Thursday 23 January 2020

‘The Naked Irish’ goes beyond the clichés: What does it really mean to be Irish?

Non-fiction The Naked Irish Clare O'Dea Mentor Books, paperback, 220 pages, €14.99

Clare O'Dea. Photo by Elaine Pringle
Clare O'Dea. Photo by Elaine Pringle

If there's one thing that most defines us as a nation, you could argue, it's self-reflection. Not that this reflection is always very deep; it's more that we love to talk about ourselves, discuss ourselves, define ourselves, hopefully in the end coming to some sort of consensus about What It Really Means To Be Irish. (This generally lasts about the length of time it takes for someone to make a contrapuntal argument, and the merry-go-round of self-reflection begins anew.)

The unexamined life isn't worth living, someone wrote once; if this be true, the collective life of Ireland must be considered more worthwhile than any other country on the planet. Does anyone gaze at their navels as much as us?

Still, as Clare O'Dea shows in The Naked Irish, all this obsessive examination doesn't reveal the full truth. Indeed, as evidenced in the book's subtitle, Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, what we think of ourselves and present to the world (and thus what the world thinks of us) is often muddled, inconsistent and plain wrong.

The purpose of this book is to peel apart those clichés, assumptions and nuggets of received wisdom, and divine how much of it is real - and how much is wishful thinking, myopia or marketing.

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The Naked Irish by Clare O'Dea
The Naked Irish by Clare O'Dea

Born in Dublin of Connemara stock, now resident in Switzerland for some years, O'Dea is ideally placed to cast an eye - not cold, as per Yeats, but with the necessary coolness of the investigative journalist and/or social scientist - over our foibles and delusions. She brings the perspective of an outsider, leavened with a genuine grá for, and understanding of, her homeland: a potent mix.

Better still is the way O'Dea approaches the task. Rather than battering the reader with ideology, she uses first-instance resources to find answers. Statistics, reports, direct quotations, original interviews, all footnoted, are the bedrock of The Naked Irish. O'Dea takes this data and analyses, sifts, contextualises and, sometimes, draws conclusions. There's a lot to be said for this method, especially in a political environment increasingly dominated by shouted polemic, usually presented without evidence.

There are a few moments where the reader feels they're getting a lecture, and the author's subjective feelings are overriding fact. Is the only motivation of pro-lifers to "silence and shame Irish women"? Isn't it possible this is a genuine, in-good-faith moral position? There's also a lengthy - and for me pointless - digression on an 'Irish slaves in the US' meme.

But these are isolated moments: most of The Naked Irish is admirably objective, clear-headed and - very importantly - open-minded. O'Dea recognises that life, and by extension Ireland, is messy, complicated and hopelessly entangled in ambiguities and unresolvable contradictions.

The book examines 10 supposed truths about Ireland. Are we are a nation of emigrants, violent, problem drinkers, great writers, friendly, strongly Catholic, in favour of a united Ireland?

Do we hate the English? Is our economy "a poster child" for the rest of the world? Are Irish women "a force to be reckoned with"? (I'm not sure this is actually a cliché about Ireland, but it was one of my favourite chapters.)

The answer to most of the above is either "yes, but…" or "no, but…". Again, it reflects how the book accepts, even celebrates, the paradoxical nature of our society and culture. We've mostly thrown off religiosity, for example, but the broader trappings of it still matter a lot, and not just in terms of the "big day out" at weddings or communions. The island has a history of violence, including one of the worst European conflicts of modern times, yet this is also one of the safest, most peaceful countries in the world.

We revere our legendary authors now most of them are safely dead, yet banned and excoriated them while alive, famously forcing the likes of Joyce into exile. We hate the history of English deeds on this island, yet now consider them our neighbours and closest friends.

Written in a smooth, conversational style, The Naked Irish has plenty of interesting historical context, "wow, I never knew that" snippets of information and thought-provoking insights.

I especially liked O'Dea's contention that we don't abide by rules; we prefer to structure society around personal relationships. That encapsulates a lot of what it means to be Irish: on the minus side, it results in cronyism and political scandal; on the plus, it makes this a warm, friendly and generally excellent place to live.

She ends with a funny story about rushing home for an uncle's funeral, missing the flight and teaming up with another Irish woman, also heading back for the funeral of Uncle Michael in Dublin (different Michaels), which ends with them bunking in the home of a cousin's ex-wife. It's so ridiculously 'Irish', it sounds made up - only you know it isn't, because something similar has happened to all of us.

Darragh McManus's books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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