Thursday, March 14, 2013

Some St Patrick's Day Thoughts

never wear this
Like Cinnabon and Napalm the modern St Patrick's Day celebration, of course, is an American invention. Every year about this time American media outlets trundle out some sad old sentimental Mick to talk about his or her "Irish childhood" even though said author really grew up in Chicago or New Jersey. These articles are always an embarrassing mess of cliches (kind of like St Patricks Day itself) and they used to get me worked up and irritated. The bad writing still annoys me but I'm a lot more tolerant about the sentiment these days. I've had a paradigm shift in the last couple of years and now I think: so what if you were born in Chicago or Boston or the Bronx and your family has lived there for the last 150 years, if you want to call yourself Irish, go ahead, don't let me stop you. And if it really means that much to you you can even say that you're proud to be Irish too, (although why you're proud of an accident of birth is beyond me). Wear the green hat, smoke the pipe, talk in an awful accent, knock yourself out, just as long as you don't try and pass off a four leaved clover as a shamrock then you're fine by me. (I hate the four leaved clover mistake so much that I've ranted about it in two different novels, an aside in Dead I Well May Be and a long (and hopefully funny) gripe that begins Falling Glass.)  
Americans weren't the first to enthusiastically embrace or enthusiastically suppress their Irish heritage. Theres been a long tradition of Irishmen passing themselves off as Englishmen and vice versa: Oscar Wilde, The Duke of Wellington, Shane MacGowan, John Lydon, TE Lawrence, Jonathan Swift, Field Marshall Montgomery, Morrissey, Patrick Fermor, Patrick O'Brian, Spike Milligan etc. etc. Half the Republican of Ireland football team is, traditionally, from England and the rules of residence in other sports have changed so that not only can you play for Ireland if you have one grandparent from there, but also if you've established residency over a couple of years. For me all this is ok. Borders have less meaning than ever these days and the golden age of nationalism is dying. This too can only be a good thing. Nationalism as a concept was invented in the seventeenth century (before that kingly, clerical and family allegiances were more important) and it'll probably erode by the end of the twenty first century. In other words since modern humans first appeared in Africa around 150,000 years ago they have lived in nation states or countries for 0.133% of that time. For 99.8% of human history there was no concept of "the nation" at all. And although nationalism seems very important today really its just a bizarre little meme that we've been currently going through and which will, undoubtedly, disappear completely at some point in the future. A couple of hundred years from now the nation state will seem as anachronistic and silly as the death penalty, laws against marijuana and powdered wigs.
So good luck to you this St Patrick's Day: if you want to call yourself Irish then be my guest...and if that Irishness manifests itself in drinking German beer that has been dyed green, well that's fine with me too. I'll do what I've been doing for the last couple of years: have one or two drinks while I read a lot of Irish poetry; I don't want to brag about an accident of my birth but it gives me some satisfaction to come from an island with more poets per capita than anywhere else in the world. Yes Ireland still consumes more beer per head than anywhere in Europe apart from the Czech Republic, but since most of that beer is awful stuff like Harp lager, I like to focus on the literary heritage instead. Reading poetry quietly in a room would be a cliche I'd really like to see catch on rather than ostentatious frat-boy drinking in the public street. However, I'm no stern scold, as that honorary Irishman and citizen of the world Beaudelaire said 

Il est l'heure de s'enivrer!
Pour n'être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps,
enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.

Drunk or sober, at least in my house, I guarantee, there won't be a damned four leaved clover in sight.