Irish identity is a rough terrain. Photo: Getty
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The Irish identity crisis: why St Patrick's Day is an odd holiday

For such a small country, there is far too great a divergence within it to attempt to define a quintessential Ireland.

St Patrick’s Day is an odd holiday for the Irish, one that even in its observance, seems a little alien. Less important to the Irish reveller than Christmas and less valued by the devoutly religious than Easter, our national holiday seems like an awfully big to-do grafted onto a minor feast day. This is probably because its modern incarnation is an American import. Though the patron saint’s day had been part of the Irish Christian calendar for centuries, it was Irish emigrants in pre-Revolutionary Boston or New York (sources differ on who got there first) that decided to make a day of it with a parade and citywide merry-making. It wound up back in the old country in the 20th century though, as with the Mexican Cinco de Mayo, it continues to be the diaspora in the United States that makes more of a fuss about it. 

The time of year in which it falls is probably its biggest drawback: Spring has rarely got into full bloom in Ireland by mid-March and, more often than not, St Patrick’s Day is damp, if not uncharitably cold. In more pious times, the pretext of a respite from Lent was welcomed by a certain sector of Irish society though the Free State’s early rulers tried to close off that avenue of pleasure by outlawing pub opening on the day, something that was done away with in the 1960s (bizarrely the Dublin Dog Show was exempt from this prohibition, as a famous Flann O’Brien column once noted).

In recent decades, aware of the tourism potential of St Patrick’s Day, the government has elongated the day itself into a weeklong celebration, with all the requisite bells, whistles and inflatable branded accoutrements. Unsuspecting foreigners are enticed to book low-cost flights to experience the ultimate Dublin-on-a-Saturday-night experience. As it is a day off work, few Irish have ever refused it though it’s hard to conceive of an Irish person making any special plans for the day – there have been times when it seemed to me like a birthday party you are reluctant to go to but do anyway out of obligation. St Patrick’s Day may not be exactly ersatz as such but there is a sense that it has been borrowed from someone else.
 

Dylan Moran, "The Irish and the English"
 

But Irish identity itself is a rough terrain. The Irish are more sensitive than most nationalities to the way they are perceived, particularly when it comes to their former colonial rulers. One of the things most likely to rile the Irish is the suggestion of them being inveterate drinkers, even while many of us will freely admit to being partial to a pint. It’s certainly true the Irish are no slouches when it comes to drinking and alcoholism is a prevalent problem in Irish society. Alcohol dependency is one of the factors linked to a recent rise in suicide rates in Ireland. That said, this is far from a long-existing phenomenon; as recently as 1968 (according to the Gill & Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Ireland) 52 per cent of Irish adults were teetotal (something that is borne out on both sides of my own family). It’s certainly also true that emigrant males living alone in the US and the UK ran counter to these figures. Even so, whatever about the tendencies of the Irish to overindulgence in drink, they are not wildly at variance with drinking patterns elsewhere in northern Europe. Not that those patterns are healthy either.

But the Irish certainly like to think of themselves above all as festive. The hail fellow well met is what many Irish aspire to be in their dealings with foreigners. Many of us have an insatiable yearning to be liked. But there are others among the Irish who cast a dark eye on this approval-seeking bonhomie. When Ireland’s football team crashed calamitously at Euro 2012 in Poland, our estimated 30,000 travelling support (of which I was one) received the consolation prize of being named best fans of the tournament. We all would have gladly exchanged that for an even moderately respectable performance from the Boys in Green but it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to be praised for going abroad and, far from pissing off the locals, actually charming them.
 

Niall Tóibín 

Nonetheless there was criticism for the fans from people back home and from non-partier-in-chief Roy Keane for blasting out a mournful rendition of The Fields of Athenry (an admittedly awful song) when 4-0 down to Spain, instead of turning on the team in a frenzy of boos and whistles. The fans, we were told, were only there for the ‘sing song’ and some people even found the all-round lack of olympian seriousness embarrassing. That is very much a minority opinion among the Irish though. Many of them sincerely believe everyone in the world loves the Irish; it’s quite possible we are indeed loved among those peoples aware of our existence, but it is equally possible the behaviour of some younger Irish abroad is causing people in the US and Australia to revise their opinions. It is also likely that an endemic eagerness to please for a long time stunted the growth of a properly adversarial political culture within Ireland as personality always took precedence over policy in election campaigns.

Another baleful slur is that of the "Thick Paddy" – it is one that is much rarer than it used to be though it did make a comeback last week courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson. This has its roots in a time when the Irish demonstrated their thickness to the neighbouring English by speaking a difference language to them. I can confirm that stupidity hasn’t been entirely eradicated from Ireland but we are less frequently the butt of jokes these days except, it seems, in Australia where, faute de mieux, the Irishman joke lives on. The irony though is that calculated foolishness is the source code of Irish humour. Where English comedy is by and large predicated on class, its Irish counterpart is based on strategically passing oneself off as being stupider than one is. (Another irony is that the master builders of modern English comedy – Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw – were all Irish.)
 

D’Unbelievables

From Thady Quirk, the ur-unreliable narrator of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent to Father Ted, by way of Flann O’Brien’s The Brother, the stand-up of Niall Tóibín, Dylan Moran and D’Unbelievables and Patrick McCabe’s mercurial Francie Brady, faux naivety is the ultimate Irish comic device. This rhetorical sleight of hand is present in the inner voice of Leopold Bloom, in the earnest pamphleteer who narrates Swift’s A Modest Proposal and in the most famous liar in Irish literature, Christy Mahon, the would-be parricide of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.

The archetype surfaces in Vladimir and Estragon and is even a staple of Irish political life, loved and loathed in equal measure – the "cute hoor", a ducker and diver, someone with "neck", shameless audacity and a Clay Davis-like profession in his or her own moral and intellectual simplicity. It’s quite likely this deceptive strategy grew out of encounters with colonial rulers and, more directly, judicial and legal authority, all of whom took the stupidity of its subjects as a given. You can see how a shrewd colonial would give that the run-around.

I prefer to avoid attempts to define a quintessence of Irishness, as for such a small country there is far too great a divergence within it. It remains one of the few countries in Europe where the rural identity is still as strong and as prevalent as the urban one. Irish people are less self-conscious these days about what makes one Irish – one can enjoy Gaelic games and the previously scorned "foreign" ones equally, you can be an Irish speaker and an outward-looking cosmopolitan (Irish-speakers are indeed overwhelmingly such), you can be Catholic and not blindly follow the church’s dogma on everything, as many will when voting in May’s referendum on marriage equality.

For all the maddening aspects of Irish society, for all the pernicious legislative issues that have yet to be resolved, not to mention the media’s complete renunciation of criticism of the government, the country as you live and breathe it is not all that bad. Even as unsentimental an exile as myself can click on the countless listicles posted online that profess Ireland’s putative uniqueness, overcome my initial cynicism, and nod in agreement that we do indeed pay an inordinate amount of attention to the weather forecast, hurling is the greatest sport on Earth and no hot beverage will ever in its wildest dreams come close to Barry’s Tea.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism