It’s now that time of year when Irish festivals spring up around the world, tall leprechaun hats are donned and sales of Guinness soar. On St. Patrick’s Day, from Toronto to Tokyo, you can dance a jig in your “authentic” Irish-themed pub and celebrate the cultural influence of the Irish diaspora throughout the world.
It’s an appropriate time to think about “Irishness” and how it differs from “being Irish.” My subject matter here is the connections between Ireland and Irish emigre communities throughout the world, but it applies equally to all manner of emigre communities — from the relationship of Italian-Americans to Italy, Yoruba-Brazilians to Nigeria or Korean-Japanese to Japan. I’d also like to explore how bicultural tension can affect relationships with other cultures, including Japan.
Let’s start by considering a culturally loaded term you may have heard: “plastic Paddy.” This is used to refer to people who, despite not actually being Irish, assume all the stereotypical attributes of the Irish. This can take all kinds of weird manifestations, from devotion to Irish folk music to fervent opinions on the travesties of Irish political history — or in extreme forms, even affecting an Irish accent.
I am identifiably British by passport and education, but I have strong Irish links — my father was Irish and my mother second-generation Irish — and when I encounter this variety of plastic Paddy, I can’t help rolling my eyes. There is something odd about anyone whose sense of identity is so weak that they affect all the stereotypical attributes of an entire nation they don’t even live in.
It’s easy to mock the most extreme, absurd examples of this phenomenon, but that’s not of course to say that many tens of millions of people throughout the world do not have a legitimate claim to Irishness, whether they have ever set foot in Ireland or not. In fact, the great mistake — which you see being made all the time — is to assume that the legitimate font of all Irishness is Ireland itself.
It’s at this point that the term “plastic Paddy” starts to take on a more problematic meaning. The term was apparently first coined by young Irish emigrants to London in the 1980s who wished to dissociate themselves from the second- and third-generation Irish they encountered there. You can well imagine how a new wave of sophisticated Irish expats from the 1990s onwards — often highly educated, multinational-employed, cocktail-sipping jetsetters — did not want to get lumped in with a mass of “plastic Paddies” who believed that being Irish meant drinking stout, bewailing the Famine of 1845 and singing rebel songs.
The ‘Empire of Irishness’
Yet it’s easy to slide from this to a general dismissal of the Irish heritage of anyone who is not first-generation Irish. I know this through repeated personal experience.
I am someone who was steeped in Irish culture as a child in England — raised on pans of cabbage and potatoes, listening to hundreds of Irish folk songs, sent to Catholic primary school, inculcated with the Irish nationalist version of history, familiarized with Irish customs. From my early teenage years onwards I pulled away from this saturation in Irishness and became mostly comfortable in British society. But of course, this early, intense exposure to Irishness never leaves you. I might not live in the country, but I know how to speak the cultural language.
The best-selling Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba once noted in his classic two-volume travelogue “Airurando Kiko” (“Irish Journey,” based on a trip taken in 1987) that few stretches of water offer, like the Irish Sea, such a radical contrast in culture as that between England and Ireland.
In my adult life, my Irishness has been something that I feel neither inclined to work at or advertise. Yet I have often been startled to discover how referring to it in any way in the company of first-generation Irish can lead to the sudden charge of being a “plastic Paddy.” My other half, when encountering Irish mothers at our children’s school, has launched into telling them of my Irish extended family and their love of belting out Irish folk songs at family gatherings only to be stopped in her tracks with a derisory look and a disdainful sneer: “Oh God, your husband sounds like such a plastic Paddy.”
It’s an exquisite irony that the relationship of Ireland towards Irish emigre communities and second- and third-generation Irish around the world has consolidated into what might be called an “Empire of Irishness” with Ireland at the head.
Yet “Irishness” and “Ireland” are two different things, and the Irish are often mistaken when they attempt to pontificate about Irishness. For much of what we think of today as “Irishness” was not created in Ireland at all but in Irish emigre communities, whose numbers vastly exceed those in native Ireland and whose imagination was rendered far more potent by exile. (As an equivalent, think “The Godfather” but with less Cosa Nostra menace and more craic.)
In search of the tragic-heroic
To illustrate how Ireland and Irishness differ, I’d like to explain a little about my own background. My 1970s childhood was dominated by my widowed Irish maternal grandmother. She was a stalwart of a tightly knit Irish community, mixing almost exclusively with other Irish immigrants — usually manual laborers who lived in the boarding houses she ran.
Thinking about that Irish community in Manchester and how it differed from Ireland itself, three things immediately spring to mind. Firstly, it was in many ways more “Irish” in character than Ireland. Surrounded by English culture, the Irish community maintained a siege mentality and were often virulently anti-British, nationalist and pro-Catholic in their attitudes.
Yet — and here is the second paradoxical point of difference — although this community intensely identified with Irishness, it was a particular strain of it. Unlike Ireland itself, which is dominated by Dublin, where over a third of the population live, in the Irish community in Manchester hardly anyone was from Dublin. It was nearly entirely made up of people from Irish country districts who had emigrated to English cities. In fact, a particularly large percentage came from just one Irish county: Mayo.
The Irish culture of Manchester was informed by Mayo-based country attitudes and habits fused with English urban living. These Mayo men took to the pubs and amenities of England with unprecedented gusto and rarely wanted to go back to (in their minds) God-forsaken Mayo. When once I asked a kindly Mayo man long-established in Manchester why he never went back, he answered in just two words: “Too quiet.”
This brings us to the third distinctive aspect of this community: its tragic-heroic side. The uneducated, frustrated men who filled the ranks of Irish laborers in the 1950s and 1960s — immortalized in the song “McCalpine’s Fusiliers” — often had bitterly hard lives and what we would term today as chronic alcohol dependency. Some like my father were not only fierce drinkers but also prone to rages that caused their marriages to collapse.
Yet mixed in with the tragedy is an intriguingly heroic side. These emigrants were intrinsic adventurers and wanderers. They loved the Western films of John Wayne and my father could recite great chunks of Robert Service’s “Best Tales of the Yukon.” Their frontier was not the Wild West but the towns and cities of Britain they roamed in search of work (including straying afar to the oil rigs of the North Sea and the Persian Gulf in my father’s case). When they returned to the pubs of their Irish community, there was an aspect almost of Odysseus returning from his wanderings.
Plastic where there was peat
My concept of “Irishness” was formed in the memory of these figures who dominated my early childhood, and a part of me feels its loss and is occasionally looking to reconnect to it. I might be on the other side of the world, but a strain of “On Raglan Road” can stop me dead in my tracks and overwhelm me with nostalgia for this vanished world.
The most obvious means of reconnecting with this imagined Ireland of my childhood was to visit Ireland itself, and as a young man I took pilgrimages to the west and southwest of Ireland. In my wanderings I found echoes of it, but I never quite caught that tragic-heroic aspect I was looking for. And I admit, in classic plastic-Paddy fashion, I wanted Ireland to be more Irish than it could ever manage to be. I so loved the old-worldy pubs, the peaty smells and old-fashioned soda bread that when friends announced with glee that a new American diner was opening on the main street, my heart sank.
If Ireland could feel diluted in the early 1990s, then this feeling only intensified during the Celtic Tiger years, when the whole nation seemed to be turned into yuppies and property speculators.
I realized that my lost sense of Irishness was ultimately irrecoverable and could be found least of all in modern-day Ireland. This was a keenly personal revelation. I’m sure if I was living in Ireland, I would not want to be enslaved to traditions, but would want to open myself up to the world. Yet in a curious paradox, for the seeker of concentrate old-world Irishness, Ireland today can be something of a disappointment — almost a touristic, “plastic” imitation of some vanished Irish original.
True Irishness, found abroad
In my adult second emigre life, the place where I have most enjoyed Irishness has been in the Irish bars of Japan, fraternizing with the Irish diaspora and lovers of Irishness from around the world. In fact, I am acutely aware that my being drawn to an “outsider” culture like Japan is profoundly connected to my sense of being part of an outsider culture in my upbringing in Britain. I also recognize that the demimonde of Irish bars in Japan I occupied as my weekend retreat in my 20s and 30s was every bit as important to my psyche as my weekday immersion in Japanese culture. A wrestling with Irishness has always been a part of my personal discovery of Japan and a wandering, restless rethinking of self.
For me, Irishness is something that ultimately does not exist so much in physical reality but lurks somewhere in memory, imagination and longing. Yet it is precisely in these mental spaces where many aspects of Irishness were created in the first place. Most of the great songs about Ireland — “The Fields of Athenry,” “Carrickfergus,” “The Mountains of Mourne,” to name but three — are songs about places that exist powerfully in the imagination in a larger narrative of displacement and loss. Yet if you were to visit any of these physical places, you might be underwhelmed in the same way that Japanese tourists with a deep love of Sherlock Holmes might be disappointed not to see fog and gaslight in London.
From a position of exile James Joyce crafted Ireland’s greatest literary creation, “Ulysses” — a vision of Dublin as it had once existed in 1904 — and in so many ways, Irishness has been repeatedly created in the minds of Ireland’s exiled artists and their heirs. It is no less legitimate from being formed from the outside in.
In Yukio Mishima’s 1956 novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” the protagonist becomes obsessed with a mental image of the Golden Pavilion (the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto) that assumes an overwhelming power in his mind. He imagines an infinity of “Golden Pavilions” all in structured correspondence with one another. When he eventually gets to see the real life Golden Pavilion, he is crestfallen at how insignificant and diminished it seems.
On St. Patrick’s Day, what people everywhere celebrate is not so much Ireland, but the fantastic power of Irishness in the imagination of the world — a much bigger and inclusive concept. It should be freely recognized that Irishness exists in an infinite multiplicity of forms. So raise a glass and dance a jig to whatever form of Irishness — in all its exhilarating, worldwide, ever-mutating legacy — happens to particularly affect your own unique imagination and fill your heart.
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