St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us, so it’s time to partake in the unofficial national pastime of grumbling about St Patrick’s Day. Come Sunday, Dublin will be soaked to the bones in Hiberno-kitsch and later literally soaked as everyone commences drinking in the streets.
Elsewhere, the more traditional St Paddy’s Day programme of freezing half to death watching a parade of tractors, majorettes (what do majorettes do the rest of the year?) and ‘floats’ (what you call a cattle trailer on March 17) will meanwhile unfold. Stop complaining! It’s part of what makes us Irish.
Or is it? The truth is, the Irish psyche is far too complex, contradictory and curmudgeonly to be understood through the prism of St Patrick’s Day. And yet our “national day” – isn’t it actually just a religious holiday? – reliably provokes oodles of soul-searching, as we consider what it really means to be Irish.
We’re going to spare you the bother. Here is our whistle-stop guide to Irishness, as explained via a cultural map of the country.
1. Father Ted
As we set out on our grand tour of Irish culture, let us begin somewhere comfortingly obvious. Although Derry Girls has lately stolen its glory a bit, it is undeniable that Father Ted (1995-1998) communicates the essence of growing up in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Priests were everywhere, but not really taken seriously (people would scrape and bow and then roll their eyes). Absurdity was bound up in the everyday. Nothing worked as it should; there were weirdos everywhere. And yet somehow life trundled along. If you want to know what life was like in Ireland in the days when the church had a nominal death-grip on the country, here is where to start.
A rare urban Irish movie. Once (2007), directed by John Carney, had an underdog charm that we like to believe is quintessentially Irish. This 2007 tale of star-crossed busking lovers (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) wore its emotions on both sleeves – again something that distinguishes us from other parts of Northern Europe. It was also a Valentine to Dublin – not the “dirty old town” of Brendan Behan or Shane MacGowan but the exciting, sometimes chaotic, often maudlin city many of us will recognise from our own lives.
3. guild of dungeoneering Culture doesn’t simply reside in libraries or cinemas in 2019. Ireland’s tech revolution may have raised living standards (and rents). But there have been precious few home grown successes to chime with the public. In video games especially, we continue to punch below our weight (contrast the Irish video game industry with that of Scotland, which has given the world Grand Theft Auto). Still, there have been quiet triumphs – such as this quirky 2015 fantasy adventure for desktop computer and tablets by Dublin-based game designer Colm Larkin. Guild of Dungeoneering hasn’t changed the world. But it accomplishes what it sets out to fantastically and thus represents the sort of modest triumph at which the Irish excel.
4. The hole in the ground
The Irish countryside is empty and haunting. Yet Irish horror movies have rarely tapped into that creepy – or channelled the darker aspects of Irish mythology. But both of these are accomplished with Lee Cronin’s lauded directorial debut – in cinemas now – about a mother (Seana Kerslake) who moves to parts rural with her child and is unnerved out by the emptiness, the silence, the isolation – and her paranoid suspicion that her kid might be a demon changeling. Very scary, and very Irish.
5. Normal people
by Sally Rooney
The Co Mayo writer (left) has been garlanded internationally as the voice of the millennial generation. And if her writing does convey the hopes, fears and digital angst of those raised on instant messaging and social media, there is also something quintessentially Irish about this 2018 story of two small town acquaintances whose relationship is set on a different trajectory as both up sticks for the big city. That’s very Irish – as anyone who has, for instance, moved out of home to go college in Cork, Dublin or Galway will attest.
6. Disco pigs
by Enda Walsh
Irish drama can seem a bit alienating and fusty to many Irish people, who don’t really understand what Synge is getting at or thought The Importance of Being Earnest was funny the first time they sat through it but have no need to attend endless revivals. Amid such conformity, Enda Walsh’s 1996 Cork-set Disco Pigs was like a punk anthem playing in a concert hall. It was visceral, vicious and communicated the reality of daily life as a 20-something Irish person mooching on the dole or in a rubbish job in a way nothing from the great Irish dramatic pantheon ever could.
7. The bog road
by Barry Keegan
There’s a burgeoning Irish independent comic book scene, often rooted in traditional mythology. Barry Keegan’s Laois-set graphic novel (2018) delves into Ireland’s pagan past and how it continues to inform our present. It’s gorgeous and disquieting – and also addresses the often uneasy intertwining of paganism and Christianity that for centuries forged Irish identity.
8. Where’s me jumper?
By Sultans of Ping FC
Love them or loathe them, there is no doubt that U2 cast an inescapable shadow over Irish music. In Dublin, especially, the sheer gravity of their success has historically made it difficult for other bands to stand out. Perhaps that is why, during the Nineties, all the most interesting Irish music was happening in cities other than the capital. Belfast had Therapy?, Limerick The Cranberries. And Cork had the twin assault of indie dreamers The Frank and Walters and punk absurdists the Sultans of Ping. It is the latter’s Where’s Me Jumper? (1992) that surely deserves its place in the Irish rock hall of fame. Where so much Irish music is slathered in sincerity, the Sultans were cheeky, subversive and pretentious – three words rarely associated with home grown musicians, alas.
9. Rory’s story cubes
As pointed out above, in 2019 “culture” doesn’t just mean the stuff you consume gazing at the printed page or at a screen. Rory O’Connor, from Dublin, has created one of the biggest phenomena in board gaming with his “story cubes”. These are dice embossed with images of animals, objects and weather. You roll them and use them as the inspiration to weave a story. O’Connor says they aren’t so much a game as a “story-telling device” – an idea that arguably springs from our very Irish love of spinning a tall tale.
10. Fairytale of New York
By The Pogues One of the trials of Irishness is having to navigate other people’s idea of what it is to be from the old country. St Patrick’s Day is the stereotypical example – an American emigrant holiday built on green bear and corned beef. In the arts, the same phenomenon is at play with groups such as The Pogues.
Though their links to Ireland run deep, Shane MacGowan is from Tunbridge Wells and his experiences are those of a second generation Irish person, not someone born to the sod. His great 1988 anthem is misty-eyed and has a undeniable emotional punch.
But it is also drowning in self pity, its veins pulsing with 99pc proof maudlin. Some of us will thus argue that the Pogues are the equivalent of a ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’ jumper and that the second generation band who most truly convey what it is to be Irish are The Smiths. Their songs coursed with dark wit, melancholy and sexual hang-ups – and you don’t get more Irish than that.
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