Monday, 17 March 2014

Let's Celebrate the Real Ireland

Last night, the taller half and I went to see the new musical, The Commitments, which is based on the novel of the same name by Irish author, Roddy Doyle, although perhaps better known from the 1991 film adaptation. After waiting at the bus stop for twenty minutes and watching the clock tick ever closer to show time, we gave up faith and hailed a cab. Our lovely Limerick driver laughed at us worrying about missing the show when we clearly had loads of time. An Irish driver for an Irish writer on the way to an Irish show the day before St. Patrick's Day. Surely, we'd be fine.

Then we sat in traffic on the Mall for ten minutes and we didn't laugh so much. Turns out, Trafalgar Square was in total gridlock as St. Patrick's Day celebrations finished up. We bailed on the cab and ended up walking the last ten minutes to the Palace Theatre. And what a walk. I wish I could say it made me proud to be Irish.


By right, it should have. London has long been the home of many Irish immigrants. Mine is only the latest in a long succession of generations heading across the Irish Sea to make their life in England. I have found Irish pubs from the Australian outback to Eastern Europe, from China to the bottom of a remote canyon in Peru. What other culture has a day that is celebrated all around the world? What other culture claims more descendents all over the world? Ireland and Irish-ness is certainly something extraordinary. But there was little to be proud of on Charing Cross Road last night.

Instead, there were hundreds of people in various stages of passing out from inebriation, rubbish strewn all over and men peeing on anything that stood still long enough for them to sway up to it. Is this really what the Irish have to celebrate? Drink? The very stereotype that has been used to oppress an entire nation for generations not only in Ireland and the UK but in the US, in Canada, in Australia and more? No, perhaps it is leprechauns - the misunderstood and chronically misrepresented figure of Irish folk stories. The leprechaun you see in your favourite pub tonight, or that hangs in your child's classroom is actually a nasty tool of propaganda, designed to dehumanise and denegrate the Irish people. But, no matter, drink on.

Instead of a rant on the misrepresentation of the Irish, however, I want to embrace the love that a large part of the world now has for the Irish. I want to give you some elements of Irish culture really worth celebrating. I want to give you things that are so wonderful, you won't bother with the rubbish iconography that has been thrust upon us.

1. The Book of Kells - A gorgeous example of the long standing, Irish tradition of art and literature. The monks who created this beautifully illustrated book of the four gospels originally lived on the island of Iona, in Scotland, but  moved to Kells in County Meath in 806. According to the Trinity College Dublin website, no one knows where exactly the work was done. Today, the book is housed in Trinity and is open to the public. A visit there also enables you to see my favourite room in the whole world - the Long Room. The smell of old books, the gothic architecture, the towering bookcases. There is nothing not to love about this room.

If, however, a trip to Dublin is not in your near future, the wonderful news from Trinity is that the Book of Kells is now available for free online! That's all 680 pages of it. Or there is also a very reasonably priced iPad app for finger-swiping fun.

2. The Titanic Museum - That's right, the doomed ocean liner was built in the Belfast shipyards. And, while its demise is certainly nothing to celebrate, a state-of-the-art museum has recently opened in Belfast and this writer has it on very good authority (my mother is not easy to impress) that the exhibitions here manage to be both informative and engaging (even for teenagers).

3. Dan Donnelly- So, now that I've debunked the heel-clicking, pot o' gold, fake leprechaun story, let me give you a real Irish legend: Dan Donnelly. He became a hero of the Irish people when he beat English champion George Cooper in 1815. A famous Irish boxer, legend says his arms were long enough that he could touch his knees without bending down. The fame of those arms was only enhanced by the fact that one of them hung in The Hideout pub in Kilcullen for over forty years. Yes, that's his real arm and, yes, this writer saw it. Various, less than trustworthy sources seem to think it's since been sold or loaned or otherwise made its way into the care of an American. So, although you can't see his arm anymore, you can still walk in the footsteps of the man at Donnelly's Hollow on the Curragh of Kildare.

4. Father Ted - Oh, yes, this truly is Irish comedy at some if its best. Everyone who was anyone in 90s Irish comedy or going to become anyone in 2000s Irish comedy probably made an appearance on this show. It's hilarious, it's pure Irish and it only gets better the more you watch it. (UK viewers, it's on Channel 4) Go on, watch it. Go on. Go on go on. Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on.

5. The Chieftans or U2 or The Cranberries or Van Morrison or The Corrs or Snow Patrol or The Dubliners or Horselips or Sinead O'Connor, or Enya or Danรบ or, look, there's just too many to name them all. The bottom line is that there's some brilliant music that has and is coming out of Ireland. You may not love it all, but there's certainly something for everyone. And with the resurgence and re-imaging of folk music that's happening right now, it's an exciting time to be listening to Irish music.

If you read the last two with particular interest, I have even more good news for you: You can combine Father Ted and traditional music this June!

And that's just the tip of the Irish iceberg. I didn't even touch on the vibrancy of the Irish writing scene, on the natural beauty of the country, on the enduring spirit of the people despite mass immigration and repeated economic collapses, how funny even those of us who didn't appear on Father Ted are, any of the exciting innovations that have come from Ireland and Irish people, the first-class education system, the revival of the Irish language, or how brilliant we are at sport - Six Nations champs!

So go on, done your green t-shirts and sparkly shamrock headbands, even toast the day with the only Guinness you'll drink all year. Just remember that there really is a lot to celebrate about Ireland and being Irish.

Oh, and The Commitments? It's great to see an Irish story filled with Irish humour by an Irish author on a London stage packed with loads of Irish talent!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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