Back in the hungry 50’s, one of my brothers and his red-headed friend would ‘borrow’ a donkey and stand on the side of the road, just outside of Killarney. Before long the coaches would arrive, full of Irish-American tourists. The lads would stand in their best ‘John Hinde’ poses, the coaches would stop and the tourists would pour out with cameras ready to capture this moment of pure Irishism! The redhead would stand with the donkey while my brother charmed for loose change. They always did very well.
By the 1970’s, I could be found among the hoard of shaggy musicians who were more than happy to hang around the pubs of Dublin with instruments ready. As soon as the tourists came in an impromptu music sessions would break out – as if by magic. Free drinks were the oil that kept the craic flowing and, with the right crowd, the session could last all night.
It was contrived to be sure, but then again it was the ‘tourist trade’ which is always a reflection of what people want to see. I doubt there were many tourists who wanted to see beyond the veil where poverty and despair haunted the lives of so many of us.
Real Irish national identity has never been a simple thing to describe. Like all societies we have similar characteristics that can easily become stereo types but few of us actually wear green bowlers, carry shillelaghs and smoke cob pipes. Even less of us have actually seen leprechauns though, after a few drinks, many of us can tell you where you might find one!
Nor were we all the good pious Catholics the powers up in Maynooth tried to portray. Sure, we observed the bare minimum of required observance but at heart we were always pagans full of pishogueries—those rites and rituals to ward off the evil spirits.
That all changed when the Celtic Tiger arrived. I wasn’t there for that, having fled to Canada on a whim, but for years I watched with pride as my wee nation rose from the economic quagmire. The young no longer had to scatter across the world as good work could be found at home.
Before long I could see huge differences. Each time I went back I could sense a growth in confidence—the Irish were no longer putting on the poor mouth—(“an béal bocht a chur ort”) and were proudly stepping forward to claim their place as a shining example of economic miracle.
At the height of the Tiger, we became aficionados of French Cuisine and fine wines. We took holidays on the continent, skiing in the Alps in the winter and escaping the rain in Portugal where our fistfuls of freshly minted Euros could buy large amounts of everything. In time we lost sight of ourselves and, as is always the case, got lost.
From the beginning, I feared that much that was of value might get lost along the way. Yes, I was glad to see us end our years of subservience but what about all of those things that made us distinct?
Once the economic pain has subsided, and all the dust of recrimination has settled, a New Ireland will emerge—a wiser Ireland that will be more balanced. We have had centuries of good and bad and we know that each one comes and goes, regardless. We indulge in the good and learn to laugh at the bad—what else can we do?
That is something that Ireland has rediscovered after a few decades of taking things far too seriously—the ability to laugh at the ways of the world. This is what Flann O’Brien was trying to tell us. Maybe now we can all go back to the wisdom of before, the poems of Austin Clarke and Paddy Kavanagh, the rapier wit of Oscar Wilde and the day-to-day sanguinity of Roddy Doyle because the world would be a much sadder place without the Irish for all their follies and foibles.