Monday, March 12, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

As a New Zealander, I admit to very ambiguous feelings about things Irish.

As I understand it, by ancestry I am not mainly Irish – more Scots, and with some English and some Irish in the mix. I do not identify myself as of Irish descent. But my wife’s ancestry is 100% bog-Irish Catholic, so we’ve passed on all these Celtic genes to our kids and there is an inevitable family connection with Ireland.

Of course the works of some Irish writers have been my long-time companions. Perhaps the high point of one of my two visits to Ireland was standing in the Martello tower where James Joyce set the opening section of Ulysses.  Patrick Kavanagh is my idea of a great poet, and Seamus Heaney my idea of a really deserving Nobel Prize-winner. And God knows there are dozens of other Irish literary names I could invoke with respect, from Mangan to O’Connor. That’s without even mentioning the Anglo-Irish Protestant tradition (Swift, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, Beckett).

That Ireland punches above its weight in literature is beyond dispute.

Of course I have great respect and sympathy for the Irish struggle for independence and find myself instinctively taking an anti-British imperialist stand when the topic comes up. Of course I believe the whole mess of “Northern Ireland” could have been avoided if the British government hadn’t gone all devious and caved in to minority pressure over partition back in the 1920s.

Find me in the right mood and I can knock back a Guinness (or, for preference, a whisky) in a pub and get weepily sentimental about this stuff with the worst of them.

But there is much about Ireland that drives me spare. Ignoring the rabid Orange side of the equation, it’s not the Catholicism that gets me, but the type of Catholicism. I often wonder why it is that a country which so loudly proclaimed its faith never once produced a Catholic theologian of the stature of Europeans like (the Frenchmen) Jacques Maritain and Yves Congar or (the German) Karl Rahner. Is it entirely because Irish Catholics were denied a university education until a little over a century ago? Or is there really no original analytic thought at all in Irish Catholicism?

Irish Catholicism has a particularly severe, repressive, puritanical side – often mis-called Jansenism – and the backlash has been in full swing for the last forty years or so as clerical scandals are uncovered about fornicating or paedophile clergy, defunct Magdalene Homes are deplored and petty clerical tyrants prove to have had feet of clay.

But this brings another distasteful phenomenon. The boozy braggadocio of old-time Irish nationalism and the limited Irish version of Catholicism are being replaced by the plastic tourist version of Irishness, playing up to foreign visitors. There is an awful self-consciousness in the way Ireland now sells itself.

I hope I make it clear that I like the place and on the whole like the people; but the drink, the sentiment and the playing-up to tourism are things I’d prefer to shun. They don’t represent the best of Ireland anymore than rugby, racing and beer represent the best of New Zealand.

Ireland doesn’t loom large in my own work, but inevitably I’ve sometimes reflected on it when writing poetry. In my collection THE LITTLE ENEMY (Steele-Roberts, 2011, $NZ20), I have four poems with Irish themes. I reproduce two of them below. As I believe poems should speak for themselves, I won’t give them a detailed introduction, save to note that the first, Rear Vision, records part of the trip when an elderly Australian academic drove  me across Ireland (from Galway to Dublin). The second, Among School Children, reflects my discontents with W.B.Yeats, an indisputably great poet who could also be profoundly obtuse and silly in his ideas.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.


“Stop the car. Can’t you stop the car a moment?” I say.

The white-washed town hits us somewhere
between Offally and Kildare,
a blip at the speed we’re going.
Square windows recessed into square stone walls
doorsteps right on the street.
Jogging-carts? Pigs? They should be here.
Photograph it in black-and-white
and say you’ve been to rural Ireland.

“Probably kept up for the tourists,” she says
Aussie voice matter-of-fact as a Vegemite sandwich.
She presses the accelerator harder.

Saturday night in Dublin was neon lights,
a crowded McDonalds on O’Connell Street,
teenagers with walkmans,
rock music in the cyber-café.
Her crown Sub Mariae Nomine displaced
by the EU ring of stars
on a dozen building-site flagstaffs.
Galway was no better, mallified, rough edges smoothed,
distant West-of-Ireland now wine-bars
with names like Nora Barnacle’s.
And in between, the rolling Irish Midlands,
modern highways
industrial enterprise farming.

“So what did you expect?” she says, “Leprechauns?”

No. Nor pookas, nor fairy-rings, nor bare-footed colleens in shawls,
nor the priest with his blackthorn whacking lovers out of hedges.
Nothing as crass as a calendar or bland as a Bing Crosby backlot.
I know. I know. Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…

“Too late for oysters and Erse”, she says.

The rear-vision mirror
sees nothing but the Merc following.


Too easy for good parody, a man
in late middle age, thinking himself old
and venerable, walks in a classroom
bored with the lessons and pedagogy
imagining that a little girl, who doesn’t give
a split and raw fig for him, is Leda.
And his head fills with Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato’s ideal
or anything to keep his haughty spirit off the real.

He’s not all first principles, of course.
He knows where he is enough to note
the nun, and get in a good Anglo-Irish
Protestant dig (“nuns worship images” tee hee).
They spell and cipher, but only in “the best
modern way”, not like our Golden Age.
Flashes of old loves and Quattrocento art
serve to keep his insulated soul apart.

So Kate and Bridget, Brendan and Pat
don’t stand a chance when he comes probing.
Their parents are shopkeepers and navvies
and they probably labour for a living
while he, in assumed aristocratic ease
grows like a tree and weaves carelessly as dancers.
Fine art and status serve to keep him pure
and preserve effortless grace in the lordly amateur.

Odd to be lectured in contrived crossed rhymes
on the pointlessness of effort, a way of saying
some of us are born superior, it’s all eugenics
and theosophy, while the rest of you should keep
your distance, know your place (especially Catholics)
don’t struggle, but serve me those iced buns I like.
What of the leaf, the blossom and the bole?
Platonic fizz distracting from the social whole.

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