Wednesday 2 May 2012

Snap, Craickle and Pop: The Controversy of Popular Gaelicisation

Ever since Ireland was told that the black stuff might not be Irish, but rather a porter stout from Covent Garden, the country has descended into a frantic state of uncertain soul-searching and impassioned reflection to clarify once and for all what is actually ‘Irish’ (potatoes, Gaelic Storm, and Saint Patrick aside).

But now the most quintessentially ‘Irish’ institution of them all is under intense academic scrutiny, the much celebrated notion of ‘the craic’ (and that’s before considering the devastating impact this may have on the tourist industry). 

Now, this isn’t to say that we’re losing our humour, but rather are embroiled in an intense etymological debate that discredits ‘craic’ as a recent invention of bleary-eyed romantics and multi-millionaire tourist tycoons.

One of the leading figures in the anti-craic camp is Diarmaid O’Muirithe, a retired senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin who now keeps his hand in through a weekly column in the Irish Times in which he examines the origin and meaning of words. 

Mr. O’Muirithe has this to say on the issue:

 “The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word crack as craic sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one; hence we find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be…”

“The English Dialect Dictionary (Wright’s) deals at length with crack, a word still in use from the English midlands to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It gives crack as ‘1. talk, conversation, gossip, chat’. In this context [Walter] Scott uses it in Rob Roy (1817), ‘I maun hai a crack wil an auld acquaintance here’. ‘The friendly crack, the cheerfulsang’, wrote a lesser Caledonian, Picken, in 1813. 2. A tale, a good story or joke; gossip, scandal.  'A' cracks are not tae be trow'd', is a Scots proverb.”

It transpires that the word crack is of Middle English or old Scots origin, and crossed the Irish Sea to Ulster a few centuries ago and there it remained unadulterated. The Gaelicised version is apparently because the Irish alphabet has no ‘k’, and due to its change has become open to a change in definition: namely miscreant behaviour, mischief and devilment.

Another theory as outlined on Wikipedia is that, “Now, 'craic' is interpreted as a specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun. The adoption of the Gaelic spelling has reinforced the sense that this is an independent word (homophone) rather than a separate sense of the original word (polysemy).” Is the word craic, though a modern phenomenon, indeed a homophone for crack rather than an alternate spelling?

This isn’t to attack either word, but to extend the debate to you fine folk to see if craic and crack can be distinguished once and for all, and to have both words assume their true position within the vernacular.

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Saturday 14 April 2012

Clinkers, Rivets and Flatcaps: Celebrating Titanic and the Men Who Built Her.

The panicked screams of the dying could be heard long after Titanic broke in two and finally slipped under the icy waters of the North Atlantic. By the time the last voices faded and the inky dark became silence once more, over 1,500 souls had met a terrifying and lonely fate.

The disaster was a human tragedy from start to finish, the consequences made even more poignant by a sequence of poor and hurried decision making from conception to demise.

There were not enough lifeboats, a decision made to ensure more walking space on the First Class promenade. And when disaster struck, many of the lifeboats lowered held only a mere handful of their potential capacity. The bulkheads didn't reach the top decks, leaving room for flooding and over-spilling should breaching occur. Multiple ice warnings were received, and ignored, on the nights leading to the sinking.

The crossing was hurried, precautions devalued. And when the iceberg was finally spotted, the fatal call was made to turn to starboard, in an instant bringing all the other issues to a head. While a head on impact would have crumbled the bow, Titanic would have remained afloat. By trying, and failing to avoid the collision, Titanic's hull was slashed open and she began to sink.

The names of the dead are immortalised, mourned and reverently remembered, while the testimony of the survivors are forever etched in the annals of history.

But 2,000 miles to the east, the disaster had far reaching impact on a forgotten people who never sailed on Titanic, yet are forever entwined with her story. Within its limited scope, this piece aims to bring to light those Belfast shipbuilders who invested their blood, sweat and tears in turning blueprints and dreams into a steel framed reality.

Belfast in the early twentieth century was a city defined by shipbuilding. Of the approximately 250,000 people who lived in and around the capital, a little over 10,000 were employed at the docks, with 3,000 of them employed to build Titanic. It was a laborious project that took three years to complete and at a cost of over $7.5million. She was built largely by hand, with each major component individually constructed and assembled in the muddy banks of Harland and Wolff.

Despite the hard graft and toil, the building of Titanic was an impressive enterprise undertaken with vigour and determination by the largest shipyard in the world. Bram Stoker wrote that Harland and Wolff had ‘omnipresent evidence of genius and forethought; of experience and skill; of organisation complete and triumphant.’

And behind the clink of hammers on metal and the shouting humdrum of the shipyard lay the drive, vision and industrial genius of County Down native Thomas Andrews. Andrews was an able and ambitious young man who felt at ease in the fast paced world of shipbuilding, and by the turn of the century had risen to become an engineering superstar. At the tender age of 34, he had begun to oversee the development of the Titanic, and two years later in 1909 had become her principal architect. But Andrews was not alone at the giddy heights of the Titanic development project, rather working in conjunction with another local man, 1st Viscount William Pirrie, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast and chairman of Harland and Wolff. Pirrie was man of experience and stature, Andrews a visionary and innovator. Together they would develop, implement and launch a legacy that would enter legend.

Despite the ship's mythical heritage, however, there was an intimacy to the Titanic project. Horses and carts trawled colossal lumps of metal through the streets of Belfast where onlookers gazed with amazement and admiration at the physical manifestation of Belfast's industrial might. Statistics may have told the populous of Belfast's strength in the terms of columns and ledgers, but its tangible reality was what made an impression.

The ship's builders lived within striking distance of the docks, many living under the shadows of the monstrous vessels they constructed. They lived by the beckon call of the dock’s hooter, coming and going at the whim of a sharp blast of air for a mere £2 per week. The average labourer worked an average of just under 10 hours each day, often exposed to highly dangerous conditions. The technology may have advanced, but for the men using horses and carts, wooden supports and ropes to build these megaliths of steel, life was frequently in the balance. Eight workers died building Titanic, with a 15 year old boy falling to his death when he slipped on a ladder. He had lived on Templemore Street, just over a mile from the docks.

Titanic and her sister ships towered above everything around. Contemporary photographs show Titanic as she was, the biggest ship of the time, so big that her dry dock was reminiscent of the throne of a god. They were focal points on the south side of the Lagan, and the pride the ships instilled in the city should not be underestimated. Contemporary reports note that when news of her sinking reached the town on April 16, grown men were seen crying in the streets and a mood of sobriety hung over the shipyards. It was as if the collective parent, Belfast, had lost a child and it would be a very long time until the story would be talked about in everyday conversation.

It is, almost to the moment, 100 years since Titanic collided with the iceberg and vanished forever. Such a historical landmark has led Belfast to a seminal point in its relationship with the liner. A sense of full circle prevails, and nowhere can this been seen as prominently as The Titanic Belfast project built on the site of the old shipyards. The respectful and revised statement of learning, remembrance, and architecture that the centre exudes is only part of a countrywide movement to connect Titanic.

As one man from Belfast said to me recently, ‘it is not something to forget.’

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Wednesday 11 April 2012

The Problems of Centralised Government: The Ill-considered Constraints on Economic Recovery in Northern Ireland

Nobody will argue that the United Kingdom is in choppy financial waters. On March 26, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development charted the cost of Britain's recession at a cumulative output loss of £87 billion, or 6% of GDP.

All very interesting, but what do cold percentages and unqualified numbers mean for the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?  The simple answer is a drop in real wages and a critical lack of jobs.

The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland currently stands at around 7%, taking the number of people claiming unemployment benefit to over 60,700. And while at 7% Northern Ireland is still below the national average of just over 8%, a 2009 survey found that the greatest increase in Job Seeker Allowance came from the 30 mile radius of Magherafelt, Dungannon and Cookstown. The area has a relatively low population base to begin with, but considering that the biggest employer is construction, the downturn in the housing market has been devastating for mid-Ulster.

Northern Ireland finds itself in a difficult situation. To the south it sees the discovery of oil off Cork as well as big business investments across the ROI from Beijing and Washington. Across the water, Scotland rumbles with the politics of independence, while England is occupied with maintaining the Union on the one hand, while ensuring London continues to enjoy its place as a global leader on the other.

The mounting sense of insecurity has left the country in an unenviable position, where the only comfort comes from the promise of external investment or industrious business ideas within. It was with open arms, therefore, that the country received news that over 7,500 jobs were pledged by foreign investors during a three-year period. But it was not without Northern Irish energies, as it was locally-based Invest NI that had stimulated the interest with a tempting chunk of Government-sourced capital.

Invest NI has spent £1.5 billion in the nine years since its inception, promoting an estimated 42,600 new jobs, safeguarding an additional 19,400 positions and securing £5.5 billion worth of investment in the local economy. While this success is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the vast majority of its triumphs recorded between 2008 and 2011, the economic stimulus that Invest NI has afforded to Northern Ireland must not go unnoticed.

Which is why the Government's decision to  limit the reach of an organisation with a proven and growing record of success in stimulating the Northern Irish economy is baffling. From 2013, the country will be prohibited from proceeding as it has, lest Belfast enjoy an unfair advantage over other parts of the UK in seeking investment. Furthermore, Business Secretary, Vince Cable has plans to recall Northern Ireland’s 100 per cent status for regional aid, which will have the effect of restricting Invest NI’s ability to offer financial assistance to all but a handful of economic areas designated as being most deprived. And this is despite intense lobbying by senior members of the Stormont Parliament.

Historically, the success rate enjoyed by Invest NI has been drawn from the ability to extend economic opportunities to companies throughout Northern Ireland, but without the 100 per cent incentive, foreign investment will have to be encouraged by alternative means.

But the nature of British economics is such that if one part of the country succeeds, the rest does by default, and while the stimulus would be more acutely felt in Northern Ireland, the impact is farther reaching. Why then, with the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting the unemployment rate to rise from its current level of 8.4 per cent to 8.7 per cent and public sector net debt to a peak of 76.3 per cent by 2014-15, would Westminster find it a sound judgement to restrict one of its four constituent nations?

The government claims to be simply exercising a policy on the small scale that mirrors one in Brussels; namely that the EU prevents government funds being used in a way that can be deemed to unfairly advantage one country over another. But aside from the irony that the Conservatives are stepping to the beat of Europe, the fact remains that this legislation also allows member states to continue with stimulus if the area in question qualifies the need for support: which Northern Ireland certainly does.

And one way to help achieve this in accordance with EU laws is through the distinctly Conservative notion of enterprise zones. A remnant of the Thatcher era, enterprise zones have been reintroduced across England, Scotland and Wales, bringing with them tax breaks and rate holidays as incentives for business to relocate and existing businesses to thrive. They are successful ventures, as Duncrue Industrial Estate demonstrates on the local level and Canary Wharf on the global scale.

It is arguable that reintroducing the scheme to Northern Ireland would help to cushion the blow of the new restrictions placed on Invest NI should the removal of the 100 per cent regional aid status pass in spite of Stormont's efforts to fight the move.  Enterprise zones would also carry with them the potential to help redress the heretofore lopsided economic balance of the country by helping to stimulate business in the previously mentioned areas west of the Bann, as well as other historically economically deprived areas. With another avenue for the expansion of established companies on the one hand, and fresh growth on the other, the government would lawfully enjoy the fruits of an economic stimulus without betraying the status quo of its ideology.

And then there is the more pressing issue of Corporation Tax. Despite plans to reduce it to 22 per cent by 2014 with an overall medium term aim of 20 per cent, Northern Ireland would still find itself at a considerable disadvantage when placed alongside the generous 12.5 per cent offered in the Republic. To see proof that a low Corporation Tax does generate foreign investment one only need consider that multinationals account for roughly a quarter of Irish GDP. US companies doubled their investment in the Republic in the first half of 2011 on top of fivefold growth in the past ten years, and former US President Bill Clinton has been personally encouraging his fellow countrymen to invest in Ireland due to the competitive tax rates. In principle this writer can understand support for the economic theories of consumer and industry spending, and with greater tax breaks for business comes the opportunity to increase real wages, offer employment and reinvest in the local infrastructure.

Emphasising this point is a report by a new trade union-funded think tank, Nevin Economic Research Institute who in their first Quarterly Economic Observer report recommended an All-Island spending stimulus package by the Republic with 15 billion euro going to the Republic itself and an additional five billion euro being offered to Northern Ireland. They admit it won’t represent a fix-all, but rather claim that it will help the economy to gather momentum in the short-term, leading to a projected long-term boost to the island’s growth capacity. The package is advised over a five year period beginning in 2013, and it is predicted to result in the creation of 262,000 jobs and a rise of 25 billion euro in GDP.

This is arguably one area in which Westminster needs to accelerate devolution of power to Northern Ireland who, in spite of similar demands by Scotland, is the only UK country to share a border - and to some extent resources, consumers and a workforce - with another EU country. If Northern Ireland is to get back on its feet it must be given the tools required to match in real terms its southern neighbour’s competitive Corporation Tax rates in order to stand a chance of garnering its share of interest bestowed on the Republic by powerful foreign investors.

Business Alliance members recently released a statement in which they specifically pinpoint the issue of reducing Corporation Tax as a key issue requiring focus on delivering a positive decision by the summer.

Recovery is certainly possible, and the mechanisms to achieve it are firmly in place. So why does the government feel that curbing growth in the province is the most prudent course of action? Well, to be perfectly honest, your guess is as good as mine.

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Tuesday 27 March 2012

Political Progress and Educational Sectarianism: Addressing Religious Schooling in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s past echoes with the haunted politics of division, its communities littered with the graves of over 3,000 victims of shameful brutality. When Peter Robinson spat that, ‘the only input that Unionists want into the Anglo-Irish Conference is a stick of gelignite’, not even the most ardent optimist would have predicted that he would one day attend a GAA match as the honoured guest of Martin McGuinness.

But the progress is real and it is, I daresay, sincere. In only two years did the widely-heralded patriarch of entrenched Unionism Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley reverse his line from, ‘we are not going into government with Sinn Fein’, to, ‘we must not allow our loathing of the tragedies of the past to become a barrier to a better future.’

Shaking his hands with Mr Paisley in the halls of Stormont, it is nigh impossible to equate the Martin McGuinness of, ‘I haven't done anything that I'm ashamed of’, to the progressive politician who has learned the hard lessons of a misguided youth.

And Northern Ireland’s modern politics of progress are neatly mirrored in the geography of the country.

Spectators looking out on the Belfast of the second decade of the twenty-first century are greeted by a vibrant and optimistic city. Colour flows through her streets, heartfelt music dribbles out of its pores. It is a cosmopolitan, bohemian culture where students mingle with working professionals. And it is not surprising, for a city rescued from the despairing grip of wartime violence as recently as Belfast can do nothing else but blossom with tenacity and intent.

And the schools are doing well. GCSE and A-Level results in Northern Ireland are the best in the United Kingdom. Modern teaching methods are complemented by updated facilities, and with increasingly stable socio-political conditions, young people in Northern Ireland can come together to build upon the progress already enjoyed across the country.

But one contentious point remains very much at the centre of the country’s school system, and that is the role of faith-based education. The statistics released by the Department of Education in 2011 reveal that just over 4,000 nursery school children attend a denominational play group, with over 65,000 of the country’s teenagers in segregated secondary education.

We no longer live in the era of different histories, but it is of academic importance to note the patterns of where the Irish language is, and is not, taught. Outside of the classroom, stand-offs continue in the sport’s field between caid-influenced football and rugby, hurling and hockey. And threaded through all these facets is the ever-present influence of religion.

Whether by design or by the circumstance of tradition, schools in Northern Ireland prescribe young people with a pre-determined notion of identity. This is not to say that religious education and Christian values are without place in modern Northern Ireland. The issue lies with perpetuating a sectarian school system in a country recovering from three decades of religious turmoil. One does not fight fire with fire.

And the state of the economy doesn’t help matters either. As job prospects dwindle, uncertain and directionless youths are being offered prospects of sorts with terrorist organisations. The Financial Times spoke of the downturn as, ‘a recruiting sergeant for dissident republican [sic.] groups’, with the recent resurgence of radical IRA organisations serving to strike an alarming chord.

Households Below Average Incomes figures between 2005 and 2008 reported that 48 per cent of children in Northern Ireland lived in poverty, with 21 per cent classed as living in ‘persistent poverty’. When these numbers are coupled with the country’s lack of vocational opportunity and the attraction of paramilitary groups, one can only question the true meaning of promising examination results and political progress.

And politics, education and the economy are not mutually exclusive. Each facet plays into the other, in turn determining the effectiveness and implication of the next. Nationalist and Unionist politicians can sit in the modern Stormont and talk about the future until they are blue in the face, but nothing will come of it unless they proactively address the interests of children.

Community groups across Northern Ireland are doing fantastic work in uniting the people, young and old, but this could be lost on future generations unless lasting grassroots changes are recorded. And to do that, Northern Ireland needs to see integrated education. Children are in need of a daily reminder that there is more to the country than the members of their own community.

The idea is not a new one. First Minister Peter Robinson spoke of the importance of integrated education in 2011, but despite promises, very little visible progress has been made. For all the good Mr Robinson and his colleague Mr. McGuinness are doing, this most crucial of considerations is being inexplicably overlooked.

It would be a tragic error to allow anything to hinder the rejuvenation of Northern Ireland, especially if that barrier is the remnants of a dying culture of division. Progress is built upon familiarity and cross-community cooperation, but the existence of denominational education counteracts this at an early point in a child’s development, and continues throughout their school career. This academic incongruity fights alongside fading archaic notions of yore, engaged in a determined tug-of-war with the new and progressive Northern Ireland.

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Thursday 15 March 2012

Ages of Myth and Legend: The Two Lives of Saint Patrick

Unravelling and presenting a plausible and coherent narrative of any historical event not only demands a great deal of caution and astute evaluation from the historian, but also an unsettling divorce from the sheltered confines of historical mythology. Our past is littered with the corpses of so-called historical truths, the erroneous attribution of ‘let them eat cake’ to Marie-Antoinette, the emotive corruption of the ‘glorious massacre’ of Custer at Little Bighorn and the misplaced titling of the ‘Battle of Hastings’ to name but a few.
            But when dealing with the period directly following the fall of Rome, that uncertain blur of intermingled fact and legend loosely entitled ‘The Dark Ages’, the historian must adhere to a greater deal of scholarly caution than anywhere else in post-recorded history. Here is an era of rumour, scant records and destructive human interaction; a time characterised by movement, disruption and frequent redefinition.
St Patrick
            Within such confines, addressing but one small aspect of an overall uncertain field of study, that of Saint Patrick and his role in Ireland, is a task that is far from straightforward in spite or perhaps because of primary sources such as The Confessio, written by the man himself, which is both understandably bias and frustratingly vague.  Records are tenuous, to say the least and the influence of myth, strong. And while Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, contemporary testimony strongly suggests otherwise.
            Modern studies of the historical Patrick are based around a variant of T.F O’Rahilly’s Two Patrick’s Theory, suggesting that a great deal of what has traditionally been attributed to Patrick was rather the work of Palladius and his followers who preceded him in Ireland. Palladius was sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine I in what we can safely interpret as an attempt to check the ever-growing Pelagain Heresy. In turn, Palladius was charged with consolidating the work of Saint Ciaran Saighir the Elder through active interaction with the island’s existing, and distinctly burgeoning Christian community. Palladius was mostly active in Leinster, reinvigorating Christian ideals to the extent that he became Ireland’s first bishop as well as a saint. Further fusing the men together is a contemporary confusion of names, a relative chronological proximity, and the mistaken idea that Patrick was active across Ireland, whereas in fact he was most likely confined to Ulster and parts of Connacht. It was Secundinus, for example, a colleague of Palladius, who founded the famous Dunshughlin near Tara. It was also Secundinus who wrote the contemporary work known as the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick. Adding to the confusion and entangled interactions is a host of imbalanced histories. Prosper’s Chronicle does not even mention Patrick, but instead Palladius. By contrast, the Annals of Ulster radiates with uncertainty as more than one Patrick appears to be recorded.

457: ‘Repose of the elder Patrick, as some books state.’
461: ‘Here some record the repose of Patrick’
492: ‘The Irish state here that Patrick the Archbishop died.’
493: ‘Patrick... apostle of the Irish, rested on the 16th day before the Kalends of April...’

            In time, the confusion over who did what, and the irritating evidence that Patrick had not, in fact, brought Christianity to Ireland became a bit a problem for Patrick's hagiographers. Men such as Muirchu moccu Machtheni opted to downplay Palladius with false testimony, writing ‘[n]o one can receive from earth what has not been given by heaven: Palladius was denied success... and he himself did not wish to spend a long time in a foreign country.’ With the die cast, Muirchu builds upon Palladius’s apparent lack of staying power by disregarding his consecration as a mere Vatican procedure. Readers of the Life of Saint Patrick will also be misinformed that Palladius was appointed Ireland in 431, Patrick in 432. In 432, as will be presented below, Patrick was only beginning to forge his presence in Ireland. Muirchu also conveniently negotiates away from Palladius’s seniority to Patrick.
            But it is essential to note that Palladius and Patrick had, for all intents and purposes, different objectives in Ireland. While Palladius was there first, he had gone to Ireland to work with the already-converted. Patrick, by contrast, took his work to those still relatively untouched by the Christian doctrine. And while Palladius’s role in Irish history deserves further recognition, this most singularly important of distinctions is what allows Patrick to stride past Palladius in the annals of Christian history.
Slemish, Co. Antrim where Patrick is said
to have tended sheep as a slave
            Born of Roman blood in the northern English settlement of Banna Venta Berniae in the late 380s, Patrick was brought to Ireland by raiders as a child where he was enslaved as a shepherd on the slopes of Slemish (although this is contested by Killala Bay, County Mayo). Attributing his misfortune to an abandonment of faith, Patrick embarked upon a near obsessive investment in Christianity, seeking influence and learning at every available instant. Eventually, according to Patrick’s own testimony, he heard a voice that he accredited to God who exclaimed, ‘it is good that you fast… look, your ship is ready.’
            Taking it as a sign to flee, Patrick escaped back to England to enter the seminary, before crossing the Irish Sea for a third time as a fully ordained man of the Christian faith. He cited his motive as a vision in which the native Irish had issued him with a plea for religious awakening. While clear of spiritual conscience, Patrick faced with a career that was both testing and frequently dangerous. Patrick was criticised on the manner of his faith by his followers, was placed under curse and suspicion by druids – the same people he prescribed as having little direction or coherence within native religion – and at times was imprisoned and bound, facing execution. He was even put on trial by his elders for what he vaguely describes as an ‘arduous escapa[d]e’ during his bishophood.
            Despite the difficulties that defined his existence, Patrick was a prolific institutionalist and champion of Christian dogma, criss-crossing the northern part of the island to spread, establish and maintain his chosen religion.  And while he is famed for sending the snakes from Ireland (albeit the product of legend as archaeological findings show that snakes have not existed in Ireland since before the last Ice Age) and illustrating the Holy Trinity by the leaves of the shamrock (an attribution first recorded in 1726 by Englishman Caleb Threlkeld), it is Patrick’s edificial record that is the most tangible indicator of his influence. With little external help, Patrick was granted land in Saul, County Down in 432 by a local chieftain, Dichu, building his first church on the site before moving onto consolidate Armagh’s place as the centre of Irish Christianity by 445. Here he built a grand cathedral that still stands to this day, and developed a town at its base. In 457, the Annals of the Four Masters records that,

‘Ard Mhacha was founded by Saint Patrick, it having been granted to him by Daire, son of Finnchadh,
son of Eoghan, son of Niallan. Twelve men were appointed by him for building the town. He ordered
them, in the first place, to erect an archbishop's city there, and a church for monks, for nuns, and for the
other orders in general, for he perceived that it would be the head and chief of the churches of Ireland
in general.’

            Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland, rather dismantled traditional religious practice and vigorously fostered his own. While a cynical scholar might point to his strengthening of Christian foundations as a fertile plot for later sectarianism, they would also miss the point. What Patrick did for Ireland, if unintentionally, was to lay the foundation for what has become a celebration of pan-Irish identity that was already being observed by the Irish in the tenth century. The eighteenth century saw the rise of green as a national icon, as well as a more widespread adoption of the shamrock. This tradition became more vigorous after 1903 when his feast day became a public holiday, and today has spread to become a global phenomenon.
            There is no question that the modern Saint Patrick’s Day has long overtaken Saint Patrick the man. But despite this, Saint Patrick’s Day is a beautiful and worthy event. While a little gaudy and often slightly drunk around the edges, March 17 encourages all Irish communities to unite in celebration of traditions developed from each of their cultural backgrounds. But it still worth remembering that this distinctly international sense of ‘Ireland’, and the powerful importance of a singular identity that it promotes, could not have been so without the slave boy from Banna Venta Berniae.  

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Wednesday 7 March 2012

More Irish Than Ireland: The Curious Phenomenon of Irish-Americanism

In a flurry of flamboyant rhetoric and quixotic reflection, President Obama triumphantly proclaimed on March 1 that March 2012 was to be officially designated, ‘Irish-American Heritage Month.’ During his address the President described the Irish as, ‘sons and daughters of Erin’ and encouraged his fellow citizens, ‘to observe this month by celebrating the contributions of Irish Americans to our Nation.’

The move is not without merit. Out of a population of 313 million, a little over 36 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, with 22 of their Presidents, including Mr Obama, being descended from a son or daughter of Erin. Even our accent remains prominent in American intonation in some regions.

Concentration of Americans who claim Irish ancestry according to the 2000 Census

The two nations are old friends. Ireland’s relationship with North America goes as far back as the early colonial period of the seventeenth century, if not earlier when Irish monks claim to have landed on the east coast in the middle ages.

Immigrants arriving in the New World were presented with a beautiful, but potentially fatal invitation; to go forth, prosper and help to bring about a New World founded on Christian principles. The idea was stirring and the romance appealing, and aware that there was no way back, the settlers had no choice but to give life to the dream.

The colonies were divided up into various social groupings, and many Irish found themselves headed to the Appalachia where they helped to push the frontier forward and forge a unique identity in the eastern hinterlands. Irish settlers faced the same problems as their fellow migrants across the colonies; hard graft, uncertainty and bloody encounters with Indians. Perseverance was key, and bolstered by tens of thousands more of their kinsmen, the Irish moved forward with tenacity.

With them came their culture and ideas of society, and importantly their music. Irish music, fused with traditions and influences of other folk musicians, made a marked impact in the cultural evolution of early America, eventually evolving into bluegrass and country. If settlers could counterbalance the hardships of daily life with the rousing rhythms and melodies of a céilí¸ they could, in turn, use music as a psychological tool in conquering the interior. As late as the 1860s and 1870s, Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer used the Limerick air Garryowen on his campaigns against Plains Indians.    

While important, music alone is not enough to explain the insatiable American romance with Ireland and the celebration of all things Celtic thrust upon, and relished by, the descendants of the Irish in America. And this New World interpretation of Irish culture has teeth, with 150,000 people expected at the New York Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and a further 2 million lining the streets.

The Chicago River is dyed green each year for St. Patrick's Day

What made the stereotyped sociable, happy-go-lucky and dreamy-eyed Irishman into an American icon was twofold: the sheer numbers of Irish immigrants and the people they spawned. From the much-loved yarn-spinners of Ireland came such men as Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy and Billy the Kid. Two Presidents and an outlaw; men such as these allowed the Irish to claim a place in American culture that went beyond the fun-loving friend of all. What people such as Jackson, Kennedy and The Kid did was to put the Irish at the forefront of American legend.

Greatly helping things along was the almost continual immigration of the Irish to the New World. Upwards of 250,000 migrated to America during the colonial era alone. Two centuries later nothing had changed, with almost 2 million arriving between 1820 and 1860. The sheer numbers reflect the appalling conditions in Ireland, and most had left due to hardships such as persecution and famine.

But this did nothing to destroy Irish pride, and in the New World, many felt at liberty to display it more prominently than they had at home. The Irish clung together in the cities, forging strongholds such as Boston, New York and Chicago, where they settled in close proximity and were voted into government, their identity enhanced as a form of neo-tribal marker. For those who risked it and headed west, their ideas came with them, as did their involvement in frontier affairs.

This caricatured injection of ‘Ireland’ that the immigrant culture developed was well nurtured by the promise of America and flourished. When this is considered within the greater context of American historical identity, it is clear that the contribution of the Irish is as important as that of the Founding Fathers or the cowboys, some of whom were of Irish descent themselves.  

(with credit to Malachi Throne, Bertha Howell, George Grantham Bain, Anne S. Faulkner, Alice Boughton, and Maurice Carnes LaClaire, unaffiliated.)
But today there is a difference. The great waves of Irish migrants have petered away to droplets, and the increasing majority of Irish-Americans are many generations removed from their Irish-born forbearers. The curious thing is that these people, born and bred in the United States of America, reflect favourably on a country which is, for all intents and purposes, alien to them. Shamrock power is not to be taken lightly in America, with countless Irish-American societies keeping the notions of the Old World alive in a polished, New World fashion.

From this has developed a fondness close to obsession that serves to perpetuate the cartoon Irishman, the Plastic Paddy on the one hand, and to generalise Irish history with romantic notions of justice and poetry on the other. A joint portrayal of this all-Irish-American hero is perhaps most aptly demonstrated in the film Far and Away. And while Irish-American culture is certainly identifiable to a native of the island of Ireland, it is also very much removed from what we know to be Irish. Many traditional musicians for one find the music greatly differs, complaining bitterly about the jazzing up of sacred rhythms; and when have you ever met a fellow-Irishman who regards ‘corned beef and cabbage’ to be the staple fare on St Patrick’s Day?

The New World notion of Irish has become an identity tag of weight in America, and in doing so has allowed the actual native born Irish to flirt a little more outrageously with their stereotype. This writer for one readily admits to abusing the ‘Irish card’ on more than one occasion whilst in New York and having had it received well. The environment allows it, that subtle whiff of the colonial still lingers even today. Americans are certain of their position, but they also seek certain groundings and associations that go back to another place and time.

American tourism to Ireland is big business, and a dollar or six can be made from importing Irish jewellery and emerald paraphernalia. Money flies back and forth across the Atlantic, with Dublin receiving marked investment by big, prospering American businesses. But while the eager accommodation of the old ways is endearing, it must also be treated carefully. Irish culture is neither a stagnant entity nor an interactive museum piece, but an-ever evolving social concept. American eagerness can at times be forbearing, laying claim to another nation with a zoo-esque approach to interaction. Laced among this is the sometimes crude understanding of Irish politics that led to the infamous scandal of American organisations collecting money for the IRA. While this applies only to a small minority of Irish-Americans, it is not an affair to be taken lightly. Celebrating an ancestral culture is one thing, but actively and potentially destructively interfering in the current affairs of a foreign nation is another.

The big question to ask is why Irish-Americans label themselves thus, and not simply as unhyphenated Americans? The answer lies in the problem of romantic gloss. Ireland, while beautiful is a boggy country with lots of rocks and boulders. Its people, while good-natured and friendly, are concerned with the simple things in life and value the importance of being allowed to go about their business in a distinctly understated fashion. The decidedly populist notion of the fighting Irish rogue spinning tales in a misty nation of Blarney and bodhráns is an increasingly Stateside portrayal of the Irish. While historically homogeneous, the Irish and the Irish-American are two distinctly different cultures, and while some of those born on the island may happily don a leprechaun suit and drink whiskey till they sing to their shoes, this is only one of many sides to a native of the island of Ireland. 

Nor is it simply a case of throwing out the Brits and having a massive stout-infused piss up after the fact.

And it is due to these differences and occasional misconceptions that Irish-American Heritage Month finds its true importance as Irish people of all backgrounds can unite in an exercise of exchange and education. Ireland gave America unrestricted access to a romantic notion of Ireland, as well as some of the key building blocks to their nation. Chicago native Michael Flatley gave us Riverdance, Boston gave us the Dropkick Murphys, whose song ‘Shipping up to Boston’ is played during Irish Rugby matches, and politicians such as Bill Clinton gave us cross-Atlantic attention and support. Now it is time to redress the balance. Ireland can hope to learn what Irish-Americans actually think without getting caught up in the smokescreen of fluorescent shamrocks and invasive exuberance. By contrast, America should take time to drop preconceived notions of the fighting Irishman, and instead become better acquainted with what it actually means to be of this island through learning about its history and social expectations. This is not a month for bars, pubs and brawls at 4am on Broadway; this is a month to become properly reacquainted with old friends.

So Mr Obama, thank you for a very kind gesture as it is one that we are very much humbled by. And if we manage to beat England at the rugby on Saint Paddy’s Day, will be sure to attribute the win to you.

The White House Fountain dyed green for St Patrick's Day

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Thursday 1 March 2012

The Old World Melting Pot: Nationalism, Regionalism and Identity in Modern Ireland

George William Russell once said of Ireland that, ‘after the spiritual powers, there is nothing in the world more unconquerable than [its] spirit of nationality.’ History has interpreted this as Russell most likely intended it, namely as a loaded reflection on his own political bias, but the linguistic scholar will be quick to point out that ‘nationality’ is far more than a vehicle for political belief. It is, in its truest essence, a marker of place and identity.

But the concept of Irish identity is an entirely complex one. Not only is the island fragmented along the much mulled-over socio-religious split, its border and the political loyalties within, but also the long-standing heritage of regionalism and  provincialism. There is no easy answer to, ‘where are you from?’, and while people usually provide a simple, and indeed satisfactory, response, regardless of their official geopolitical tag, the truest description of Irish personal identity is highly developed and often impossible for outsiders to grasp. And that’s before one even considers the influence of the EU on both Dublin and on Belfast.

Ireland the island, both the Republic and the North, can be divided into six key descriptors.

  1. The smallest, and most ancient marker: townland (from tuath, denoting an enclosure). Unique to Ireland. For example Cahermaclanchy , County Clare and Shillanavogy, County Antrim.

  1. Towns and cities might follow, if living in an urban environment.

  1. The next largest divider (dismissing Borough Councils) is the county. For example Louth or Waterford.

  1. Then comes one of four provinces; Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht.

  1.  Following this is the geopolitical decider of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

  1. Then, and perhaps the most tricky for those in the North, is whether the individual is Irish, Northern Irish, British or a mixture of all three.

But this is all purely academic, for in reality, few people will rattle off all six. Most will opt for point two, five or six, occasionally three. Even here, however, the concept is hazy, as nobody will say the same thing as the next. And herein lies the crux of the issue. What does it actually mean to be from the island of Ireland?

In ancient times it was a strictly provincial concept, further subdivided by local kingdoms, clans and ruling families. Not that this mattered to the common man, as the daily life and cultural behaviours of each region was closely related and family would have been the primary marker of identification for the masses. And so it remained until 1541, when the single Kingdom of Ireland was created by the occupying politics of Westminster, once and for all forcing the Irish to subscribe to the heretofore alien notion of nationhood. Not that this meant that the island as a whole was its own ruler under a single, accepted government; it never has been. Nor was it ever a united country, much to the dismay of modern romantics.

And so Ireland moved into the early modern period and beyond with scrambled and uncertain concepts of identity, largely dictated by the divisive legacy of conquest. Further confusing the issue was the notion of post-Reformation Christianity. From the early medieval era until this point, Ireland had been Christian, if in a unique form in many ways foreign to accepted Roman Catholicism. But the advent of Protestantism and the forceful policies of Tudor and Elizabethan planters gave rise to a cultural divide still being negotiated to this day; the labelling of people as Catholic or Protestant, as opposed to simply Christian.

But it would be erroneous to accept that the sectarian divide of the modern day has been continuous since the Plantation. One has only to point to the highly popular and nationwide United Irishmen movement that attracted supporters on both sides of the religious divide.

If the current social ghettoisation is not down to continual, if habitually recurring, sectarianism of the kind that finally undid the United Irishmen, nor is it the result of social incompatibility. The Scots and Irish share more than many in the current day are willing or able to acknowledge (see ‘Shared Origins’ article for more information). On the contrary, it is largely due to confused and desperate attempts to forge security out of the ruins of conquest. 
Ireland has never been the golden chalice of promise as believed by some, and those who point to the Battle of the Boyne as a way to sure their argument are grossly misinformed. As Winston Churchill tellingly put it, ‘we have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.’ In the rawest evaluation, the modern problems of identity are the direct result of external influence.

These conflicting ideas of nationalism, regionalism and identity are highly tangled and largely contradictory notions that fail to see the bigger and more important picture; the inhabitants of Ireland are culturally and genetically the same, and share the same linguistic origins. This is largely ignored, forgotten and dismissed, and as Conor Cruise O'Brien observed, ‘Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it.’

Inhabitants of the island are torn and confused by the situation, and the scholar must look no further that the highly romanticised notions of pan-Celticism and the idea of a pure Celtic race, made popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These notions were the construct of desperate idealism, born in a climate of frustration and uncertainty due to the political machinations of Ireland being torn apart by various claimants, and given weight by the poetic musings of the likes of William Butler Yeats. Yeats, a Protestant, reflected fondly on the idea that Ireland should cast off the constraints of external rule and forge a modern interpretation of Celtic identity. The fact that ‘Celtic’ in this sense was a recent fabrication seems not to have entered into his thinking.
Indeed not all were convinced, not least of who was Yeats' contemporary James Joyce. Joyce, a Catholic, viewed the Irish as a people who had never known a singular, all-encompassing identity, and argued that its fluid state was well suited for pragmatic evolution and development. In his work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce criticises the notions favoured by allies of Yeats, and instead invites the Irish to consolidate the notions of identity and in doing so move forward for the first time in a singular notion of pan-Irish identity.

One must be careful not to dismiss Yeats as a dreamer, nor Joyce as a shamefaced cultural critic. Both men present important interpretations of identity upon which an enduring and all-encompassing notion of modern ‘Irishness’ can be built. The Yeats camp encourages the consideration that the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and ‘Scots-Irish’ share a singular cultural and historical heritage, while Joyce reminds us that Ireland is a modern country, an Old World melting pot which must adapt, learn and settle before it can progress.

While the tricky political condition resulting in the border must not be taken lightly, people of this island need to learn to transcend political reckoning with social cooperation. So where does this leave us? It leaves us without a single, identifiable voice; a petty and embarrassing construct born from invasion, divide and conquest. Indeed, if the island is to move forward, it is time for the people to reconsider their history with a fresh perspective and rethink what exactly it means to be of this island.

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