When I tell people I’m working for IrishCentral, I’m usually met with the words, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Irish!”
The fact is, I’m an impostor. I haven’t a drop of Irish blood; I’m a mix of Mayflower-old American with some Norwegian and Scottish infused more recently. I was raised in California and, needless to say, I don’t speak Irish.
My first interaction with Ireland was mediated by The Secret of Roan Inish, which my mother showed me when I was five or so.
Although based on a novella about an island off the Scottish coast, and although an outdated and romanticised depiction of Ireland, my impressionable mind latched onto this vision of green. The movie remains my favourite to this day. Through it, I idealized Ireland, relating the country to idyllic summers spent at Maine’s rugged waterfront with my family and contrasting it to the constant brown landscape produced by California’s persistent sun.
When I chose to attend Dartmouth College, the English department’s study abroad program with Trinity College Dublin was a primary factor. Last fall I left Hanover, New Hampshire, and landed in Dublin for the first time.
What I find so interesting about Ireland is its unique combination of an ancient and well-defined culture with an idea of nationhood constructed relatively recently, as compared to older European nations.
The latter reminds me of the US, to some degree, as young countries born from revolution especially require national symbols and a unifying identity. A huge focus of my Irish Children’s Literature course at Trinity was how national identity is communicated to and created within children. We read many books that dealt overtly with connections to Ireland’s cultural past and symbols and attempted to prescribe continued connection for the child reader, such as Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman.
I also completed an Independent Study while in Dublin, focusing on Nostalgia in the Irish Memoir. Irish memoirs naturally focused my attention on what it meant to grow up Irish, and by what means adults communicated the idea of the Irish nation to their children, when the Irish nation itself was still diplomatically young. (On this topic, I recommend the obvious Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, though I recognize that it’s subjective and controversial, and The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton, which deals with how words - written and spoken - and the Irish language interact with constructs of nationhood.)
John McGahern wrote in his Memoir, speaking of the thirties and forties, “Though the Free State had been wrested in armed conflict from Britain, it was like an inheritance that nobody quite understood or knew how to manage.” Communicating the meaning of this inheritance to children who hadn’t known a colonized Ireland required the distillation of a widely-applicable idea of ‘Irishness.’
Of the places I visited, the Aran Islands provoked the strongest sense of an identifiable ‘Irishness.’ On Inis Mór, I remember approaching a group of middle-aged men to ask for directions; they had been chatting in Irish outside a whitewashed house, leaning on the rough stone fence. They looked at each other, I presumed thinking something like, “Which of us must go speak English to that American tourist?” By some unspoken consensus they seemed to designate one representative to talk to me, while the rest continued their conversation in Irish.
But of course, the Aran Islands are a tourist destination, and in many features an exception rather than the rule. The Aran Islands were the Ireland I envisioned growing up, stone walls and grass and thatched roofs and sea, not the current Ireland in its entirety.
Ireland is a modern nation; Dublin was the first city in which I ever lived. The students I met at Trinity were both intensely connected to their heritage - in their free time actively promoting the Irish language and its use among their generation - and cosmopolitan. I think it’s this productive tension between old and new, between uniquely Irish culture and world culture, that makes Ireland great.
I don’t claim to be an expert in what it means to be Irish; I just want to absorb as much as I can. Returning isn’t even a question. If I get the chance to live and work in Ireland in the future, I’ll take it. For now, I like knowing what “craic” means, and how to use the word “grand” correctly. I love working in a New York City office where my American accent is in the minority. I love having an opinion about Bulmers (approval) and I love being able to recommend places to go in Dublin.
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