The morning-after musings on St. Paddy’s day and other such hangovers by a Celtic curmudgeon…
Now here’s a span for us to distinguish,
An emerald clan that’s too oft diminished —
From sinners and squalor
Came saints and then scholars
Who write and talk the best (but ain’t) English.
Disclaimer 1: when mentioning Ireland, one must be witty. And pithy. With a wink that’s wry and joke that’s dry enough to wash down with Guinny. Enough. See? That trap is hard to avoid, but it must, for while it’s a flattering stereotype (and truth be told, one not without precedents), ’tis a stereotype all the same.
Disclaimer 2: I self-identify with being “Irish” nigh 365 days of the year but one: March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. Saying nothing of my inexplicable predilection for all things Scandinavian and my lifelong lament for not being Jewish, I can’t really think of any other culture I would rather cotton to than Irish. (OK, Welsh, but that’s obvious.) It’s not just the musicality of their speaking or the direct communication with their music. It’s not just the wit and wisdom of her thinkers, artists, and activists (the way that poet & patriot are so naturally affiliated as to be unquestioned, if not altogether expected). It’s not just the underdog status of the Irish, the way its people have been kicked in the ribs and out to the curb for centuries. It’s not my own indefectible Catholicism I could no more deny or dismiss any more than I could waive off being white or male or English as my mother tongue, despite being at best a lapse Catholic, despite being in truth an inglorious agnostic. Nay, it’s not just the landscape of heather and heathens, green pastures soft with fog and wooly with sheep, an old bicycle rickety down a dirt path. And it’s neither the land of sunshowers and rainshine nor the perfect sea-circle like a Celtic knot that is rugged cliffs enclosed by the ocean. Nor yet all that other ineffable stuff that is both awful and full of wonder which is Ireland — or really anywhere — no one is capable of exhaustively inventorying (except for Joyce), not least myself who is not genuinely Irish and has yet even to be a tourist there.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey with only a smattering of mostly obscure relatives on my mother’s side who were Irish-American for whom I can count on one hand the times I’ve met in my life. No heritage did this hermit inherit. If I were lucky I’d get to have corned beef and cabbage take-out on St. Patrick’s day, and that was it. Its prehistory and the horrors of its colonial centuries, its war for Independence followed by its civil war and the split between Northern Ireland and the Republic; “the uncrowned king” Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins, home rule and harps, fiddles, and bodhrans, the cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, the Dingle Peninsula; The Plough and the Stars and The Playboy of the Western World, Stephen Dedalus and Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, a bloody unapologetic love affair with and for Samuel Beckett, and probably the funniest book I have ever read, The Third Policeman, Nuala O’Faolain and Angela’s Ashes — all of this, which scratches precious little at the surface, I have learned on my own because I have had an incurable itch of curiosity.
From County Cork my mother’s side came — “Corcoran” means just that: from Cork. The port city of Cork was where most Irish emigrated; so in a sense we’re all Corcoran. But not everyone is Irish (and fewer still “Oirish”), I don’t care a curse what consumer culture or hat-in-hand politicians — on either side of the aisle, on whichever side of the Atlantic — grandstanding for 15-minute photo-ops have to opine on the matter. But I’ll get to this in a bit.
Disclaimer 3: St. Patrick himself was not Irish and delivered he no snakes from the Ireland. (“Snakes” were metaphors vividly conjuring the “wicked spirits” of the pre-Christian pagans. They could have been badgers or leeches. Aye, and they were the nastiest badger-leeches ye ever did see, by God! Tall as Carrauntoohil if they were two centimeters, so they were, aye, teeth the size of ten ogres’ grind, Jaysus Marry and Josef!)
Disclaimer 4: Quaffing a “black-and-tan,” while it may tease the tongue with the finesse of fusion, is scarcely any different than a beverage dubbed “Ku Klux Kölsch” or “Grand Wizard Imperial Stout.” (More on this in a bit.) Why are you after diluting a perfectly fine pint of Guinness in the first place? Especially with an ale that is traditionally English — Bass — the hybridization of which elixir carries a name — “black-and-tan” — that is more bitter than the most grimacing ESB or IPA and remains so still in living memory of those whose families fought in the war for independence. And God save us all if you’re after having an “Irish car bomb” (a shot glass of whiskey dropped inside a pint of Guinness), which may well be the worst-named concoction of all time, something drummed up only by a dumb American who if you said “the Troubles” to would wonder if they’re a new band from Dublin or maybe the latest hit single by The Cranberries. You can name an explosive with a drink in mind — say, Molotov cocktail — but it shouldn’t be done the other way round. Can you imagine a bar in a military base town with an aperitif called the “Kandahar I.E.D.,” the “Basrah Boom,” or the “Ramadi PTSD”? Of course not; such bad taste would be abhorrent. But when it’s Belfast and not Baghdad, it’s OK to binge?
Disclaimer 4a: With that in mind, brand marketing that pits a people with a product is both condescending, ridiculous, and yes, racist.
But even so seemingly benign as this is plainly racist:
Associating drinking beer with a race of people is appallingly degrading, especially when the beer is the piss-poor swine-swill overpriced corporate shite as Bud Light (though they’re by no means alone).
Though my favorite has to be this one:
Disclaimer 4b: Irish coffee is not regular coffee mixed with Bailey’s (or some generic knockoff) Irish cream in it. True Irish coffee starts with hot, dark, and black as death coffee with a wink of whiskey in it, topped off with a thick froth of heavy cream whipped to a cloud — and never, ever canned whipped cream — that rests atop the coffee (i.e., not swirled together) conjuring the foamy head pronouncing a perfect pint of Guinness.
Disclaimer 4c: The Irish drink more tea than coffee, or whiskey, or even beer, or anything, and do so more than anyone else in the world.
Disclaimer 4d: Guinness is indeed a dark, heavy beer, but by no means do these qualities denote a high abv (alcohol by volume). Your average can or draught yields around a piddly 4%, which is on par with a typical cider or wine cooler. “St. Bartles and James Gate”, anyone? Despite that, only after her people itself Guinness is Ireland’s greatest export.
Disclaimer 4d-i: It has taken me some 14 years to finally come to terms with this, but I’m finally alright with saying that Guinness isn’t really that good. I know, I know, but let’s be real; it’s true. Beautiful to look at, for sure, particularly when poured and settling, but it tastes flat, is full of empty calories, and makes you have to pee a lot without ever getting you drunk, so why bother? All this notwithstanding, Guinness, like the lad or lass to whom you give away your sweet virginity, was my first beer (once I was of legal age) and beer of choice. I wanted to like it, and did — mainly because I liked the idea of it. But now it simply whiffs of a more or less fond nostalgia.
Disclaimer 5: St. Patrick’s is all but unobserved in Ireland; rather, the celebrants who mark the day’s occasion are those of us who are part of the Diaspora. Or anyone and their umpteen brothers who don green and go blotto. What is observed in Ireland are all the missing dignitaries hobnobbing it up in American and Australian cities for PR events and paparazzi appeal, reeking of charming mirth, quoting complicated couplets by Yeats off the cuff, winking with shamrock guile all smiling eyes.
Disclaimer 6: The famine was not caused by some pandemic potato blight any more than dear Ms O’Leary’s distressed milkcow caused the city of big shoulders to burn to cinders. True, the crop did go to rot, and rotted on upwards for seven merciless years, but such thin history is story-telling simplicity at its most malignant. Under British law Irish Catholics could not own land; instead, they had to rent from absentee Protestant landlords. Needless to say, these parceled tracts of land were scant, so out of commonsense economy a farmer grew potatoes since they were cheap and yielded much. Make no mistake about it: there was a nasty blight that turned the potato crops to a black sodden rot, which if eaten — out of despicable depravity and desperation — caused wide-scale cholera, dysentery, malnutrition, and death. In the seven years between 1845 and 1852 one million Irish died of starvation or disease. More than that emigrated. These two actualities alone contributed to the population of the entire island of Ireland to drop by 25 percent. To attempt to put that into context, this would be the equivalent of a loss of 77,500,000 to the US population today. Seventy-seven and a half million! Even if they were card-carrying Republicans, this would be devastating. So when Sinead O’Connor sings in “Famine” that to kill more than 10 percent of a nation causes “permanent psychological damage,” this is what she is referring to. Or take for example the word “decimate.” Means to lose a lot, right? Like pretty much the most you can lose before something is irrevocably lost and extinct. Decimate literally means to lose one out of ten, or 10 percent. More than double that is more than any of us can imagine. (Unless you’re Native American.) Ireland lost one out of four.
Shocking as the following news flash might seem to some — after all, we’re talking about a nation known for its fairies and impishly mischievous little red-bearded Leprechauns straddling rainbows belying pots of gold — Ireland produced more than potatoes alone in the 19th Century. It’s just that the British forbade any of it going to the Catholics in poverty. To say that a million Irish starved because their precious potatoes turned rat-assed and nasty is an almost laughable euphemism. The Irish were deliberately starved to death in contemptuous hope of making them disappear. It’s worth noting also that there had been a lesser known famine due to a poor potato crop only a century earlier, in 1740. If the British had cared, they might have had learned a lesson. There is for sure an agricultural moral to take away from this tragic tale in terms of avoiding monoculture, but that truly is small potatoes compared to genocide.
Disclaimer 7: James Joyce was the greatest fiction writer of all time, at least in English, if not any language. But this is like saying The Beatles were the best rock band. Equally indisputable, but both are beside the point; both exist in their own continuum, totally out of reach to anyone else — but supremely accessible to all. There’s The Beatles and then the rest of pop music. Similarly, there’s Joyce and then there’s everyone else who did creative writing.
What’s black and tan and read all over the news last week? Better yet, what do the following have in common?
One is the sole of a sneaker and recent advertising debacle, the other an auxiliary paramilitary wing of the British Army during the Irish War for Independence, composed of thugs, lowlifes, prisoners, and WWI vets who under the pretext of counter-insurgency were paid to crack skulls, kill civilians, and do so with as much just cause and accountability as a mob. (In short, they were a bunch of right bastards who slaughtered and terrorized innocents. Care for a Joseph Kony cocktail? A Lord’s Resistance Amaretto? No different than ordering a black-and-tan at a pub today.) Both are called “black and tan” and more or less have to do with fashion. The former gets its name (and flap) for obvious reasons:
The latter for the silly makeshift outfits consisting of khaki trousers and their black hearts, separating them from the more officially appareled soldiers. As Brian Boyd of The Irish Times pointed out last week, Nike is not so unique in the conglomerate world of brand advertising and subsequent apologies. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you…
In case the fine print is too tiny, the byline for the faux pas flavor is “Cream Stout Ice Cream Swirled with Chocolate Ice Cream.” B&J apologized at least. Nike’s gaffe is not more gigantic, but rather annoying. Here is their official statement, bellied up by one Brian Strong, Nike spokesman:
“This month Nike is scheduled to release a quick strike version of the Nike SB Dunk Low that has been unofficially named by some using a phrase that can be viewed as inappropriate and insensitive. We apologize. No offense was intended.” [Italics mine]
The mind reels in wonder how “some” could have come up with the “unofficially named” sneaker, when there is a picture of a pint of beer inside the bloody shoe itself! And at a resale cost of $90, no actual Irish could afford such rakish extravagance. What the hell beer has to do with footwear is totally lost on me. Why not mix a martini with mittens? At least the ice cream tries to conjure something having to do with taste buds.
The problem is both kerfuffles simultaneously miss the point and are the whole point, which is we Americans, up to and including we Irish-Americans, are frankly daft and cavalier about our collective memory and the superimposition of consumer amnesia. Our actual culture — America, full of fast multitasks and big box shopping and bars not pubs and places like Fort Worth and Fort Wayne, Sheboygan and Cheyenne, not Galway or Tipperary, County Clare or Sligo — precludes our contrived one, the stage Irish one, with its plastic green caps, “Kiss Me…” t-shirts, and green beer gumption. It’s Jameson with the New York Giants, or singing karaoke to Journey at a John Barleycorn. It’s House of Pain rapped by Lucky the leprechaun. We pretend, but it’s a pretty lame pantomime.
Forgive me for being impolitic. I will take as an article of faith that at least for those of us with some connection to Ireland we are doing our best and mean well. The Celtic curmudgeon in me still grumbles… (Though I am hardly without my own romanticized sins, be they cabins of clay and wattles made or misbegotten moons, Americanized soda bread and half-assed attempts to speak a phrase or two in Gaelic.) But what about the happy hoi polloi who use St. Patrick’s day as an occasion to pollute our bodies with enough booze to kill Cúchulainn? Fairly insolent and insulting stuff. I mean of all the things to associate with Ireland, we’re going to single out alcoholism? The English are much heavier drinkers, as are Russians, as are Hungarians. Little old Ireland, which has given the world more authors of most merit than anywhere else on the planet? The Irish, who saved western civilization as we know it, thanks to her transcribing monks ensconced on a backwater isle far away from the collapse of the Roman Empire? Nope, it’s Paddy McDrunkerton who pissed out his pay and comes home tottering but singing like a tenor.
Why is it all the world can pretend to be Irish on one night — and by “be Irish” it is meant the bizarre horrors of wearing green, sputtering out some dumb accent affecting “top o’ the marning!”, and getting shitfaced? Rather arrogant, no? This phenomenon, as culturally vacuous and historically baseless as it is, can be found nowhere else on the planet for any other country or people. Nobody pretends to be Danish or Dutch, Brazilian or Botswana, Nigerian or Nicaraguan, Pakistani or Philippine. Ironically, the Irish may need not apply, but any and all can be Irish. Gone green with envy indeed.
As the consummate Irishman Frank Delaney has suggested, maybe it’s time we drowned the shamrock:
“But I’m not singing hymns and I’m not saying prayers
No, I’m gritting my teeth as I walk down the stairs
And into the street with these louts fiercely drinking
And screeching and lurching, and here’s what I’m thinking —
They’re using a stereotype, a narrow example,
A fraction, not even a marketing sample
To imitate Ireland, from which they don’t come!
So unless that’s just stupid, unless it’s plain dumb…”
(Full text with audio at above link.)
Does it matter though? Is there a risk of becoming too parochial and chauvinistic, eugenic-minded and jingoistic? Certainly. But it’s callous to profess an affinity for Ireland when all that really means in the end is giving yourself a pat out to get plastered. In the end, that’s still exploiting the Irish.
The Irish may have saved civilization, but they failed to record the history of their own enslavement in colonial America. Some 550,000 Irish were sent off just in King James’s time in the 1600s to work as slaves in Southern plantations and those along the Dutch Hudson, loading and unloading bales of hay on steamers up and down the Mississippi. In his memoir Seaboard Slave States, the eminent landscape architect Frederick Olmsted (who would go on to be a medic in the Civil War) notes an encounter in Virginia (by no means an isolated one) wherein he observes Irishmen draining a field. Upon asking the tobacco farmer why this was, the latter replied that such was dangerous work and that “a negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it.” He matter of factly explained “If a negro dies, it’s a considerable loss, you know.”
Let me be clear about this: I am not comparing the miserable toil of the Irish and African-American slaves, either qualitatively or quantitatively. I offer it only to illustrate that whether at home or here in America, it’s hard to think of another people so continuously looked down upon, exploited, or subjugated as the Irish. Yet we have this paradox of St. Patrick’s Day and categorically illogical expressions like “the luck of the Irish.” Why?
When pressed for a reason why such a small country like Ireland has produced so many great writers using the language of their captors, Samuel Beckett colorfully replied: “It’s the priests and the British. They have buggered us into existence. After all, when you are in the last bloody ditch, there is nothing left but to sing.” And maybe, hell, just maybe that’s what’s happening each 17th of March. An ode and homage to the least likely people to have survived so much hell for so long, and to have come so shining throughout the tough mess. Like a Mardi Gras in reverse, where the fast precedes the feast, perhaps the world hoists a pint to toast the purest poorest people it has ever known, that almost impossible rainbow sneaking out from the gray and rain, burnishing and bustling and absolutely fabulous in song like any spring day. If so — and the Dear knows I myself do not — what else can one say to that other than Sláinte! Or slur one’s way through Erin go Bragh.