Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Reflections of Ireland

As promised, here are some of my reflections from the Goldring arts journalism trip to Ireland.

Everywhere you look in Ireland there lingers an artifact attesting to that culture’s long and prosperous history. On the left lies a landmark, a monument to some long gone, but not forgotten hero. To the right stands a doorway leading to the living quarters of a revolutionary thinker, persecuted for his belief in liberation, but not blind to a new way of life. From the ancient Kells and the Viking hordes to the English landlords and the Irish rebels, each nook and cranny of the tiny island nation bears the tale of a proud people--a strong contrast from our own history.

Their National Museum of History in Dublin contains a wealth of information about Irish civilization starting from prehistoric times when people molded cauldrons out of bronze and buried human scarifies in the bog after performing a killing ritual three times. From there you can journey through the years of Roman influence, Viking onslaught and English occupation. Weaponry such as deadly swords and crossbows as well as hand-molded chalices and broaches line the inside of cases. They indicate a time when people were deeply indebted to the fight as well as the creation of art.

A similar chunk of history can be found at the Book of Kells museum in Dublin. Here ancient scriptures taken from monks’ renditions of the Bible come alive on standing columns. The intricate Celtic designs are projected onto walls along with details about literacy in medieval times. The Celtic designs, which include colorful pigments of blue, red and gold amongst intertwining, spiraling lines, cast the shape of letters, crosses and animals, such as snakes and cats.

In contrast, my nascent nation of America has but little to offer in terms of identity. The natives who inhabited my country, and to whom the true history of North America belongs, were silenced many years ago by the white profiteers. U.S. history is built on the backs of minority peoples, while the Irish have but ancient ancestors to blame for the destruction of their culture. They were the subjugated of Germanic tribes and English law, while we, on the other side of the ocean, were the exploiters of our country’s peoples.

As with the black population in America, the Irish culture survived beyond all persecution. Despite the many attempts to subject and kill them through events like the potato famine in the 19th century and the revolution in the 21st, the Irish lasted and held onto their national character. Because of this perseverance, no matter how small, if something is branded with the Celtic seal it becomes a thing of pride in the Irish heart. With a country as large, diverse and new as America, finding a common thread is not as simple.

The Irish have a way of unearthing that unifying force in almost any circumstance. Kilmainham Jail, for instance, served as a place of suffering and death for members of the Irish Revolution (1919-1921). Instead of looking at the structure as a place of woe, the Irish use it to represent the good deeds done by those who freed the country from English rule. They keep the doors open to countrymen and tourists to teach them about the Irish rebels who were executed on the premises less than 100 years ago. Jails are normally seen as a place of repression, but the Irish have found a way to turn the prison into a symbol of freedom.

Take the second example of the Guinness Storehouse. One typecast that follows the Irish from birth ‘till death is that they are notorious drinkers. As we all know, too much alcohol can cause liver damage and premature birth, but instead of being insulted by the stereotype that they drink heavily, the Irish have turned it into something positive. Thousands of people visit the Guinness plant each year to see how the brewers construct their famous Irish beer. Likewise, Guinness exports their product to over 150 countries around the world. The Irish cliché may be compounded by the fame of this alcohol, but because it’s Irish it’s a matter of esteem.

Perhaps the idea of the Irish drinker merits both truth and pride. On the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, you can follow the course of the most famous Irish authors and thinkers, such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, from bar to bar. Behind these walls lies the inspiration for some of the most brilliant work in the Western cannon, as well as drunk Irishman perched on stools clutching pints of Smithicks. The Irish can trace their literary history back to the pubs and so they too remain a national treasure.

Speaking of authors, the most revealing sense of history and pride comes from inside the works of Irish playwrites. Brian Friel’s work The Faith Healer recently enjoyed a run at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Throughout the play the main character, a faith healer named Frank Hardy, makes repeated references to his home country of Ireland. While growing it was the place where he found his gift, now matured he has left Ireland to utilize his ability to heal and save.

The story revolves around Hardy’s discontent with his gift; it is a double edge sword that allows him to cure others, but also requires him to sense events before they happen. More often than not his forethought leads to conflict within himself. For example, the four monologues that deliver the story allude to the fact that Hardy has seen his own death by murder. Thus Hardy runs from his country, hides from his attackers; however, he cannot evade away from fate.

Hardy becomes afraid to return to Ireland because it transformed into a place synonymous with death, first his father’s and then his own. However, upon the death of his baby in Scotland, Hardy realizes that death is not confined to one particular domain; it will follow him until fate commands it to strike. Only when he faces his mortality by coming back to Ireland is Hardy able to eradicate his despondency. He and his wife spend a lovely evening together laughing and drinking at the bar until kinsmen murder him. Hardy’s life has come full circle, an act of fate. He that is born an Irishman must die and Irishman.

Another play that recently debuted, this time at the Druid Theatre in Galway, uses the country of Ireland as a central theme in its plot. The Walworth Farce, a story about a father and his two sons, repeatedly uses Ireland as a heavenly contrast to the hellish atmosphere in England. The family moved to London some ten years prior where they stay holed up in a small apartment, play acting their former lives in the Irish countryside.

The boys reference the feel of the grass under their feet, the sweet smell of their mother’s cooking and the happiness they felt as a family—all in Ireland. The father promises the boys that they will one day return home and find that joy again. Though it never happens, the thought of going back to Ireland keeps the boys at their father’s command as they play act their lives away and wish for the day when their existence will come round full circle.

Another play that harkens back to a more remote part of Irish history is the Bacchae of Baghdad, playing at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Although the original version, written by the Greek playwrite Euripides in the 5th century B.C., may seem to be unrelated to modern Irish life, a closer look reveals the connection.

Every inch of Western culture from America to Ireland owes allegiance to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Without their example of government, art and architecture, our world we be another place. The dramas of the prehistoric playwrites directly influence the way contemporary writers think about their work. Therefore, the Bacchae of Baghdad merely pays homage to a part of Irish heritage that belongs to an extended community.

We can all learn a lot from observing cultural practices of other nations, whether they include dumping back pints of Guinness at a pub, walking the grounds of a rehabilitation prison or watching a production of a contemporary play. Ireland is a land rich with heritage and pride; the world would do well to pay attention to their example of turning a negative event into a positive tradition.


Blogger D. Clark said...

This was a really well-written article. I totally enjoyed reading it. You have mad journalism skillz.

That's right, with a "z".

3:05 AM  
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