As the Americans gear up to mark Thanksgiving this week, how do we identify with our national myths today in Ireland?
The tale of the pilgrims celebrating the harvest is a timely reminder for us to make the most of the things we do have in the face of rising case numbers.
But marking the fourth Thursday in November with a feast and family is part of the fabric of the American story. In this globalised world, what stories do we identify with?
Myths affirm our national values and unite us. These fables remind us we are part of one group. The greatest challenges we face go beyond the shores of our little island in the Atlantic. The climate crisis is a global one.
The pandemic has disrupted life from Auckland to Ardee. The erosion of truth and search for social justice plays out in Westminster and Windtown. Our enemy no longer wears a red coat but is transmuted into a broader threat looming over us.
Many countries have a founding myth that elevates history to lore, centred around a war of independence or struggle against colonial rule. Historical figures take on mythical status, a figurehead for a particular tribe — think of Michael Collins in his Free State uniform. Last month Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald backed the idea of marking the Twelfth of July as a public holiday in a united Ireland, because for some on this island, William of Orange rearing a warhorse captures their story.
The Hill of Tara is up the road from me. My kids run up and down the ruts of the ancient settlement. From the mountains of Cooley to the Dublin Wicklow mountains, its strategic vantage point is evident.
In the middle of all that physical evidence, sits the Lia Fáil, a phallic stone said to screech when touched by the rightful king. It sits among the verdant grass, muted by silence and science. How could a stone possibly do such a thing? At some point the line between myths and history blur, as time passes and facts change hands out of living history.
When I was born at the end of the 1980s there was a desire for peace on the island. But what unites us in our nationhood in 2021?
Most people care more about housing and healthcare than a united Ireland. My generation has been told not to expect the future to be any better. From the cost of a home to the growing chasm between wealthy and poor, any attempt to disturb the moribund status quo sees us branded as snowflakes.
History as we know it is constantly being updated. From removing statues of slave owners to replacing colonial art with indigenous works, the lens through which we view the past has shifted.
Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hired its first Native American curator. These revisions tell the other side of the story, and this challenges a nation’s identity.
This friction can cause a chasm between friends and neighbours. The deep political divisions over Brexit and former US president Donald Trump illustrate how divided societies become in the absence of a uniting national myth.
As the tensions of opposing perspectives twist against one another, in Ireland we can draw from the tales of old.
Perhaps our ancient tales can inspire hope for the future instead of nostalgia for a time that can’t be revisited. It’s harder to construct stories of the days to come, especially when life today has echoes of dystopian literature. Rising sea levels make me think of Kevin Costner in Waterworld — the image is more real to me than that of my house underwater but for the chimneypot.
Our ancient ancestors revered the earth. They celebrated the harvest. Just as the pilgrims raised their hands in gratitude at the edge of a great continent whose tale was yet to be told, we are on the precipice of a new age.
But as the threads holding our world seemingly unravel, it’s an opportunity to weave together a new tapestry. A new myth. A renewed reverence for nature and respect for natural resources. A tale that’s optimistic about a people open to change. Ideas that translate into new moral, institutional and technological arrangements.
Like Oisín Mac Cumhaill, we can choose the bounty of Tír na nÓg or we can fall off our horse and get stuck in old Ireland.