said to another patron, “It’s going be a long night. The Murphy twins are drunk again.”
This just in: Professor Niall O’Flaherty, head of neurology at Trinity College, Dublin, has discovered how Irish amnesiacs differ from other nationalities. “Our research has proven unequivocally,” Professor O’Flaherty reported, “that Irish amnesiacs forget everything except the grudge.”
Which leads me to remember my encounter with an Irish snail. One night I heard a slight scratching at the back door. I opened it, looked around and discovered a snail clinging to the door about an inch above the ground. I picked it off and threw it into the garden. Twenty years later I heard the same scratching. There was a snail stuck to the door.
Looking up, he said to me, “Now what the hell was that all about?”
I grew up schooled in gallows humor, but had my first real taste of it a number of years ago in Belfast. I was sitting at a kitchen table in a boarding house having breakfast. A bomb blast thudded somewhere in the city, close enough to shiver the windows and rattle the pots and pans along with my nerves.
The landlady, catching the expression on my face, continued to pour tea. “That’s only a wee bit of a one,” she said with a smile.
I stared at her, open-mouthed.
“There are three levels, you know,” she said. “The wee level. The close-by level. And the four pages of obituaries level.”
When I lived in Ireland, I learned something about what being Irish truly means. Tradition, family, culture, yes, but the real insight was that the Irish carry a duality within them. This duality creates conflict, and just as conflict is necessary for drama, so it makes people more interesting than those condemned to only one dimension.
F. Scott Fitzgerald thought that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
He was speaking of individuals but really was describing an entire people.
The Irish duality is most apparent in religion and language. When Patrick converted the Irish (the only conversion of a nation, by the way, with no martyrs), a vivid and powerful Celtic paganism was overlaid with Christianity. This tension of two solid traditions coexisting in one people is essentially what makes the Irish who they are. An example of this is the ancient stone carvings seen on some churches called sheela-na-gigs. These are nude female gargoyles, legs open, exposing their genitals unashamedly. They are Celtic representations of fertility, but also a celebration of female sexual power. The early Christians put them on their churches without comment.
With language it was the same. England, by law, banned Irish at certain points in history to ensure English would be the official language. (And eliminating the conquered people’s language would eliminate their culture, they thought, demonstrating how wrong even smart people can be.) The Celtic gift of turning language on its ear is in many cases a literal translation of Irish into English, making something new that sings.
I found the Irish warm, kind, sincere and hospitable beyond anything I’d ever encountered. But, then, there was something else. I found the other side of the coin working as a reporter and studying Irish history (which James Joyce said was a nightmare he was forever trying to awake from). Oppressed for centuries by a stronger, wealthier neighboring country, they had, like all victims of oppression, cultivated the values of deceit, cunning, false joy in the presence of strangers, envy, clannishness, bristling donkey-headed pride. And they remembered every slight no matter how petty or how long ago. The tragedy, they say, is the English won’t remember and the Irish can’t forget.
The legacy of what Britain had done to them is horrific but what they inflicted on themselves isn’t pretty, either. Betrayal, plotting, swift country justice by maiming, crippling, bloody death and exile. Blather, slyness, clever at life, soft smiles to conceal the stone heart, and rage near at hand, easy to find and use, like a tool a good workman always replaces in the same spot so he won’t have to think when he wants it, but just reach out and there it is, ready to go to work.
Noble causes and many ignoble people.
That was then, and the hope is it will stay in the past, as Ireland now has become — except for flares launched by dead-enders — peaceful. In a way peace in Ulster is a miracle. What could be more miraculous than Martin McGuiness, once the most wanted man in the British Isles as Chief of the IRA, now the First Minister of Northern Ireland? Jaws in Ireland, Britain and the Irish diaspora crashed to the floor when McGuiness and the Queen of England exchanged handshakes and kind words last June in Belfast.
May peace, and our faith in it, never cease.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.