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Sunday, March 30, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Ireland: From the quintessence of reaction — to what?


Special to The Japan Times

Second of two parts

"It happened, I think, some time in the mid-'90s," wrote Irish novelist Roddy Doyle in December, 2006, in a collection of short stories titled "The Deportees."

"I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one."

One of the stories, "Guess Who's Coming for the Dinner," is about a young woman who brings home a Nigerian friend and her outspoken father who has never shaken hands with a black man before.

When I first visited Ireland in 1970, a story about such an encounter would have been fantasy fiction. But, after an eight-day stay there this month, I realize it is about as close to non-fiction in today's Ireland as you can get.

There is a striking consciousness of change shared by virtually all Irish people today. Yet the coming of hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals to Ireland in recent years has not fully impacted on the society in any profound way. The immigrants from Africa and eastern and central Europe certainly stand out: They neither look nor sound Irish. But, unlike in the United States, or Australia, for instance, immigrants have not yet filtered up into prominent positions of authority. Ireland is still in the early "colorful ethnic variety" stages of multiculturalism. And here is where the opportunity lies for the future.

What will come to represent Irishness in the 21st century?

Walk into an Irish home of the past and, it was said, you would find two photographs: JFK on the left, and the Pope on the right; the former, a part of nostalgia; the latter, a parcel of faith.

The past is a place where oppression by British masters over hundreds of years gave the Irish a fierce purpose, and their national reason for being emanated from that purpose. The country's culture — its music, its poetry, its people's sardonic gift of the gab and, above all, its religious fervor ensconced in myriad provincial customs — kept the national spirit alive.

The native bog

Ireland may have been a backwater of an empire, but the Irish took pride in digging their heels into the native bog and standing their ground in the shadow of their conqueror.

This meant that resistance to modernization (as symbolized by Britain in the 19th century) became a feature of the national ethos. Being Irish meant being against change. Even in modern times, Ireland boasted the most censorship outside of the Iron Curtain. Here are some of the books banned in their day: "The Naked and the Dead" (Norman Mailer; 1948), "Watt" (Samuel Beckett; 1953), "Lucky Jim" (Kingsley Amis; 1954), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (Tennessee Williams; 1955 — in this case a play), "Rabbit, Run" (John Updike; 1960), "Catch-22" (Joseph Heller; 1961).

The Church and their wowser defenders had their way with the country. When RTE, the national broadcaster, began televising on New Year's Eve 1961, President Eamon de Valera warned that this new medium might lead to "decadence and dissolution." Irish Church and Irish State were hand, glove and pocket in defense of the delicate Irish Soul.

From the 1960s, however, the new Ireland of urban and contemporary values began overshadowing the old, the rural and the parochial. Today Ireland is represented by the likes of its rock stars, such as Bono and Bob Geldof, its female former President Mary Robinson, its poets such as Nobel Prize laureate Seamus Heaney, its radical journalists such as the murdered Veronica Guerin (there is a monument to her in the grounds of Dublin Castle), and its brilliant actors — far too many to name.

A country that was once the quaint quintessence of reaction is now proudly displaying its progressive features. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) announced, on Feb. 29, that the annual number of plastic bags had been cut from 13.4 billion to 12.4 billion. I went to shops a number of times in Dublin and had to purchase carry bags at the cash register. Smoking is banned in the secular cathedral of Irish cultural life, the pub.

Ireland has long had the policy of treating the income of its artists and writers as tax free. "We still have that policy in place," Chairperson of the Arts Council Olive Braiden told me, "but now we tax artists' incomes above 250,000 euros."

"I'll settle for that," I said, trying to figure out how I could possibly emigrate to Ireland.

This month, the government announced that the Censorship Office for film is being abolished. Perhaps not a big deal in most countries, but bear in mind that Ireland censored "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Casablanca" (1942) and "On the Waterfront" (1954; the priest in it offers Marlon Brando a drink!). Elvis's undulating pelvis was also deemed too shocking a thing to show to innocent Irish girls and their not-so-innocent mothers. Such was the power of the Church, the twisted dominator of the Irish spirit.

Sure of its identity

No longer is Ireland the place James Joyce called "the old sow that eats her farrow."

My visit to Ireland this month, the third I've made in a span of nearly 40 years, showed me a country very much sure of its identity in the world, and anxious to spread its cultural messages wherever possible. The Irish can, and do, claim as part of their heritage JFK, Walt Disney, Grace Kelly, Billy the Kid and even the original MGM lion, Leo, whose real name was Cairbre and who was born in Dublin Zoo on March 20, 1927. As well, Barack Obama's great-great-great grandfather was from County Offaly, and I overheard a fellow in the Cobblestone pub in Dublin refer to him as "Barry O'Bama."

The eyes of the Irish may well up with tears when they are reminded of the green mists of their long-gone pastoral idyll; their imaginations may wax nostalgic over the migrating heroes they have sacrificed for the good of the world. But, in reality, their true spirit resides in the present, with the Irish and non-Irish who live there; and that present is vibrant, dynamic and unique. When foreign-born immigrants and their children assimilate into the mainstream, and Irish culture is fed by the currents, watch out for something more formidable than an MGM lion or a so-called Celtic tiger.

It may seem to be a paradox, but the nature of Irishness will change for the very reason that its cultural precepts are so deeply rooted. Expect a flowering in the coming decades, thanks to the nation's stubborn belief, imagined or real, in itself.

In 1928, not long after Ireland had become a free state, and when it was struggling to find an identity it could live and prosper by, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw gave this advice:

"We can recover our nerve only by forcing ourselves to face new ideas, proving all things, and standing by that which is good . . . "

The Ireland that I saw so recently seems to be taking his words to heart.



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