So the Indo asked me to write a bit for Paddy’s Day. It was meant to be 17 signs you’re Irish, or alternatives way to mark the day, so I got confused and ended up with something between those two. Of all the things I wrote for the paper this was the one I stumbled over the most. Thus, it ended up being a somewhat overwrought and overlong 1,200 words on whatever the hell this is:
I want to tell you a story. A story about a young man from a country far away, who yearned for a better life. Lured here with promises of a great job and excellent working conditions, he found himself forced into slavery, working in filthy conditions and surrounded by animals. No, I’m not talking about Brent Pope, but of our patron saint, Patrick. Like all young men growing up in Wales he dreamed only of playing rugby in a coal mine with the rest of his choir, but after spotting an ad in the local ogham stone looking for young talent to work overseas, he signed up and was shipped off to Ireland to herd sheep. Granted, it could have been worse – he could have been forced to work the late shift in a Spar on O’Connell Street, and while he really ought to have heard alarms bells when the recruitment agency was run by a man named Niall Of The Nine Hostages, his fate – and ours – were forever entwined thereafter.
He did escape eventually, but after a brief interlude back home, presumably working as a roadie for Tom Jones, he spotted a gap in the market back in Ireland for guilt. Our national identity has been linked – for better or worse – with the Catholic faith ever since, but perhaps now is a good time to think about all the things that make us who we are.
- Form a disorderly queue: Few things capture the essence of Irishness like the depressing mayhem of our attempts to queue. Having been raised with the horizontal battlefront queueing system in pubs, our transition from jostling pintbabies to confused pintmen and pintladies every time we are expected to form a straight line is something to behold. Like a particularly drug-addled horse at the start of the Grand National, our restless spirit won’t allow us to simply stand in a line waiting our turn for anything, be it to board an Expressway bus, select from a breakfast buffet, use self-service checkouts, or attend a removal.
- Do what thou wilt and that shall be the whole of the law: For a country with so many zany self-imposed religious rules, we really struggle to comply with some of the more basic statutory ones. Any rule we don’t like becomes John Bull’s Law, and thus is to be ignored until we become four green fields once more. This list includes TV licenses, any and all avoidable taxes, picking up after your dog, and a whole host of others. This St Patrick’s Day why not celebrate our innate lawlessness by parking in in a junction box, walking in a cycle lane, cycling on a footpath, or simply wandering into a random queue at the halfway point.
- Avoid confrontation: We love a good donnybrook, even going so far as ironically naming a well-to-do part of Dublin after our beloved mass brawls. But those are collective affairs – we are the fighting Irish, not the fighting Irish person. One-on-one, we are terrible at standing our ground. You can point to any number of historical reasons for it, but we are completely incapable of asking someone to stop cycling on the footpath, or to not skip the queue, or to stop spitting their gum onto your shoes. Even when we do try to confront an issue, it ends coming out as a series of increasingly apologetic ‘sorrys’. So when some giant stands right in front of you at the parade, or a sleeveen slithers in to get served ahead of you at the bar, swallow that anger down, and store it up for the next donnybrook. On Paddy’s Day you shouldn’t have too long to wait.
- Talk without speaking: We are a nation of talkers, and we love nothing more than chewing over the important issues of the day, such as potatoes, rain, or the effects of rain on potatoes. Just as the Inuit have a veritable blizzard of words for snow, we have a dozen flowery words for potato and more than nine million for rain, but they all carry deeper layers of meaning. Here are a few translations to get you started:
‘Tis fine out’ – I am filled with a sense of doom.
‘The forecast is for rain’ – All is right with the world.
‘Are these the new potatoes?’ – I no longer love you.
- Is there anything to be said for another Mass: Most of us are products of the Catholic education system, where the central tenet, as Billy Connolly once noted, was ‘Jesus is dead and it’s all your fault’. St Patrick may have helped wrap our national identity in the shroud of the holy Roman Catholic empire, but there are other faiths in this world and this land, and we could do with learning a bit more about them. As a country that venerates Foster And Allen, Gerry Adams and Daithi O Se, we should have no problem understanding any religion that worships lads with beards. Which is basically all of them.
- An béal bocht: Apart from the Belle Époque of 2006-2007, during which we pretended to be rich, nothing satisfies us like pretending to be poor. Everything is a struggle, we tell the person seated next to us on the flight to Mallorca. We are finding it so hard to make ends meet, we tell the car dealer as he hands over the keys to a 171 ozone killer. When will John Bull stop his insane tax laws, we ask the bank manager as we remortgage our third home to buy another. The poor mouth is an integral part of our identity, and even with big ticket purchases we go to great lengths of humblebrag about how they were the deal of the century, despite everyone knowing full well that you didn’t get that Fabergé egg in TK Maxx.
- Demonic possessiveness: Our grasp of history may not be the sharpest, given that 90% of our schooling was given over to Catholic Guilt 101, and what we do know mostly relates to John Bull and his cockamamy laws that we refuse to abide by. However, woe betide anyone from another country try to claim something Irish as their own. All we need is to hear a simple phrase like ‘award-winning British actor Michael Fassbender’ and we turn into a nation of Wolverines. Granted, Fassy was born in Germany, but when he emotes as Professor Mutato in X-Men, or expresses anguish in that film about Copperface Jacks, Shame, and the Kerry accshint comes out, it is as stirring to us as listening to A Nation Once Again whilst eating a bowl of lovely floury pops on a grand soft day atop Carrauntoohil. Anyone who thinks they can lay claim to him, or any other Irish success story – be it whiskey, Olympic boxers, or the cure for leprosy – can pull themselves a nice cold pint of cop on.
- Be pernickety about St Patrick’s Day: The American use of the four-leaf clover in place of a shamrock is annoying enough (who does the fourth leaf symbolise, Colonel Sanders?), but it’s their cheerful use of ‘St Patty’ that seems to get under our skin the most. Perhaps this is because at any one time there are about two million Patricks in this country and not one of them is known as Patty. But sher as long as they keep mislabelling 50,000 of our lads over there as ‘undocumented’ as opposed to ‘illegal immigrants’, they can call him whatever they want.
- Pessimistic optimism: The Irish carry in their hearts the sense that things are fairly terrible, but they could always be worse. We like talking about our ‘Third World health/education/transport system’, despite the fact that it is now known as the developing world, and despite the fact that we have clearly never been there. The same mind that can spend 25 minutes describing a crater-sized pothole will eventually grudgingly admit that there are probably worse potholes in Alleppo and that what’s happening there is actually pretty bad and, to be fair, this really is a great country if only they could build a roof over it, and that postman in the Blue Stacks said our summer will be so hot that the earth will slam into the sun, so everything will be grand in the end, we can’t go on, we will go on.
- Make and do: Whether it be poetry, music, human life, or sovereign debt, the Irish create at an exponential rate, and our cultural impact on this planet is something to behold. We somehow managed to consensually colonise much of the civilised world, peddling craic and multiplying like Tribbles. What other country has a national day of celebration that the whole world wants to be part of? The UK talks of a special relationship with the US, but it’s a relationship where date night involves invading Iraq. We roll up to the White House once a year with a bowl of small weeds we dug up in the back lawn and somehow the entire month of March is given over to a celebration of us. To be Irish is something of a little miracle, a nation of dreamers that weaponised charm and spread out across the world like a cheerful green mold – and that is something worth celebrating, even if it is by standing in the rain watching a parade of disco dancing toddlers and tractors for two hours. Sher where else would you be?