Drink, oppression, and church cast long shadow on Irish soul
I recently attended a play called 'Dig' from Co Leitrim playwright, actor and director Seamus O'Rourke. The set consisted of a mossy patch of cemetery soil.
A hastening dusk framed a stretch of grass that meandered to the theatre door, surrounded by stone walls – moody boulders with a look of the ancient unmoved, as weathered as the gravestones – enclosing four male characters, a whiskey bottle, a few empty beer cans and shovels.
Once I acclimated to the unfamiliar country accents at breakneck speed, and the occasionally neon comic dialogue, I had an unsettling realisation. I realised that what I was witnessing was a keyhole deftly carved into the Irish soul, in this instance, squarely male, personifying an unfinished grave as the place where problems and emotion remain static and underground. The play's themes of suicide and rural malaise are punctuated by the final dialogue from the ghost of Smokey McCormack, man-about-town for whom the grave is being dug: "It takes a long time to learn how to fly. Fly away, away, away, away."
For an island with a population half the size of my hometown, Chicago, Ireland has produced an inordinate number of the world's greatest, most soul-piercing authors and dramatists. Last spring, while living in France, I developed a theory that the best writers in the world have historically come from the dreariest or rainiest places: Paris, Dublin, small towns in Russia.
In these localities, people spend much time indoors contemplating their existences while trying to keep out the weather, or mustering their biggest dose of optimism, hardiness and drink to welcome sociability.
People who might – had they been born in Cuba, or on Italy's coast – have become dancers, beach gadabouts or painters in vibrant colours, instead become thinkers, inventing dialogue between imaginary people, which, it could be agreed upon, is insane by definition.
Landing in Dublin during summer 2013, following my year-long spoken word tour of Europe, I felt enthralled walking the cobblestones of the city finding myself bemused on park greens when remembering my father's reminders to commune with the spirits of Yeats and Shaw, as if they lingered in the air beside the chill.
Yet more than chilly oceansides, or the tingling of writer spirits at my neck, what emerged through my wandering and relationships was the pervasive melancholy which has indeed lingered over the centuries, and settled inextricably into the fabric of this country.
The pattern of art imitating life is obvious and deeply embedded. What could be more tragicomic than Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot', where two characters sit in the same place every day. . . waiting. . . for absolution, for answers, for sun, for happiness.
Joyce, who like Beckett fled to Paris, that other dreary bastion, famously said in his 1907 lecture in Trieste, Italy, 'Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages', that "No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland. Instead he will run from it, as if from a country that has been subjected to a visitation by an angry Jove." Yet all of Joyce's books deal with Dublin and the matter of the Irish soul and upbringing, as if nowhere he fled could release that dust settled onto his bones.
I believe there are three historic culprits: Catholicism, oppression and alcohol. Unfortunately it appears these three forces have never been mutually exclusive in history, not for any culture. Yet how can Ireland's forced melancholy be channelled into something more positive than the depression epidemic?
At the moment, the country ranks fourth globally in suicide rates for males age 18-24, according to a 2014 report from Stop Suicide. Even with the fall-out from recession, considering the economic and living conditions of dozens of 'third world' nations compared to Ireland, this is absolutely alarming.
Both of my parents had one Irish grandparent, and Chicago is a very Irish city. I grew up with the tension of Catholic vs Protestant ideals at home, with my Irish-Catholic-raised father and Southern Black Baptist mother clashing over styles of child-raising and other specifics. Sometimes, in my black Chicago girl way, scenes from childhood remind me of the infamous vicious dinner scene in Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'.
In an insightful piece on Padraic Pearse in the Sunday Independent, 'A leader who pushed at an open door', John-Paul McCarthy wrote about the "correlation of Catholicism with the deeply anti-modern desire for continuing childhood". I immediately thought, and there's a certain melancholy when it's not possible.
There's no confusion why the Irish are a grand storytelling people. If melancholia remained in works of art, that is one matter, yet as a culture artistically produces what exists inside to be produced, Ireland's sense of gloom permeates the air and patterns of behaviour. There should be more conversation about how to channel this powerful force elsewhere.