Opinion

Friday 24 May 2019

Searching for the soul of the 'true' Ireland ...

'This Ireland is neither, for example, "conservative" nor "liberal". To know what this Ireland thinks, you'd need to cross-examine each and every one of the human conundrums who populate it. And if you did, you'd end up confused'. In his first column for the 'Sunday Independent', John Waters reflects on the sensibility of the Ireland he intends to continue writing about.

John Waters
John Waters

There's an essence of Ireland that does not reside in landscape, or institutions, that rarely manifests nowadays in formal culture. It's to be encountered chiefly in fleeting encounters with people - benign explosions of mirth and knowingness that leave you changed for the day. It cannot be communicated as a blow-by-blow account of an encounter.

You had to be there. It speaks of a spirit devoid of claptrap, ideology or political correctness. It is gently ironic, mischievous, anarchistic. It sees through things without stopping to parse them. It is not cute-hoorism, or 'crack', still less 'craic' (awful makey-uppy word). It's astute and empathetic and deeply affectionate - a hug for the soul when you least expect it.

You used to be certain of meeting it in the hours just before or after dawn - in a Spar or a roadside cafe, or unloading newspapers at a crossroads. I remember as a child going around with my father on his mail run - being thrilled by the way the postmen and sorters would talk to one another about their lives, how they saw things. Or the way, when awoken abruptly by my father's rapping on the window, a sub-postmistress would greet him with a weary resignation - like the prophecy of a Martin McDonagh opener: 'Wet again, Tom?' Of course, wet.

Something deep in me would be tickled at the way a deep condition of irony had risen up out of a murky history and vested itself in jibes and phrases: 'You have it solved!' (a Westport greeting meaning, 'You're on a soft number now'); 'Any sign of the lump?' (a perennial query about back pay or a tax rebate, which for many working people represented the quintessence of hoping). The mainspring of the sensibility functioned as a casting off of pretence, or surface piety, to reveal a radical subversion underneath. We laughed at the exposure of our mutual duplicities.

Immigration has driven this sensibility underground somewhat, the mixture of contemporary company almost invariably demanding more literal forms of exchange, a cultural Esperanto that leaves us lonelier and colder.

During my 'bother' of the past six months - under siege from toxic twitterati and the trendier end of the mainstream media - I often feared this Ireland had gone for good. That feeling had occasionally descended on me in Dublin, even when everything was reasonably oxo. I'd stay there a week longer than is wise, and a destabilising foreboding entered my soul. Listening too much to RTE or Newstalk, I'd begin to think they described the world.

Since the 'bother' erupted in January - as a result of a stranger in drag presuming factlessly to define me, and prompting a mob of cowards and chancers to jump at the chance of a casual lynching - I often found myself thinking that the Ireland I grew up in and loved so unconditionally had gone for ever. It seemed that we had arrived someplace that was not merely post-irony and post-reason, but which had also left behind the possibility of perspective, balance, fairness, truth or decency. In the depths of February, I went to London and found myself walking around wondering if, what with the way things were going, I could live there now and start over, not caring about the public life of the place I lived in, privatising myself and emulating several of my peers by writing indifferent novels as though Beckett and Kafka had never bothered to burn the building. I decided to come back and give it another lash.

Nobody, not even a Dubliner, should stay in Dublin for more than a fortnight at a time. If you do, the nonsense closes in around you, a bubble of regurgitated cant that smells of stale bullshit. You need to get out, beyond Lucan, beyond Leinster - if possible, beyond the Shannon. But in the depths of the 'calamity', I would find myself thinking there was no safe place left to walk without the necessity to avoid eye contact. Even in Sligo, Mayo or Roscommon, I found myself hesitating about venturing outdoors. I made the mistake once or twice in company of bringing the subject up before someone else did, dropping in some reference to what someone had, eh, tweeted, what people might be thinking. Invariably, if people answered me at all, it was to pick me up all wrong, provoking exchanges that began at cross-purposes and petered out in embarrassment. Nobody I met had ever tweeted anything, or cared one whit what some drag queen had said about me, or what had happened afterwards. Most had registered nothing of it, and those who had were even more perplexed - one woman even thinking that someone had accused me of being a homosexual.

This is Ireland. I don't mean 'the real Ireland' - a phrase contaminated by kitsch and makey-up. I mean, rather, the 'true Ireland', where the historical personality of the Irish people might be located, if you had a mind to look for it.

It's not that it's impossible to describe this place, but that no single statement on its own amounts to a truth about it. It's contradictory and paradoxical and Janus-faced - 'both-and', not 'either-or'. This is why you hear this Ireland described less and less: because most commentators utilize an Anglo-Saxon viewfinder in which things are either one thing or another.

This Ireland is neither, for example, 'conservative' nor 'liberal'. To know what this Ireland thinks, you'd need to cross-examine each and every one of the human conundrums who populate it. And if you did, you'd end up confused. The more you speak to these people, the more you realise that they don't fit into easy categories, that their outlooks on the world are carved out of personal experience - of sorrow and hoping and watching and listening. This is not an Ireland of received opinions, or fads, or right-on, knee-jerk stances. This Ireland observes and cogitates and judges by its own lights. And it delivers these judgments in the manner of your grandmother, in what seem like throwaway phrases but are really the sculpted pearls born of generations of observing and absorbing and not forgetting: 'Don't be annoying yourself'; 'They don't know what to do with themselves!'; 'I remember that crowd when they had the ass and cart'.

Late last year, I attended a media-related conference in Dublin at which an opinion pollster unveiled the results of a survey of the alleged changing nature of opinion in contemporary Ireland. Participants had been asked questions about a number of predictable hot-button media obsessions, and the results parsed according to a formula which divided humanity into 'conservatives' and 'liberals'. The basic message was that Ireland had become decidedly more 'progressive' since the last such survey, almost a decade before. The room was stuffed with lobbyists and media luvvies, all of whom received the news with obvious satisfaction. Watching it all, it struck me that the pollster with his charts was like a TV weatherman announcing that the occluded front of conservatism currently passing over the midlands would clear the east coast by 2016.

We've been talking a long time now about 'progress' without anyone remarking too loudly that we appear to be going around in circles. No one has ever postulated what the destination might look like. It's all very vague - abandoned to a process of mimicry that renders our destinies dependent on how things turn out elsewhere. It seems we're aiming to be something like Sweden, although most of us have never been there, and never wished to spend more than an hour in the company of any Swede we met.

Our most intractable problems may be that our national personality is too complicated and ironic for the purposes of nation-building. Proper administration requires clarity, literalness and singularity, whereas our culture, at its deeper levels, tends to operate at the levels of doublethink and weightlessness. Our core personality is centred on an existentialism that arises from a sense of the transient nature of everything. This makes us wide and philosophical, but also devil-may-care. Our quandary is that to 'progress' we need to shake off our complicatedness, but that, if we do so, we risk self-disintegration.

We caught a glimpse of one aspect of the dilemma last week with the Garth Brooks debacle. Here's a country singer who somehow contrived to occupy a gap in our culture that no native voice had even intuited to exist. There's something here about the two Irelands: 400,000 country people coming to worship and celebrate in the heart of what they had understood to be their capital city, in a stadium they'd paid for several times over. Then, without warning, a mixture of nimbyism, greed, misanthropy, begrudgery, petty bureaucracy, incompetence and downright ugliness creates a storm of botheration that makes 
us a laughing stock before the known world. 'Ireland of the welcomes', eh? The 'best small country in the world to do business in'? Yeah, right. Progress? Modern Ireland? Lol!

At the back of this farcical crisis can be seen the flitting symptom of a structural disproportionality that creepingly threatens to overcome and paralyse us. The disproportionality arises between what we seek to become without defining it, and what we are without consciously admitting to. Underlying the Garth Brooks controversy - I have no doubt - is a sniffiness about aspects of that 'true Ireland' that some among us have never managed to grasp and more than a few would sooner be rid of. (Ask yourself this: if the performer in question was Elton John, would the same objections be raised?) The Swedish tendency tends to look at Garth Brooks and see a preposterous figure in a cowboy hat crooning processed sentimentalisms of a kind thought to have been banished for good. Brooks, for such people, is the return of the repressed: the reminder that the country they call their own is not yet ready for their thousand-year realm of Scandinavianism.

On the other hand, those who dance to Garth's tunes are not entirely as they appear through the Swedish viewfinder. They are serious and yet not. They respond to Garth's intensity and hat with a wink and a chuckle. They enjoy his sentimentalisms, enter into them as a kind of balm they now but rarely encounter in the native culture of a country that exports their children to progress the Swedish agenda. Above all, for them, the Garth concerts were a kind of Trojan horse to be wheeled into the city that treats them with incomprehension and disdain, for five nights this July. And now, once again, they have been told what the score is.

John Waters

Sunday Independent

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