Tuesday 20 February 2018

St Patrick's week navel-gazing brings it all back home

Our national day has been and gone, and appropriately, the week saw some interesting looks at what it means to be Irish. Different angles and perspectives; different ways of looking.

First up, The History Show (Radio 1) explored the new book, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. This collaboration between the National Museum, Royal Irish Academy and Fintan O'Toole of The Irish Times aims to define the things that have, they say, "touched and shaped the lives of our ancestors and are part of the story of our country" – everything from a 5000BC Mesolithic fish-trap to an AK47 decommissioned in 2005.

In an enjoyable discussion, Myles Dungan and guests pondered what these objects mean. They could be seen, I suppose, as a physical embodiment of a concept called "Irishness", in its multifaceted and often contradictory forms.

More "traditional", for want of a better term, expressions of Irishness were found on Cruinneog (Radio 1), which spoke to some of the Irish diaspora about celebrating St Patrick's Day abroad. We often sneer at all this stuff, but I think that's very mean-spirited, and reductive besides: as this proved, Irishness isn't a matter of geography so much as a state of mind.

Meanwhile, one of the enduring, and seemingly intractable, problems of modern Ireland was examined by reporter Brian O'Connell on Today with Pat Kenny (Radio 1). He visited Rathkeale in Limerick, a town seemingly divided between Travellers and everyone else.

It was an admirably fair-minded piece, with plenty of good, meaty interviews with locals. And Pat, needless to say, teased out the finer points in studio.

Very interesting stuff, but all quite depressing too. The town is described as "practically segregated" in terms of Traveller integration; the hyperbolic use of "apartheid" even reared its ugly head. The worst thing is, having heard this report, you can't really see a détente.

There's just such a difference – socially, culturally, every which way – between Travellers and the rest of us (sorry, but I refuse to use that term "the settled community", which makes a literal nonsense out of language). I wish them all well, but must admit to finding their lifestyle completely alien to me. And I'd suspect that to be the common view.

dmcmanus@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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