I spent many pleasant hours recently with a Zulu woman who was very proud of her country as she showed it to me. Time and again she mentioned the culture and traditions of the Zulus. She talked about how things were passed from one generation to the next and the many rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. She saw it as something valuable to have behavioural guidelines. She used the phrase "our culture" a lot.
She spoke English to me and Zulu to most of the people we met along the way. It set me to thinking what I could say to a similar visitor to Ireland. Just what is our culture? Or do we have any? Is Ireland just a place that is known for drink-fuelled craic and the mandatory photo with a pint?. When has anyone last heard anyone talk of Cuchulainn? Or the Tuatha De Dannan? Or the Salmon of Knowledge? Or the Children of Lir? How many of us even remember what the moral lessons of these stories were?
We don't have a language to define us in any real sense. I speak half-decent Irish. But I hardly ever use what bit I have. I wouldn't have many people to talk to in my circle. Speaking Irish is just a club that some people enjoy belonging to. If the language is not dead it is mortally wounded. You could go months without hearing a word of it spoken. We waste millions having documents translated into the 'first' language that no one ever reads. Successive Departments of Education have succeeded in bringing the language to its knees. I am not proud of, or in favour of that. I merely make the point that there is no way we have a language that defines our culture.
Then there are the great writers that we have never read. Hold up your hand anyone who has read Ulysses. And forget about Finnegan's Wake. Beckett isn't much easier. These days we are more Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyle than Wilde, more Seamus Heaney than Yeats. But then, how many of us can say a Heaney poem if we were asked to? You would do better looking for quotes from Fr Ted or a Blindboy podcast.
There is the diddle-e-eye which is grand for a few pints and the occasional yelp and I am all for the good stuff. But today's Ireland is more U2 than Percy French. Riverdance rescued Irish dancing from the grave by giving it a bit of sex appeal and a great new piece of music. Thankfully we have left Aran jumpers the other side of the millennium. Irish stew has been replaced by pizza and obesity-inducing takeaways. Bacon and cabbage is probably on the vegan hit list.
There was a time when the Catholic Church would have been seen as part of our identity and central to our culture. Those days are long gone. I really don't want to spend much time explaining to my guest that abuse and cover ups were part of what we are. Or that insurance fraud verges on being a national pastime.
My guest might enjoy hurling. Even a visitor from outer space should go to watch the Kilkenny team in action.
There is one quintessentially Irish phenomenon that I would proudly say is part of what we are, through and through. That is Mrs Brown's Boys, made in Scotland, but conceived and born in Dublin. It causes laughter all over the world and is as Irish as Tayto crisps and Barry's Tea. It lets the world see that we have a sense of humour and a heart. But apart from Agnes and her brood I am not sure if there is much Irish culture left.
There is the colour green. St Patrick got us the copyright. Next week the world turns green. For a little rock we are punching above our cultural weight. What a pity Patrick didn't banish all of the snakes.
Sunday Indo Living