Saturday, July 15, 2006

Who We Are 3

Who are we?  What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 3

I wish here to draw a timely distinction between nationalism and culture.  In the wake of World War II with its horrific consequences for the partial extermination of the Jews and minorities of all types and the present escalating conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians which could destabilize the Middle East, such an understanding of vital distinctions is important.

I will return momentarily to my favourite philosopher A.C. Grayling who succinctly and eruditely puts it: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars.  And one should not confuse culture with nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture.  Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.”(The Meaning of Things, pp 78-79)

For these posts I will keep Grayling’s timely words and insights in the background.  Indeed nations are “artificial constructs” and our modern nation was constructed by a variety of geniuses, scholars, poets, artists, poet-revolutionaries, members of the IRB, the Irish Citizen Army, The Irish Volunteers, educationalists, hero-teachers and professors as well as the many more run-of-the-mill ordinary foot soldiers and revolutionaries, both men and women, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

While I agree with Grayling that cultural heritage is not the same as national identity, I feel that the latter is mainly a judicious (for some) picking of various bits and pieces from the prevailing cultural heritage.  Obviously this picking may be injudicious or even inimical for others – as we see from the legacy of unrest we have north of the border here on the island of Ireland.

Who are we, then?  What aspects of culture and identity have we inherited from the above motley group of inspirers? We see ourselves reflected in the following:  (i) our main spoken language – Hiberno-English, (ii) the official language of the State – Gaeilge, (iii) our sports – the G.A.A. pre-eminently, though soccer has become a very important sport with respect to our national identity – witness the army of followers during Italia 90 and USA 1994 (iv) our written word, the works of our poets and scholars mainly in English, (v) our written word, the works of our poets and scholars in Gaelic, (vi) our music and song, both in Irish(Gaelic) and English, (vii) our folklore – the stories told from generation to generation, (viii) our sense of being the “victims” of seven centuries of inept and at times oppressive English rule – this is still part of the psyche of the modern Irish from my experience of teaching in secondary school for the past 26 years.  There is still a lot of that sense around that our Irish-ness is defined by the historical British oppression of our country, (ix) up until the early 90s of the last century there was a collective sense of lack of self-confidence, if not an outright sense of national depression consequent on seven centuries of oppression and badly handled finances of the national government, (x) however, our relationship with England has always been ambiguous to say the least.  While I would not agree with the excesses of revisionism, I have to state that our history is not as simple as the oppressor-oppressed polarisation would have us believe.  Ireland gained much from England over the years.  I had an uncle on my father’s side who served in the British navy during World War II and four uncles on my mother’s side worked as tradesmen and labourers in England also at that time.  Many Irish emigrants married into English families as a result of emigration etc. Likewise many southerners fought in the various Irish regiments during the First World War.  Also financially and culturally we Irish and English have been linked for centuries.  So we have to avoid outrageous and black and white simplifications, (xi) From the 90s onward a new sense of optimism has grown as our financial position has escalated at an almost exponential rate, allowing us the enviable position of being per capita among the richest nations of the world.

There concludes this post.  The above 11 points are random – just as they came into my mind while writing.  One thing is sure, though, as we grow to incorporate our new Irish citizens from the different countries alluded to in a previous post, we will certainly gain new insights into our culture and our nationhood, because both these categories are not simply set in stone but rather are dynamic and growing.     The above picture is one I took in March 2006 of my TY class at Delphi Adventure Centre. These young men are part the future of Ireland. The group contains one lad from the Ukraine. Other class groups would contain more nationalities. I look forward to an all-inclusive society and nation in the future years of the 21st century.

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