Saturday 19 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'How to be Irish... From poetry to hypocrisy, a guidebook for our new citizens'


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Are you born Irish, or do you become Irish? There seems to be a growing group of people exhilaratedly happy because they've just become Irish - 2,500 of them celebrated their newly-won Irish citizenship in Killarney last month. That adds up to 122,000 new Irish citizens from 180 countries since 2011.

And there are plenty more in the making, if we look at Irish passport applications, which will probably top one million this year.

There's a veritable craze to becoming Irish, it seems. Nothing wrong with that. But with market demand so high, is it time for someone to issue an instruction leaflet on "How to be Irish?" I'm sure we could all make an advisory contribution, but let's start the ball rolling…

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⬤ The late Dr Anthony Clare, famed psychiatrist, returned to Ireland because, he told me, "Irish people are really interested in people". This, I think, is a truly defining characteristic.

⬤ Kerry people are particularly interested in people. Sit down for a coffee with a stranger from Kerry and by the end of the conversation you'll realise you've told them everything about yourself (family, sex life, tax situation) and they've told you nothing about themselves!

⬤ Ireland has a melancholy history, but Irish people are great at partying. Even at Lourdes, I was informed by an official there, the disabled Irish pilgrims are up all night having a hilarious time.

⬤ Sometimes intoxicating liquor is involved in all this partying. (The Polish-born new Irish - who lead the new Irish category - will understand.) Ireland has had a record for the highest number of hard boozers alongside the highest number of total abstainers. So "a nation of extremes".

⬤ Every new Irish citizen, or passport applicant, should speak a few words of Irish. We natives can nearly all speak a few words - the cúpla focal - although, after 12 years' compulsory school lessons, we should have PhDs.

⬤ Ms Justice Tara Burns recommended that new citizens read a copy of the Constitution. A most uplifting document, commencing with the words: "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority..." In 1937, when the Constitution was first composed, allusions to the Holy Trinity were considered quite ecumenical, since Protestants were fond of the Trinity, as in Trinity College Dublin.

⬤ Basically, everything wrong with Ireland these days is the fault of the Catholic church is a thoroughly Irish attitude. Even a generation ago, medical experts were blaming schizophrenia on the church. (It's now known to be caused by a brain enzyme.)

⬤ Some things are the fault of the Catholic church, surely. But then, at the outset of the Irish state, 95pc of the people adhered to this faith and were even proud of it (again, the Polish-Irish will grasp this).

⬤ Previously, everything was the fault of the Brits, who brought 800 years of oppression - plus a few Georgian buildings, railways, drains, canals, universities, etc.

⬤ Then, since Brexit, a lot of negatives are the fault of the Brits again - thus the flood of passport applications.

⬤ The GAA is the great national sporting organisation that holds so much of society together. Yet, to be truly Irish you will need to have a detailed knowledge of every English football team, from Aston Villa to West Ham.

⬤ Plain speaking is not an Irish characteristic: Hiberno-English is noted for its circumlocutions. People may end a strongly worded invective with the coda, "Mind you, I've said nothing!" But, sure, a bit of hypocrisy softens the rough winds of life.

⬤ There is a national aspiration to abolish the Border and have a United Ireland. Bear in mind this is a little like St Augustine's prayer: "Lord, make me chaste - but not yet."

⬤ Get acquainted with the "compo culture", a key aspect of Irish life. If you trip over when visiting a tourist location, for instance, never say, "I was careless - accidents happen." Get on to the compo lawyers, who ensure that higher sums of compensation are paid out here than anywhere else (thus crippling the insurance business).

⬤ Besides the Constitution, read the poetry. You'll know of Yeats and Heaney, but there is so much else that has been meaningful in Irish tradition: Colum's She Moved Through the Fair; Allingham's The Fairies; Kavanagh's In Memory of My Mother; Pearse's The Wayfarer; Lady Dufferin's sentimental but evocative The Irish Emigrant. Ditto Mahony's The Bells of Shandon. (Sometimes, the cornier, the truer.)

⬤ You'll have no trouble encountering the music. Encounter it especially in Co Clare.

⬤ And the paintings. For decades, Paul Henry was considered overly clichéd, yet he captures the essence of something Irish with great delicacy and feeling.

⬤ The glory of Ireland is the horse. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland in 2011, the high personal point of her visit was the National Stud. Her best nags are always Irish.

⬤ Funerals are important in Ireland and traditionally death has been treated with openness - a great attitude in a world where it is medicalised, anaesthetised and euphemised as "passing away".

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