Letter From Ireland
from the Spring 2007 issue

If Ireland ever holds a "motto contest" like they sometimes have in vulgar regions of the United States, I think I've got an entry that might take the prize: Ireland—Never have so many been so proud of so little. Of all the nations whose citizens loudly proclaim their national pride, the Irish are surely the least justified in their braying. The Greeks gave the world democracy. The Italians can boast of the Renaissance. The French had both the Impressionists and the Deconstructionists (no small feat, that). Ireland has... what? Three good writers? Their tinny, grating indigenous music? Bono?

The cliché of drunken, boisterous micks inarticulately slurring Erin's vague praises while suppressing Guinness vomit is rooted in reality. Stop into any saloon (every town, no matter how small, has at least three) and you'll hear the sort of "go-team-go" rhetoric that Americans would only expect from Texans, WWII veterans and Fox News anchors. Our droning, inessential coach driver, whose lectures on Irish history make me want to forswear the entire discipline forever, takes great pride in describing the famed national landmarks we pass, all of which derive their importance from some grave tragedy: A Memorial To The Great Potato Famine, for instance, or The Place Where Several Babies Died. You've got to be proud of something, I guess.

But the roots of nationalist fervor can't necessarily be traced back to actual national achievements. Take Puerto Rico, for example. Nothing of note has ever happened in Puerto Rico—no diseases were cured, no symphonies were composed, no political philosophies originated. Its most notable citizens were the men who shot at Harry Truman in 1950. If the nations of the world were the Justice League, Puerto Rico would be Aquaman. Yet its nationals are known for an inexplicably manic sense of pride, which manifests itself in braggadocio, flag-waving parades, and ugly belligerence when their homeland's relevance is questioned. Ireland is the Puerto Rico of Europe.

The comparison is less facile than it seems. Like Ireland once was, Puerto Rico is the vassal state of a colonial power, with token political representation and little opportunity for self-determination. Both are island states, isolated from the cultural diffusion that occurs on easily traversed contiguous landmasses. Both, albeit in different fashions, have waged protracted struggles for independence.

In fact, Ireland's national identity largely is struggle, and it could be said that Ireland's great accomplishment is the normalization of struggle. Consider a historiotypical Irishman whose entire life consisted of one fight after another: against the elements, against the British, against the temptations of the bottle and the strictures of the Pope of Rome. The only thing he could be proud of was that, despite all odds to the contrary, he didn't go mad or die. Spit into the wind long enough and you eventually get to like the feel of phlegm on your face. The Irish have institutionalized this mentality to the point where they're not so much proud of what they struggled for as of the struggle itself.

Nothing fosters solidarity so much as oppression, and nothing begets defensiveness so much as an inferiority complex. What observers might consider obnoxious boasting is simply a survival mechanism for the Irish, who might very well have all withered up and floated into Galway Bay 200 years ago if they weren't bullheadedly determined that their scabrous little island was worth living on and fighting for.

I visited Clare Island yesterday, a small and desperate place off the western coast, where sheep outnumber people by 20 to 1. The island is the ancestral home of Grace O'Malley, Ireland's famed 16 th century "pirate queen," from whom my family dubiously traces its ancestry. She's mostly known for her bloody and violent exploits in the course of "defending" the island from the hostile, the curious, and the lost. Her castle still stands, and if you duck under a half-hearted fence you can go inside, which I did. The castle consists of one 12x10 room, three stories high, obviously built solely for defensive reasons, with no thought of creature comforts, luxury, or inhabitability. Its austerity mirrors the land. Standing in this miniscule fortress erected to defend a grassy, unpopulated rock that nobody would want anyway (a later owner of the island, after visiting for the first time, disgustedly sold the land deed immediately thereafter for 30 guineas), one is almost certain that the most common mutterance amongst the ancient O'Malley clan was "Why bother? What, exactly, are we defending? Why, exactly, are we here?" The answer, of course, was "Because we're Irish. And it's what we do."

There's a certain nobility in that, the same type found in a dog who keeps trying to run through an electric fence—at first you laugh at its stupidity, then you start silently cheering for it as it goes back time and again. Ireland is the stupid mutt of Western Europe—and that's not a bad thing at all.   Maybe that should be my entry into the motto contest.

-Arthur Meredith

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