gets to know the Irish

Getting to Know... INDEX

A good understanding of a country may help you to make the most of your trip by giving you an insight into the minds of the nationals. That is the purpose of this series.

Noreen Wainwright

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Getting to know... the IRISH

Noreen Wainwright

Article © 2008 Noreen Wainwright

T/T #90

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Some things never change. The Irish are in love with words… writing them, listening to them, but most of all speaking them.

An Irish sceneTalking the talk. Some things never change. The Irish are in love with words…writing them, listening to them, but most of all speaking them. Talking is the national pastime, whatever you might think about it being drinking (more of that later). Unlike our near neighbours, the English, our words are not uttered grudgingly and with deep sincerity. Ours are scattered as wildly and freely as a WAG’s money in a clothes shop. We love the sound of our own voices... but do honestly like to listen too. We talk even when we have nothing to say; phrases like “Sound man,” or “How’s the craic?” which don’t have a lot of meaning, but oil the social wheels nonetheless.

Walking the walk. No, we are not all just a bunch of charming talkers. As a result of a sound education policy and a bit of help from the old EC, we have one of the best educated populations in Europe. Economically, we have delivered the goods, having had several years of a booming economy. However, an awareness this bubble is just poised on the brink of bursting is likely to cause stresses, for the Irish have embraced consumerism in a way that must have President de Velera spinning in his grave. (His idea of 'maids dancing at crossroads', and a' pure-minded Gaelic-speaking race', provided an idealistic template for the nation-building years.)

Getting on with the neighbours. The relationship between the Irish and their old enemy, the English, is fascinating. Thankfully, it has evolved in a way that would have seemed impossible a couple of decades ago. The Irish have been accused (not without some justification) of having the memory of an elephant. But an increasing self-belief and significant identity in Europe has given the old inferiority complex a real battering. Hating the English, once part of the national psyche, now just seems unconstructive and ignorant. We now have quite a mutual admiration thing going on with the old enemy… except perhaps, when it comes to sport. Oh, and they've stopped making anti-Irish jokes, which has helped no end.

Having the craic. The craic has entered the English language; but somehow you just have to be Irish to truly understand and use the term correctly; because it is a bit indefinable. One can only say that it often (though not invariably) involves drink, laughter, a lot of talking, and nine times out of ten it will end in communal singing. The singing may well culminate in ballads of a lachrymose and maybe rebel nature. Amazingly, even English politicians have ended up in trouble for singing these songs… the secret is not to listen too closely to the words; just enjoy the air and the emotion of the whole thing.

Speaking the lingo. It almost defies belief that in spite of about 12 years of compulsory Gaelic lessons during every school day, most Irish people would struggle to string a few sentences of their native language together. Though, of course, we have our Irish-speaking areas, known collectively as the “Gaeltacht”, we have not somehow grasped the nettle in the same way as the Welsh: who seem to speak their language with defiant pride. Perhaps that says something about the Irish and their stubborn resistance to anything they feel has been forced down their throats.

The black stuff. A heck of a lot of Guinness is drunk in Irish pubs, so it is – although it has plenty of competition these days. Alco-pops, wine and cocktails are as popular in Ireland as elsewhere. The Irish have a bit of a love-hate relationship with drink. We always come near the top of the league table when it comes to consumption, and this is curious when you consider that Ireland also has a high proportion of people who do not touch the stuff: who have, in fact, “taken the pledge.” Ireland has its share of drink and drugs-fuelled crime and violence. But on the whole we don’t have football hooligans; which means, of course, we can pat ourselves on the back and say we are “better” than the English.

Saying our prayers. Whether we go to Mass; or jump up and down with rage at some of the scandals associated with the Catholic Church; whether we rail about the power of the Church in the Irish state through the years, or think it did a lot of good too, religion is central to us. And it is central to an understanding of the Irish. It pervades the society, even yet. Try as we might, the Irish find it very difficult to deny the spiritual need; indeed, some of the lesser known religions have found a fertile recruiting ground amongst disenchanted Catholics. If you live (as I do) in England, in an area with a fairly high proportion of Methodists, you will notice a basic difference. Amongst Ireland’s Catholics there is an acceptance of drinking and swearing, whereas there are huge hang-ups about sexuality. Whereas here, amongst the Methodists, drinking and swearing are frowned upon, but your sex life is your own business.

Who you know. Politicians in Ireland have a terrible tendency to sail close to the wind. Everyone knows about it; it is the subject of much mirth and satire, but somehow we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. For generations to “get on” you had to have “pull”, which basically meant you had to know the right people. And when it comes to knowing people, Ireland is a very small pool indeed. This might be one of the reasons why so many Irish people thrived better out of the country.

Moving out and moving in. Ireland’s boom has made it an attractive place for immigrants. This is a bit of a reversal as, for generations, the movement was out rather than in. Now, many hotels, pubs, hospital and building sites in Ireland echo with the sounds of voices from Eastern Europe and further afield. This is truly testing the “Cead Mile Failte (a hundred thousand welcomes) national motto. But a slow assimilation seems to be taking place and, as someone always says when these things are being discussed, “sure, for years we were doing it ourselves, going to the four corners of the world to work.” This is an uncomfortable truth and this inward movement of people is meeting as much resistance in Ireland as elsewhere.

Farming the land. Farmers in Ireland still have power (even though a large percentage of the population are now urban dwellers). There is a collective recollection of the importance of food and food production. It seems no-one is further than two generation from the land and everyone has an uncle or a cousin in the country. So, when farmers shout, the whole country listens – something British farmers can only dream about.

The European influence. Someone once described Britain’s relationship with the EU as resembling the irritating visitor who stands at the door; unwilling to come in, but not going and shutting the door behind him, either. No, he just stands there; neither going, nor coming, just freezing the rest of us. Well, Ireland jumped in and came right up to the fire, years ago. Ireland didn’t mind a bit of pooling of the sovereignty – as long as it was Brussels, not London laying down the law, that is. A country, in those days, with a lot of small farmers, and less-favoured areas, it took the golden ball of money and ran with it. But – and it is a big but… the Lisbon treaty might be a step too far. Sovereignty is one thing; going along with the Mandleson agricultural policy, or compromising its neutrality, may be a step too far.

The island of welcomes. If you want donkeys and red-headed colleens we can supply them. You just have to accept that they sit side by side with a high tech society. The old traditional pub which doubles as the village grocer’s shop still thrives – it will have sky TV rolling out its news and sport in the corner… live with it. The best possible tourist advice is to get into conversation with some old bloke who will tell you about the best beaches, forgotten coves and the pubs where the locals drink – and where there is likely to be a session on a Monday or Tuesday night. He will tell you that West Cork is as beautiful as Kerry – and has about a quarter of the tourists –and all about the Ring of Beara. Drive carefully; speeding, particularly along the country roads, is another national pastime.

One last word of warning after this insight — be careful of the stereotypes! Whilst you can always draw a thread of similarity between the nationals of a country, the extent and size of that thread may vary widely!

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