Home | Professional | Personal | International | National | Regional | Books & DVDs | Articles By Title | Email Jack

A culture is no easy thing to keep alive






Mega Fix


TWA Flight 800






Note: The following was written in 1993

A refitted trawler takes the visitor to the Aran Islands, a treeless sprinkle of weather-beaten rocks an hour West of the Connemara coast. Here, one finds the Ireland of imagination: A ruddy-faced gent who speaks Gaelic to his donkey as he goads it up a rocky slope. The wizened men who brave the seas in homemade, canvas curraghs or spread gathered seaweed to dry on the endless expanse of stone wall. The men and women alike who cross themselves discreetly before a roadside, life-size crucifix. The fleece-rich sheep that amble into town to volunteer their wool for the famed Aran sweaters.

But this is 1993. And all is not quite as it seems, certainly not as it was sixty years back when American film-maker Robert Flaherty--The Flaherty--captured the primitive romance of Aran life in his classic documentary, Man of Aran. The world is smaller now, and as the Flaherty first taught the Islanders, no one lives independently of it any more. Not even them.

The trawler, for instance, is named The Happy Hooker. Mary O'Flaherty's remote home made sweater shop takes MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. A local lad on a tractor wears a Sony Walkman over his LA Laker's cap. And a fisherman, quaffing Guiness in front of a pub's peat fire, speaks of the "added job satisfaction" derived from confronting 40-foot swells. Nothing is as it once was. The technology, the styles, and the self-conscious paradigms of the larger world insinuate themselves even into Ireland's remotest corners. And the preservation of cultural integrity grows more and more difficult every year.

Yet despite Ireland's vulnerability, despite its size--the greater island is only half as big as Missouri-- Ireland confronts change with a savvy resistance. This cultural stubbornness has deep roots. Before Ireland was divided in 1921--Catholic and independent in the South, largely Protestant and "British" in the North--the Irish had struggled under British oppression for 750 years. What this forced the Irish to do was to define themselves, not for the sake of fashion, but for the sake of survival. At the heart of this definition were two cultural phenomenon that the British could never quite extinguish nor absorb: one was the Irish (Gaelic) language and the other was the Roman Catholic church. Today, these remain the most distinctive parts of Irish culture.

The culture has other lively and distinctive elements to be sure, most visibly--or perhaps most audibly--are music and dance. Every other pub has live "traditional" music, and many sponsor "set dancing," a spirited, freewheeling cousin of the American square dance. Alive and well too are theater, literature, storytelling, sports like Gaelic football and hurling, some traditional crafts and lifestyles, even, to be generous, architecture and cuisine. But as international communications expand and the world contracts, it is the Church and the language that keep the culture truly viable and prevent Ireland from becoming someone's theme park.

The culture has always struggled. A century back, in fact, the Irish language almost died. But as political oppression eased in the late 19th century, a language-based nationalist revival blossomed in all manner of arts, crafts, and sports with a carry over to politics. During the Civil War of 1922-23, when Catholic fought Catholic in the South, the warring sides' shared interest in Irish language and culture may well have prevented anarchy. In the years following the Civil War, as the Irish Free State coalesced, Irish was institutionalized as the official language of state and schools.

Today, ironically, other than in remote areas like the Aran islands, fewer and fewer people speak Irish as their first language: in fact, no more than 2 or 3% of the population. What keeps the language alive is a conscious, stubborn, state-wide effort. All students must study it. Some schools teach every subject through it. Radio and TV stations do considerable programming in it. U2, the world's foremost Rock and Roll band, does commercials on its behalf. The government has even set aside cultural reservations in the West and South of Ireland, called the Gaeltacht, where businesses and families receive generous state subsidies to speak it on the premises. Yet so uncertain is the language's hold that the state must send the occasional inspector among the subsidized to verify its continued use. A culture is no easy thing to keep alive.

THE O'KANES KNOW THIS WELL. They dwell within the Gaeltacht, bog-side, in a drafty, centuries-old farm house. At home, the family members all play traditional music and speak Irish doggedly. The dad learned the language at University. The mom, an American, learned it from the dad. The kids learned it at home from both.

To my kids, the O'Kanes are the picture of authentic Irish life. On the way back from a recent visit, in fact, my 7-year old made gentle fun of some American cousins of ours who vainly "try to be Irish" but fall far short of O'Kane standards.

"Don't you see," I explained, "the O'Kanes try to be Irish too?" "Maybe so," she answered, "but the difference is they're succeeding." And so it seems, my wise one. But at what price success? Paradoxically, a successful revival of the language may spell trouble for the larger culture.

More on that tomorrow.



Posted: 1993
to top of page  
Subscribe to my mailing list. It's FREE!

Receive political news, invitations to
political events and special offers

Home Page || International || National/U.S. || Regional/Kansas City || Personal || Articles by Title
copyright 2005 Jack Cashill