Wednesday 16 January 2019

Eleanor McGrath: Syngeing the praises of Irish stereotypes for Patrick’s Day in green

SETTLING into my seat on the plane back to Toronto knowing I will be home just in time for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In my colonial city, there is a gathering brewing. Gone is the memory of why Canada’s largest city, once divided along religious lines, has a St. Patrick’s Parade that is only 26 years old.

The answer if found on a tombstone in the local St. Michael’s Cemetery: “Matthew Sheedy killed by pitchfork, March 17th 1858”.   Those who keep marching will celebrate the 193rd Orange Parade this July.  A raggle-taggle gathering of Lodge members kept on that same marching route by a small bored group of Toronto police watched by an equally raggle-taggle group of spectators. 

Welcome, Willkommen, Bienvenue … the list goes on in subway platforms. Here in 21st century Toronto over 170 languages are spoken daily.  I am becoming a visible minority as more come and make their new life in Canada just as my Irish ancestors did in 1847.

But new Irish arriving here now are different.  These are modern, educated, ambitious children of Ireland who may stay or may go.  They don’t have time to build an Irish centre or parade their heritage, as they will travel, party and ski through their years in Canada just like every other new immigrant.

It was just last week that I saw, for the first time, JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.  It was my good fortune to be in Roscommon at the same time of the Drama festival.  For one week, battling Irish amateur thespians spoke words written by Irish playwrights.  From a set that told its own story to the West Cork actors, Synge’s voice rang out strong.

When Synge created this masterpiece, it was a duel to the end with the Gaelic League and all its post-famine sensibilities.  Synge set out to counter that a new Irish had arisen in 1907.  How the Gaelic League wanted to believe they were smart, they were strong and that they were not drunk and disorderly.  And how Synge stung them all with his three witches vying for Christy, the Playboy of the western world.

He escapes, Synge’s Playboy, to the Western World but not to be confused with the modern western world. Christy never leaves his holy Catholic Ireland.  He returns to the soil as that was where he belonged but not before he beats his father into submission.  What a powerful dysfunctional group they were onstage. 

Whether gathering in Toronto, or gathering in Roscommon, when this Irish tribe comes together it is just a small group of the 70 million diaspora.  When less than 1% of the seven billions in the world claim they are Irish, what are they claiming?

If you are in Ireland what does it mean to be Irish?  If you live anywhere else, what it means to be Irish is so many things and often they are stereotypes. 

Hit the pavement of Toronto with the thousands strong marching and the many more on the sidewalks this St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish will still be the minority. 

Truly, everyone wants to be Irish in a city that once was so Orange that you had to be a Lodge member to be Mayor. 

Has Brand Ireland become the stereotype that once were feared and discouraged by the Gaelic League?

Or was Synge right when he threw them all into a small tigeen and let them duke it out over the western world?  If the Gathering is to succeed, it has to embrace all the good, bad and ugly of the Irish tribe.

Maybe I was the only person who had not seen Playboy of the Western World before, or at the very least in Roscommon town.

But all I can say after hearing Synge’s words sing onstage is: Bring on the Gathering!  Let everyone embrace his or her inner Irish, as there is a stereotype for everyone!

Eleanor McGrath is a documentary film maker

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