Monday, 17 March 2014

It's St Patrick's Day: There'll be Humour & Heartache in Equal Measure

[A more evocative/historical piece I wrote for the Huffington Post was published today. Variations thereof were also published in US outlets].

Fifty years ago signs such as, “No blacks, dogs or Irish” were commonplace. Nowadays, [well behaved] Irish and dogs are welcome in most British establishments.

As recounted previously, before I left my native Dublin to live in the UK I took elocution lessons and words like “feck” were banished from my vocabulary. I dyed my carrot red hair black and reduced my daily alcohol intake from 10 to 8.5 pints. You won’t find U2 or The Script on my ipod. I changed my name from Mary Gobnit O’Reilly to the more British sounding Tess (short for Tessandra) Finch-Lees. My assimilation was complete.

As a people we Irish have learned to lighten up a little. Not take ourselves so seriously. In the past we would be incensed at acts of oppression and injustice. The literary elite would compete to capture the political pulse of the people. Each vying for a place in history with arty alliteration and perennially portentous prose (what can I say, it’s in the blood).

The Irish genius for creativity didn’t stop at the door of literature. Their ingenuity knew no bounds when it came to circumventing the 17th century equivalent of austerity measures, known as the penal laws. Just as today, the penal laws provided a legal framework to steal from the poor for the benefit of the rich. The tax on chimneys was resisted by making a fire in the middle of the room. The tax on outbuildings saw animals brought into the house and tethered to the wall. We resisted glass tax, or tax on light, by using horse placenta and splitting doors in two, hence the expression, “day light robbery”.

You need look no further than Kilburn to see the Irish solution to the bedroom tax. It involves minor demolition and open plan sleeping.

Contemporary Irish culture is exported in more palatable packaging. Focusing on personal relationships rather than political angst. Maeve Binchy is the literary equivalent of freshly baked soda bread, smothered in artery hardening butter and homemade jam, washed down with a nice cup of Barry’s tea.

Whilst Father Ted embodied a more anarchic, 7 pints of Guinness washed down by a Jameson chaser, approach to exposing cultural warts, Mrs Brown’s Boys is more a cocktail of mind altering drugs mashed up with boiled bacon and cabbage.

Humour is part of Irish DNA and, historically, has been a powerful bulwark against heartache. But, when the pain of a people is so palpable, jocularity sometimes demeans it.

There are haunting resonances between the Ireland of the past and present. A profusion of People begging in the streets, half built houses abandoned and boarded up. Rural towns, once vibrant are now jaded and deserted. Young people yet again are leaving in their droves to seek gainful employment abroad.

The window tax has been replaced by a roof tax. Anyone lucky enough to be able to keep their home is being punitively taxed for that. The burden of austerity is hitting the poorest the hardest. Ordinary Irish people have their begging bowls out again. The St Vincent De Paul occupying the role of soup kitchen for the homeless and destitute.

If ever there was a time for the Irish to recapture the spirit of defiance, employed so effectively by our ancestors, now would be it.

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