“’Tis desperate, so ‘tis” Tony Simpson

Burnt Barley
Peta Mathias
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1869414276

Irish at Heart
Marie Gray
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1865903449

It’s bound to continue to be one of the curiosities of this century – as it was of the last – that however liberal and enlightened the English may be collectively or individually, most of them become raving right-wing lunatics on the subject of Ireland. When I was living in Britain some years ago, the merest suggestion that some attention had to be paid to the IRA point of view if the Troubles were to be terminated was enough to spark an accusation of favouring the bombing of children (or worse, horses); sometimes it could spark a saloon bar brawl.

I visit Britain regularly, and I’m sorry to say that’s still the situation. They can’t help it. For 700 years the two peoples have been glaring at one another in mutual bewilderment and fury. Bewilderment on the part of the Irish. There they were, minding their own business and enjoying their Celtic culture, when along came the English and told them it must stop immediately. Fury on the part of the English when they discovered that the Irish had no intention of stopping it. Worse, they were not taking the English seriously. The English are rightly proud of their ability to laugh at themselves; they’re driven demented when others laugh at them. When they discovered that the Irish thought they were highly amusing, their fury became incandescent.

So when, in 1978, I announced to my work colleagues that I was taking my summer holiday in Ireland, they probably put it down to antipodean perversity. Why would anybody in their right mind want to go there, their surprised looks in response seemed to say? The loss was theirs, not mine. I had one of the most glorious holidays I have ever taken. So good in fact that by the time I got to Courtmacsherry in County Cork, I rang London with an invented vehicle breakdown and took another week to savour it all the more.

The Irish have a genius for relaxed living almost comparable to the Italians, although it’s been one of Europe’s best-kept secrets for a long time. Twenty years ago Ireland, tied economically and politically to Britain for centuries, and to the worst of ultramontane religious conservatism for even longer, was beginning to break free at last from both by way of membership of what is now the European Union. Because there are always dangers that sudden economic development will swamp culture and only a few will gain, I wondered at the time what the result would be.

Almost entirely benign if Peta Mathias is to be believed. Her Ireland is recognisably the one I knew more than two decades ago, but it is also one which has come out to play in increasingly open ways. The Irish life she describes is lively, hospitable, kindly, curious of strangers and welcoming to them, communal, musical, and much given to song and talk (or “the crack” as the Irish call it). No-one goes home until the last song is sung, the last anecdote told, and the last drop consumed. Just in case you don’t believe her, the book comes with a CD of some of the pub songs she heard and sang. And as I did, she finds the Irish way with words astonishing and creative. Mathias recounts a conversation almost identical to one I once had myself after losing my way and asking for directions:

“Hello. Am I going in the right direction for the university?”

“How would I know – sure that depends where you came from.”

“I don’t know – I’m lost. Over there somewhere.”

“Ah, now, I wouldn’t have come that way.”

“How do you know which way I came?”

“Because if you’d been coming the right way you wouldn’t be standing in my shop now. Don’t be going down that road there on the left, it’ll be doing you no good at all, that’s the road there to the right. As you go past the cathedral, say a Glory Be, and turn to your left.”


And she recounts a woman at an agricultural show saying: “Would ye look at dat man over dere. His legs is so tin you could clean the barrel of a rifle with him.”

What has changed apparently since I was last there is that while the way of life remains much as it was, the Irish now have the wherewithal to enjoy it. The annual Irish per capita income is now higher than the English – a source of further aggravation to them, I shouldn’t be surprised. This is not wholly down to the EU. The Irish have also done a great deal to help themselves by way of the Irish Development Corporation, set up in 1969 to put investment money into local and regional development, and to encourage the private sector to do the same. There are handsome tax advantages for doing so and unlike some other nations, particularly in Asia, which have followed this path, there are strong regulatory protections to ensure that this is at the expense of neither the workers nor the environment.

Notably, too, the Irish have not scrimped on investing heavily in their culture and its development. They were among the first to realise that an economy based on intellectual property must have a strong, unique and indigenous base for it to develop. With their strong sense of identity nurtured over centuries, this was no bother to the Irish, although like everything else it has had its funny side. (Or “’Tis desperate, so ‘tis”, as the Irish say). More than two decades ago I sat in a Dublin pub with the then secretary of the Irish actors’ union, Dermot Doolin, while he explained the thinking behind what was at that time a revolutionary policy on zero taxation for the earnings of artists, writers and musicians. Everyone in the Dail supported it except the Catholic right. This was, said Dermot, because everyone knew that the real purpose was to get Irish-American cultural millionaires to come home and to put their silly old million dollars in an Irish bank. Those in opposition feared that the upshot would be the debauching of the peasantry by these decadent in-comers who were known to give drunken parties in which naked young women were thrown into swimming pools. “And did this happen?” I wanted to know. “God bless yer, no!” said Dermot. “On the contrary, they came home, bought and restored ruined 18th century manors, go to mass twice on Sunday, and want to know the reason why if the locals don’t also.”

One should not, however, become overly romantic about Ireland, because it has a darker side. One of the things that struck me about the place even in the late 1970s was the very large number of well-fed priests eating up large every time I went into a restaurant. Ireland seemed to me to be distinctly priest-ridden, although Mathias says that this is no longer anything like the case (partly because of a series of sexual scandals which have rocked the Church in recent years, and loosened its deadly grip), and I’m sure Ireland is a better place for it. But it’s also a place which has been racked by violence for the last 30 years, a factor which Marie Gray in her book looks much more firmly in the eye than Mathias does. Hers is a rather different book to Mathias’. There’s less fun in it; but it’s also an antidote to too rosy a perspective.

As it happened, when I lived in Britain my work took me to Belfast from time to time, where I encountered the altogether grimmer Ireland Gray describes. Here “Good morning” could sound like a declaration of war; the streets were full of khaki-clad young men with particularly deadly-looking shooters; and, I was disgusted to discover, the trade unions – particularly in the unskilled work areas – were all too often a racket to ensure that any jobs going went to Protestants. It was a nasty situation and, most astonishing and fascinating of all, almost completely marginalised or ignored by the British mainstream press.

Happily, as Gray’s book confirms, although there is still suspicion, and unthinking hatred, and bigotry continues to abound, the Ireland described by Mathias is increasingly asserting itself as the new-found prosperity within the EU and the growing irrelevance of the English connection become more apparent. The deliberately nurtured flowering of Irish culture, the natural cordiality towards strangers, and the easy-going and very attractive Celtic ways of the Irish themselves have aided this. I think that the last word therefore belongs with Mathias, who recounts being in a pub in Tipperary one night, with everyone singing their hearts out, when three drunk young men came in and began singing IRA rebel songs: “These were met with stony silence, which hung between us like a blister, to be broken by a woman, who quietly said: ‘We don’t want any of those songs . . . that’s all over now’.”

One hopes so. It will be hard for the Irish to go on without constantly looking back. Besides, no community can survive without a sense of where it has been, and the Irish will continue to do so. But they have a great deal to gain by increasingly looking forward. What these books confirm is that they know that and are determined to keep doing it.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington social historian and writer.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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