For all our stirring legends, Ireland is no longer the heroic nation of Cuchulainn
Published 13/03/2014 | 02:30
There was a time, our stories remind us, when Ireland was peopled by heroes. Giants among men, in deed if not stature, whose feats remain as fresh today as they were in the first telling.
Women were a key part of our legends. No sitting about with their sewing, waiting for the warriors to come home. They were a feisty crew, from the man-eater Queen Maeve who coveted a bull and went to war over it, to Grainne's resistance to being married off to the elderly Fionn MacCumhaill – forthright, she offered herself to the handsome Diarmuid instead.
Conflicted by loyalty to Fionn, Diarmuid wouldn't touch her initially, until she teased that the water splashing her leg was more adventurous than him. This is dialogue you might hear walking through any town in Ireland on a Saturday night. The human element of such escapades continues to speak to us.
However, these dramas are embedded with a moral, in addition to entertainment value. The sagas emphasise who we are and where we spring from: that's why some element within us as a nation responds to them. Ideals for people to live up to are outlined in them.
They have clowns and villains, but leaders and heroes, too. When I look about Ireland today for heroism, I don't discern it in the upper echelons of society.
Where does the heroism lie in electric shocks given to psychiatric patients without their consent, as a new report reveals? In the Government spending €165m on external consultants since taking office? In public money propping up charity chiefs' incomes, even as services are reduced? In a banker's salary of €843,000, at a time when Richie Boucher's Bank of Ireland – and others – are repossessing homes?
Where it can be glimpsed is in the suffering and renunciation endured by ordinary people – people of whom much will yet be asked. Even after much has already been given.
Now, I don't know if Fionn and the others really existed. Perhaps there's a grain of truth in the tales which grew swollen in each rendition. But these characters from the Celtic tradition matter. They remind us there was a period when we had pride as a people. Far from perfect, we could be argumentative, sulky, greedy, lecherous and manipulative, according to the chronicles. But we valued independence and honour.
This weekend, 27 ministers will visit 23 countries during the St Patrick's Day celebrations, spreading the word that Ireland has earned back its good name and is open for business. The Government wants the message communicated abroad that our economic difficulties are settled. At home, it's a less convincing narrative. People know differently at the coal face. The PR offensive abroad remains worthwhile, however.
Meanwhile, on Irish streets, leprechaun hats and a drink-binge typecast our national day. Why don't our legends figure, except maybe in passing? All nations need their stories, as well as factories and trade targets. Shouldn't these compelling yarns from 2,000 years ago be integral to the festival?
Ours is essentially a practical age and yet life cannot focus on economic requirements alone – space has to be made for keeping the imagination kindled.
Generation after generation has managed to hold on to these sagas of champions so gallant that even rocks and trees stared as they passed. Of warriors so infused with battle frenzy, that when they plunged into water, it frothed around them. Of women so desirable that brother was turned against brother and blood spilled for love of them.
Cliffhangers many of them, our epics did not wither away, even when the language was suppressed. It's been said that the worst spiritual evil one nation can inflict on another is to cut it off from its stories. We managed to hold on to ours. But we aren't letting ourselves be inspired by them.
What is noble and generous never looks old-fashioned. And what is lyrical in language feeds the national soul. Every people has its sagas, from the Greeks to the Norse, and the Knights of the Round Table in England. Ours bears comparison with the best.
They show us we have poetry inside us. Birds fell dead from branches at the battle chant of the Red Branch warriors, whose steeds drank rivers dry. They remind us sacrifices were made for the group: the women of Ulster bared their breasts to Cuchulainn to shame him into dropping his weapons.
During the oral tradition, the art of remembering was prized. It was drilled into boy-soldiers at the Red Branch training school in Armagh when Conchobar MacNessa was king.
The Ulster Cycle lists their skills. Battle tips aside, they were taught the names of their ancestors, and to distinguish between those who had acted well and those who had acted ill. Throughout the ages, there were always Irishmen and women who remade themselves in the heroic mould. But today, heroes are thin on the ground. We occupy a land where some people struggle with debts they can never repay, others languish on hospital waiting lists, still others are forced to emigrate, and where a sense of alienation affects many. Not currently a heroic nation, then, for all our stirring legends. By all means, let Enda and his ministers bang drums abroad. It may help, and the cost is relatively modest. But let's not set our sights so low as just to steer the ship of state into calm waters.
Let's be quickened by the spirit of the Celtic legends, and use them as a set of values to which we can aspire. Ireland has become overtaken by the urgent at the expense of the important. Cuchulainn and his comrades offer us a template to strive towards, and to dream about.