I’m going to put it out there right to begin with: Americans, no matter what their actually nationality, secretly all consider Ireland their cultural homeland. Why else would we pepper our streets with faux Irish Pubs serving faux Guinness? Why else would we attend Riverdance? Why else would we trek to the Emerald Isle in droves equal to those that fled it shores following that pesky potato shortage? Because we all secretly long to be Irish, even just by proxy, even just by adoption. And why not? These are a quirky, warm, bright, funny people. They also speak English, which can come in pretty damn handy, I’m slightly ashamed to admit. But more than that, they seem to have a handle on what they want out of life- a bit of fun, some hard won freedom, and a safe country for their families. Basically all the things we used to say we wanted out of this country. Thus, Ireland has become for us the nostalgic homeland of our past. Never mind if you’re really Dutch, or Polish, or Chinese, if we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, can’t we all be Irish the whole year through?
No, no we can’t. They are their own country, and while they find us amusing, even interesting, that don’t need us coming over here claiming that our great great grand uncle’s seamstress was a Connor, so hey, we’re practically family. We ain’t. So just enjoy your vacation and embrace that which you are, a loud, obvious American. It’s okay. Actually no one cares. Surprisingly, we are not the center of the universe, and people don’t just long to hear about the elections and how much you too hate Bush. Sure, tonight in the pub someone asked me why we gave a shit about Puerto Rico’s primary vote, and I had to briefly explain the electoral process and the whole ‘taxation-without-representation’ issue after having downed several pints (I did the system proud, I tell you), but generally they care as much about our political process and social issues as people in our country care about theirs, which is to say, not at all. A few people want to hear about our participation as global citizens, and that is when the conversation really gets interesting. I had a long chat with the owner of an art gallery in Kinsale about the democratization of art via the internet, and how similar capital forces are at work here and in Ireland. It seems capitalist pigs the world over want to keep the proles down.
This is my second trip to Ireland, the first being when I was much younger, and did all the requisite historical and sightseeing outings. Which were lovely, don’t get me wrong, but now I’m on my cultural tour of Europe (which to the untrained eye might look like my ‘drinking tour of Europe’, but seeing as how the weakness of the dollar has reduced me to only the beers I can flirt well enough to get for free, it’s a bit hit or miss). For the first time I am realizing how much Ireland is its own country – it is easy to mistake its uniqueness because they speak English and because things are vaguely familiar, but the further west you get, the more it becomes very unfamiliar. For one thing Gaelic is still spoken fluently, at least in Galway, and the cultural tenacity of the people tends to be stronger the further from the UK or the Continent they get. There is a real feeling of being on the edge of the world out here, and people cling tightly when hanging off an edge.
So this time my goal was to seek out cultural institutions, talk to people, listen to music, eat the food, shop at the markets, do everything but get on a bus tour with other tourists. Not that I fool myself into thinking I’m anything but a tourist, of course I am, but I don’t have to hang out with them, do I? In Cork we sought out a trad session (traditional music jam session) at a bar that was trendier than all hell. It was fantastic, watching these urban hipsters grooving along in a completely unironic fashion to the music of their ancestors. It would be like someone walking into the newest bar in town and boogieing on down to the greatest hits of 1776 (which would be what, like Yankee Doodle? I have no idea. The metaphor has gone off the rails).
Tonight in Galway I went to listen to yet another Trad session and met up with a group of Galwegians, Scots, and Polish (the immigrant population in Ireland right now is largely Eastern European, so you often hear these eerily familiar racist jokes, complaints, etc. Like, substitute ‘Pole’ for ‘Mexican’, and you’d think you were back home). We ended up talking about a variety of things, but largely about the new Lisbon Treaty that Ireland votes on in June. The Lisbon Treaty, as I understand it, has been signed by every other country in the EU, and Ireland is the final vote. All the major politicians are behind it, but Sinn Fein is against it, and every person I’ve talked to is against it. The feeling is that the Treaty will take away the very dear autonomy which is at the core of the Irish identity. There are signs up all over that say ‘People died for your freedom. Vote No.’ There is a sense that agreeing to this Treaty as it stands will be signing over the government, which was fought for so hard and so bloodily, to a greater Europe. The United States of Europe, is what they call it. The funny thing about the Treaty is that no one has read it- apparently it can’t be read, it is too dense and convoluted, and 1500 pages. So people know it is vaguely about trade rules, and vaguely about security issues and even vaguely about abortion, but no one knows for sure. And this in and of itself is seen as a reason to be distrustful.
So this is the state of Ireland these days. Real Guinness, real conversation, real concern about the future of their country. And Riverdance-free.