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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Hail Glorious Saint Paddy


The top o’ the mornin’ to ye! Begorrah, bedad, an’ bejaysus, sure isn’t it a grand day and all for us to be celebratin’ the feast of our own glorious Saint Patrick, it bein’ fifteen hundred and eighty years since he arrived on the misty green shamrock shores of the dear auld emerald isle, wavin’ his bishop’s crozier to banish the snakes and bring the benighted pagan Oirish into the bosom of God’s holy church?

Is that enough stage-Irishness for you? Enough Paddywhackerry? Will you wear the green today, go off to watch or even march in the parade and get all tipsy and lachrymose on green beer, Guinness or whiskey (always to be spelled with an “e”)?

In Germany, where I live, St. Patrick’s Day barely causes a blip on the radar screen, apart from parties organised in the Irish Pubs, one of Ireland’s most successful modern cultural exports, which can be found in nearly every middle-sized town. There’s a street in the Altstadt of Düsseldorf which has three of them, one being a gay pub. And speaking of gays, as far as I know, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, organisers of the New York parade, still don’t allow openly LGBT organisations to take part. They would do better to recall the great Irish bisexual, Oscar Wilde, and honour his memory.

Contradictions. Insofar as national stereotypes are valid at all, the Irish are nearly as full of them as the stereotype neurotic New York Jew. There is a kind of deep insecurity at the heart of the Irish character, born of an unholy conjunction of colonial oppression and Catholic guilt. And even these further stereotypes are themselves contradictory. For while there is no doubt that the “native Irish” were exploited, oppressed, discriminated against, killed and starved in their millions by the more powerful English between the 17th and the 19th Centuries, at the same time there was much of what was Irish which contributed to the growing identity of Britishness during that period, and – particularly in the 19th Century – there were many Irish people who were as comfortable with the dual identity of Irish and British as most Scots and Welsh are today (and, indeed, in the 20th Century, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants in Britain who have adopted a British identity, while retaining, to various degrees, a sense of their original Irishness).

Then there’s Catholicism. Similar to the Poles, religious separateness developed in Ireland as a defining national characteristic in reaction to English acceptance of the Reformation. Because the English became Protestant, it became a part of Irish self-definition to be Catholic and, the more being Catholic became a criterion for discrimination and persecution, the more stubbornly the Irish clung to it. Yet parallel to all this, most serious Irish nationalist thinkers retained a strong sense that being Catholic was not synonymous with being Irish and a large number of those who developed and espoused ideas of Irish separatism were Protestant, from Jonathan Swift to Wolfe Tone, Charles Stewart Parnell to Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats to Douglas Hyde (independent Ireland’s first president).

But Catholicism remained a major part of the Irish identity, for many the defining component. The decades of national trauma following the disaster of the great potato famine in the middle of the 19th Century coincided with a restructuring of the Catholic Church worldwide along strict, all-encompassing, highly-structured lines, defining itself sharply in contrast to the ever more pervasive ideas of the Enlightenment, politically expressed in the American and French Revolutions. The result, in Ireland, was a particularist Nationalist culture, whose religious component offered an extra reason to reject everything British as being a product of obdurate heretic Protestantism, whose adherents were, basically, damned by God to eternal hellfire. And it was a variety of often joyless Catholicism which defined much of modern life and what it had to offer as “occasions of sin” (most particularly in relation to anything to do with sexuality) and stoked the subconscious Freudian fires of guilt with rigorous efficiency, while at the same time allowing for frequent, ghastly violence, abuse and hypocrisy. To anyone who would dispute this interpretation, I simply recommend watching Peter Mullen’s 2002 film, The Magdalen Sisters, the basic accuracy of which, as far as I know, nobody has been able to call into question.

Hail, glorious St. Patrick, thy words were once strong
Against Satan's wiles and a heretic throng;
Not less is thy might where in Heaven thou art;
Oh, come to our aid, in our battle take part!”

According to my researches, the words of this most popular of hymns to St. Patrick – and one which I learned in my earliest schooldays – were penned by a Sister Agnes in 1920. The “heretic throng” she refers to was, for the Irish Catholics of the time, clearly Protestant. Historically, of course, the Patrick who spread the Christian message in Ireland in the fifth Century (whichever one of them you take, most historians believe there were at least two of them!) had nothing to do with heretics, as those against whom his words were strong were pagans, but that wasn’t important. As a child I was certain – for so I was taught – that Patrick was a Catholic. The fact that the Protestant Church of Ireland also reveres St. Patrick as its founder and that one of its two major cathedrals in Dublin is named after him didn’t matter. As far as we were concerned, those cathedrals were rightfully Catholic anyway, and had been robbed from us by the Protestants during the Reformation. The fact that Patrick was most probably an Englishman, bringing a foreign religion whose basic goal was to extirpate the cultural uniqueness of the native Irish druidal religion, was never presented in these terms and much was made of the remote possibility that the young Romanised Patrick, who had been captured as a slave by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to herd pigs, in fact came from a settlement on the northern coast of Gaul.

When the Irish Free State became independent in 1922, the predominant ethos became that narrow Catholic definition of Irish identity – a development accelerated by the fact that the great majority of the Protestants on the island lived in the province of Ulster, most of which remained British as Northern Ireland. The new state was over 90% Catholic and for the rest of the 20th Century, the small Protestant minority declined ever further. And that narrow exclusivist understanding of national identity contributed to a withdrawal on many levels from the wider world, contributing even to a declaration of neutrality during World War II. In that atmosphere of righteous isolation, it was possible to cultivate further the national neurotic mythology of persecuted specialness, doomed to suffering, mediocrity and failure by centuries of foreign political, economic and religious oppression.

Even during my childhood it was showing cracks, under assault from (far too slowly) growing prosperity, rock and roll, television and the insistent spiritual “pollution” from a more open, exciting wider world. The Church itself was undergoing its own revolution as a result of Vatican II. From the beginning of the nineties up to a couple of years ago, the roaring of the Celtic Tiger seemed to have been systematically banishing the last vestiges of the old, limited, outdated, claustrophobic national identity to the scrapheap of history.

The Celtic Tiger was so enthusiastically, exaggeratedly embraced by the Irish, perhaps, because it offered a new possibility for self-definition. It certainly ultimately led to a kind of collective unreal hubris, and the throwing out of a number of babies with large amounts of undoubtedly filthy bathwater. All this made the crash, when it inevitably came a few years ago, all the more bitter.

But for all the flaws in the current rescue strategies, and all the suffering the Irish people are currently going through – much of it unnecessarily demanded by a corrupt, twisted, global finance mafia – there is no going back to the old, narrow, neurotic nationalism. That mould, at least, has been broken forever. The Irish who celebrate their national holiday today are undoubtedly more sombre, thoughtful, self-questioning than those of a decade ago. But they are also more mature.

The (Protestant) Irish rebel leader, Robert Emmet, executed in 1803, made a famous last speech, which became part of the sacred scriptures of Irish nationalist republicanism. He finished by saying

“Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”

Today, I would argue, his country has indeed taken her place among the nations of the earth – no better, but certainly no worse, than most of the others. His epitaph can be written, has, indeed, been written in the course of Irish history since his death, and particularly in the past fifty years, long after notional political independence was achieved.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Be proud to be Irish, because today is the day we allow everyone worldwide to share our identity – with all its flaws and glories J.



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