An op-ed from Kevin Holohan, author of The Brothers' Lot
Whenever St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, I am asked how I plan to celebrate. This is a difficult question for me because, even though I was born and raised in Ireland, I am unsure what exactly is being celebrated. A Welshman who Christianized Ireland? Guinness? Irishness? And if so, whose Irishness?
Growing up in Dublin I always had a strange sense of never being quite Irish enough. Dublin and its surrounding area were disparagingly known as “The Pale,” synonymous with a suspicious level of Anglicization. Dublin was policed and priested in large part with people from “the country,” as everything outside Dublin was known. This amounted to a garrison attitude both from the police and the church toward those strange tainted city dwellers. I remember being stopped walking home after missing the last bus by one of those six-foot-plus cops. “Hev ooo enny ihdintificaytion? Where’re ye going? Where’re ye comin from? Where d’ye live?” they would ask. It often seemed that a prerequisite for being stationed in Dublin was a deep suspicion and dislike of the place and its people.
In the 1920s and ’30s, after the Irish Republic gained independence from Britain, the politicians preempted post-revolutionary disappointment about the lack of any real redistribution of wealth or agrarian reform with a reconstructed Irishness, peopled with noble Celts speaking fluent Gaelic, exemplars of simple, almost unworldly rural values that would have been too poeticized and unfamiliar even to those in the countryside. These myths proved astonishingly long lasting.
I recall standing on Dublin’s O’Connell Street as a boy, watching the Patrick’s Day parade in the freezing drizzle. On the back of a flatbed coal delivery truck, a group of women, kitted out like extras from The Playboy of the Western World, gathered about a false hearth, presumably regaling one another with yarns of the “rare aul times.” Even in the 1970s this constructed notion of Irishness was anachronistic and mostly wishful, in marked contrast to how most people in the country actually lived.
In time, these rather homemade floats were replaced with marching bands modeled on American high school bands, and later with a Riverdancified sexiness featuring neo-medieval frolics, fireworks, and massive papier mâché heads.
Yet Ireland was not so much a nation living a lie –- it was a nation trying to live up to some unattainable, unachievable dream of itself. At least for a while in the ‘90s there seemed to be oodles of cash.
But behind that newly confident construct, there was still a disconnect between the story we told ourselves about our identity and the way we really lived. In that nowhere zone between myth and reality was the moral vacuum where clerics scrambled to cover up decades of child abuse while politicians, captains of industry, and pillars of society created a speculative bubble and played casino with the economy. The former had relied since independence on some twisted complicity and symbiosis with the ruling apparatus; the latter banked on knowing that when they went bust, the taxpayers could always be bullied and frightened into paying.
Meanwhile, the state left the running of hospitals, schools and reformatories to the church. The corrosive effects of this untold power, exercised in almost total secrecy, on all concerned –- perpetrators, victims and enablers –- can still only be guessed at. Certainly each report of abuse that comes out only adds to the catalog of horrors from the Celtic gulag of state-approved, church-run orphanages reformatories, industrial schools, and Magdalene Laundries.
Now, having lived in New York for fifteen years, somewhat distanced and maybe a bit deracinated, I have some clue as to why I felt puzzled by the idea of Irishness I grew up with. It was an unachievable, aspirational myth designed to keep the eyes of Ireland off the ball until eventually, tragically, it hit us all square in the face –- twice, in fact, in the form of the church sex-abuse scandals and the implosion of the Celtic Tiger bubble.
The Irish are still known for their storytelling, but perhaps the most dangerous story of all is the one we’ve been telling ourselves for so many years. For the first time since independence, in the light of these church scandals and the financial implosion, we have a chance to tell a new, honest story of ourselves that will encompass the complex modern world. Maybe we can take off the green-tinted glasses and really talk about what we see without being accused of raining on anyone's parade.