Once when I was staying in Chicago, towards the end of the 1990s, I went to see a show called ‘The Irish and How They Got That Way’. It was written by Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes. Oh that sounds quite fun, thought I. I liked Angela’s Ashes. It was pretty well-written and quite witty.
Well, put it this way: it wasn’t exactly Ballykissangel. McCourt’s verdict on how the Irish got that way was, pretty unequivocally – it was all the fault of the Gobshite English. This was not a good place to be a single Englishwoman in a room full of cross Americans. About ten minutes into the first half, I started to feel a little conspicuous. I considered popping out to the toilet to make a homemade badge reading: ‘My ancestors came from Sligo! I love Father Ted! And Guinness! And Tayto crisps!’ but I couldn’t find a pen.
So I just tried to look as American as possible, pushing into queues and insisting on ice in my tea and saying ‘You do the math!’ and ‘You’re good to go!’ very loudly. This seemed to do the trick, and although I can’t say it was a pleasant experience I did manage to survive it without being berated for my own particular role in How the Irish Got That Way.
(Which, to be clear, wasn’t a particularly influential one. Being born towards the end of the twentieth century gives me a fairly watertight alibi for the most of worst excesses of the Gobshite English; even my ancestors can probably be pretty much excused. My family were not exactly the power brokers, the movers and shakers of previous centuries. My family tree is populated with, mainly, subsistence peasants (from England, Scotland and, yes, Ireland); the kind of people who could only dream of having their own dung heap. They really had no time for oppressing anyone; they were all far too busy being oppressed themselves.)
It was a pretty good play, perhaps a little bitter but given the history of Ireland that’s probably understandable. There is one particular line that sticks in my mind. It went something like this: ‘The luck of the Irish – centuries of brutal occupation, cultural repression, violence, sectarianism, poverty, famine and truly appalling weather. That’s really lucky!’*
It’s a fair point. And yet… having just returned from three days in Ireland, I would like to consider a few possible reasons why, despite all of the weight of evidence to the contrary, the Irish continue to act like they’re the luckiest people on the planet.
- DUBLIN Over a quarter of the population lives there, and who can blame them. It’s pretty much the perfect city: a subtle blend of the sophisticated and the edgy. Amazing restaurants, lively bars and wonderful live music seemingly being made around every corner. Not even the hen party dressed as Pocahontas busking Wonderwall could detract from the glamour of our Saturday night there.
- GUINNESS A cliché but true: the Guinness in Ireland tastes incredible. The stuff they export seems to have something added to it… well let’s not speculate what that might be.
- THE IRISH BOYS AND GIRLS ARE ALL RAVISHINGLY GOOD-LOOKINGThe cheekbones! The hair! The freckles! The accents! Colin Farrell!
- AN ALMOST EMBARRASSING CONCENTRATION OF WRITING TALENT Wilde, Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Heaney, Kavanagh, Shaw, Swift. Of course the Irish have plenty of time to write: they can’t ever go outside because it’s raining the entire time. And proudest of all, Ireland boasts the best overall performance of any country in the Eurovision Song Contest. Yeats must be smiling beyond the grave at that record.
- AN AMAZING SPIRIT OF KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY We enjoyed the kind of welcome this weekend in Dublin that meant I didn’t stop smiling for our entire stay, and reminded me that ‘Father Ted’ is 10% fiction, 90% documentary. After our participation in Mass on Sunday morning, our group was treated to some stereotypical Irish hospitality. This involved a teetering pile of biscuits, an urn of tea per person and a huge tin of ROSES! (We were very excited by this last one. We’ve never been given chocolate before. Champagne, yes, but this made it feel like Christmas.) This was served by Dublin’s equivalent of Mrs Doyle (a delightful and immaculately dressed lady, who circulated the room pressing Orange Creams and Noisettes onto us all; any refusal was met with the insistence to ‘Put one in your pocket for later!’)
So, plenty to be cheerful about then. If only we could do something about the appalling weather. And, of course, the Gobshite English.
*Obviously we can now add to this list: catastrophic economic meltdown. Lucky lucky luck luck.