Sep 4, 2019

There are only four million people living in Ireland. But it’s probable five million of them are capable of writing a book you would enjoy reading.

 Almost every Irish person is a philosopher. Whether it’s an old man selling newspapers at a street corner in Dublin, a seasoned bartender in Cork, or a life weary priest in Connemara, everyone there has a story or three to tell.

 It’s not unrealistic to say that books about Irish family drama with the intriguing dynamics, have been central to Irish life and literature since time immemorial.

 In modern times, whether reading James Joyce, (Dubliners) Frank O’Connor (An Only Child, My Father’s Son) Edna O’Brien (The Country Girls) Roddy Doyle (The Snapper), or Colm Toibin, (Brooklyn), Irish family drama provides the essence of the story.  

 The worldwide Irish diaspora, especially those a few generations removed from the original emigration, sometimes tend to view Ireland in ill judged, simplistic ways. To do so is a grave error in judgement.

 There is nothing pleasant about the Irish experience since the English, through their surrogates the Norsemen, arrived in Ireland back in 1169.

And, even that tragic event happened because of Irish family drama after an Irish chieftain ran away with another chieftain’s wife. The understandably aggrieved husband went to the court of English king Henry II for assistance. Eight hundred years later, the English still haven’t left Ireland.

Why is the family so prominent in Irish creativity? There are probably a number of factors responsible.  

For centuries, Ireland had been isolated from the rest of the world. Apart from Belfast, the industrial revolution came significantly later to Ireland than to the rest of Europe.

In pre technological times, Ireland’s physical isolation from mainland Europe resulted in a primarily agrarian society with most of the population living in small parcels of land while eking out a meager existence from an always challenging and often unsustainable plot of land leased from absentee English landlords.

The family unit was central to the existence of the area and, in turn, to the survival of Irish society. 

From this challenging environment, an already strong oral tradition significantly prospered. The smoldering, turf fireplace was central to Irish life with stories from ancient times being carefully passed down from one generation to the next. 

Back then a man’s stature in Irish society was not based on the number of cattle he owned, but on his ability to rapturously tell stories. Many of these were drawn from ancient times and told of dramatic events where families were faced with every conceivable challenge and tragedy.

It’s no wonder that modernly, Irish writers, both male and female, use Irish family drama as the basis for their story telling.

While in no way disrespecting their considerable literary achievements, I’d suggest Irish writers today have greatly benefited by tuning into the collective subconscious of thousands of years of Irish storytelling which lies deeply ingrained in the DNA of every Irish person.

And what of the future for Ireland? It’s impossible to calculate how societal changes over the past thirty years will impact Irish society and Irish family life. Old Ireland is gone forever and, in many ways, that’s good. There’s nothing charming about a starving nation and children being systematically destroyed by perverted Catholic clergy while their bosses in Rome conveniently looked the other way.

But what is gone has been replaced by a modern, fast paced, mainly urbanized 21st century European society. What long term impact will that have on Irish society? How will the immigration of people from Asia, Africa, Syria, and Eastern Europe impact future generations?

Borrowing from WB Yeats in 1916, perhaps yet another terrible beauty has been born as Ireland charges into modernity rushing to forget its tragic past and centuries of isolation.

What price will be paid for this seismic transition?

Hopefully, the proud sense of what we know is to be truly Irish will not get lost while we sail these uncharted waters.


November 2022