I could never understand why my dog was afraid to look at himself in the mirror but then I discovered semiotics. In the same way, I never knew what it was to be an Irish man until I met a Russian girl. It seems the mirror never lies when you are not looking in it. A double negative, I know, but isn’t that terribly Irish? I’m so riddled with negativity that when I see two magpies together I can’t help thinking ‘Oh no, double sorrow!’
The Russians have what they call ‘the Russian soul’ and they are very proud of it. Without it they would probably be, well, Ukrainians. Their soul is that which bonds them, unites them with their ancestors, what the Russian girl called “the music of my native tongue”. The Irish also had a soul once, when we as a people banded together and sung with our native tongue. But that was long ago; before the iPhone, before low corporation tax, before the EU, before the Troubles, before Lemass, before Vatican II, even before the Republic.
Of course it is possible to lose one’s language yet keep one’s soul, but only as an individual, not as a people. The soul of an individual can be expressed in any language, with or without words, but the soul of a people is that which is shared and sacrificed between them over millennia and passed down through the ages from one generation to the next. And how is the knowledge of one’s ancestors passed down except in code, in a language unique to its tribe. Language is not merely a tool for communicating between kinsmen but the repository of all that has ever been said, and if the language is taken away the soul of the tribe is lost. The true blood of the Irish, our language, no longer runs in our veins. That is what has happened to us. We lost our soul when we lost our language and it can never be retrieved. Not if everyone in Ireland speaks Gaelic again. We may learn the words but the significance of those words is lost to us, for our minds have been anglicised along with our tongues. The connection has been permanently severed between the words and their meaning. It is a foreign language now, as alien as German or Chinese.
Back in the 1980s I spent some time in the west of Ireland with a girl who had no national identity. She was in fact stateless. She was born in Germany to Hungarian refugees but this did not automatically entitle her to German citizenship. She could have applied for it and probably would have received it but she decided not to because she felt no connection with Germany. At that time Hungarian citizenship was also out of the question, and besides, she had no connection with Hungary either, having never been there. She loved Ireland and wanted to be Irish so she came and stayed, eventually becoming an Irish citizen.
“The Irish I love do not know what Irish citizenship is” she said. “They roamed these lands before the notion of nation came into being. The land owned them, not they the land, and they were Irish because their nature was one with this nature. And I am Irish because of that, and not Irish in the modern sense. Farmers and businessmen are all you can find here now. Bloody German ass lickers. They’re a new breed of Irish. They’re not even Irish”.
I really hadn’t a clue what she was talking about but I used to love listening to her. Her connection with and love for the land was indisputable and she suffered for it at the hands of farmers and businessmen, for though she belonged to the land she didn’t belong to the land owners, and they resented her for that.
Late one evening in October, when it was already cold and dark and not long after she first arrived in Ireland, we were walking down an isolated boreen somewhere in Mayo when we came upon a graveyard. It was a typical country graveyard, beautifully neglected, surrounded by a wall of stones piled loosely upon each other coated in lichens and mosses. A drunk looking iron gate leaning over in perpetual falling motion guarded the entrance and beckoned all to enter. Suddenly, at once, we stopped and looked at each other. There was something there, invisible to the eye, but a definite presence. We dared not move as we scanned all around us for whomever or whatever had joined us. There was nobody there but I had the terrifying sense of someone or something standing behind me breathing down my neck. She was calm like a ship in the doldrums and with the moonlight on her face and her eyes wide open she looked entranced.
“Let’s go” I whispered, but she would not budge. She just stood there staring blankly into the dark like one of those horrible porcelain dolls. Her poise and composure spooked me even more than the unseen presence. I grabbed her hand and pulled her away. It was a while before we spoke.
“What in the name of God was that?” I gasped eventually.
“That was incredible” she said. “My whole life I have wanted to experience that. To know the spirit exists. And now I know it does. I knew it! We are not just humans. We are beings too”.
“Relax now a second” I said. “How do you know there wasn’t some headbanger hiding behind the wall and we just felt his presence. It doesn’t mean it was a ghost”.
“Please” she said, “please don’t. That was not a ghost. I am not talking about ghosts. That was the spirit and it doesn’t live in the modern world because it can’t. It exists only where there is faith and thank God the Irish still have faith. That could never happen in Germany. The people there are dead. They have no faith so there is no spirit. That was amazing, incredible!” she cried out, jumping up and down with excitement.
“But you don’t believe in God. You told me you have no religion”.
“Stop” she insisted. “You are just being stupid. You’re ruining this moment. It has nothing to do with God, nor religion. They belong to the church. I’m talking about faith. That belongs to the people, and the people had it long before the church robbed them of it. It is the Church that has destroyed the faith of your people. But thankfully not completely. I can’t believe I actually got to feel the spirit of the people of Ireland”.
“Yes”, said I, “the dead ones!”
She ignored me after that. We took the long way back walking in silence because I wouldn’t go past the graveyard but I knew she would go there again and she did many times late at night without me. I never found out if she ever felt it again, she wouldn’t speak to me about it. I was too flippant, too modern to understand. Perhaps she didn’t need to feel it again, perhaps that night it came for her and I was only there to be the witness, and maybe it filled that empty craving space within her where the spirit of one’s people usually roams, and maybe, just maybe that night she became Irish, more Irish than the Irish, baptised by the spirit of our ancestors.
In the 1990s I managed a center in Dundalk that housed asylum seekers at a time when there was an influx of foreigners to Ireland. They came because there was a rumour circulating around the world that we were no longer yesterday’s wretched but tomorrow’s masters. We even believed it ourselves. People said things like “we have finally gotten rid of the past” and “the boom is getting boomier”. Unfortunately that last quote was said by the Prime Minister. The first quote was said by an employee of the Department for Culture, Tourism and Sport. But I suppose if you work in a department with a title like that you can say anything and get away with it.
One of the residents at the center was a girl from Nigeria called Bridget. She was one of the first of many Africans that came to Ireland during this time. She was delighted to see that we had Guinness here in Ireland too. Not that she drank it, she didn’t, but it was one of those things that made her feel the connection to her home country was not entirely severed. She thought that Guinness was Nigerian. And why not? It is owned by a British multinational corporation and brewed in Nigeria, so why should she think it is Irish? In fact, why should we?
Bridget never knew she had an Irish name until she came to Ireland. Her father, though Pentecostal, was friendly with Irish missionaries at the time of her birth and they surreptitiously baptised her with this typical Irish Catholic girl’s name. Nor had she heard of Ireland until the day she was put on a plane and told to follow a man whom she had never met before who would bring her to a country full of devoutly religious people. I couldn’t stop laughing when she told me that. “I think he got the wrong connecting flight in Amsterdam,” I said, “it was Israel not Ireland you were supposed to go to. Either that or the people who said it were at least a thousand years old”. I decided it would be best to show her this land of saints and scholars, and so I brought her out on the town, one Friday night, in Dundalk.
Now, Dundalk is not famous for its tolerance of foreigners and a foreigner there could mean a non Roman Catholic born and brought up ten miles north of the town, so to go out on the town with a gorgeous African girl certainly garnered a lot of attention.
“Who’s the black wan?” I was asked more than once with Bridget standing beside me.
“This is Bridget” I would reply introducing her.
“What’s her real name then?” one fellow asked me completely ignoring her, as if I had just bought her in the market that day. Most asked her directly.
“Ah go on. Tell us your real name” they’d say.
“Where’d you get her?” another genius asked, nodding and winking at her. One man at least tried to be nice but unfortunately he hadn’t got much to say. “Welcome to El Paso” he repeated over and over, whilst holding her hand and slobbering on it.
Bridget was so good natured she never took offence, at least not in the beginning. For her, it was like waking up in a fantasy film like Lord Of The Rings surrounded by characters who come climbing out from under rocks to have a look at her. The defining moment of her induction into Irish society came when a young man of dubious intellect decided to join us and recount every moment of his life that had some connection with the word black. And every time the word black was mentioned in a sentence he would stretch it to sound like ‘bllaaccckk’. “It was a filthy bllaaccckk night”, “I just love bllaaccckk pudding”, “that fella’s the bllaaccckk sheep of his family” etc, all night long. I thought of leaving on a number of occasions but then I wanted to give Bridget an education in Irish hospitality, open her eyes a little without putting her in any real danger. And we did leave eventually, abruptly, before the culmination of his final anecdote.
“There’s this fella who lives out the road there” he started, “well, he’s a dirty bllaaccckk bastard”. Seeing our reaction, he immediately held up his hands as if surrendering and said “No. No. No. That’s not what I mean. You’ve got me all wrong. Sorry Bridget. Jaysus, no, I would never say that. No way. I don’t mean that at all. You see up here in El Paso if you call someone a black bastard”, not stretching the word this time, “it has nothing to do with the colour of skin. It just means they’re a Protestant. That’s what I meant. Jaysus I would never say that. I’ve no problem with coloured people. It’s the Protestants who are the black bastards around here”.
We looked at him aghast.
“I am a Protestant” she said as we got up to leave.
Six months later we were married and we spent the next seven years in marital bliss.
“If it was such bliss how come you are not still with her?” asks my mother every time I say that. “Because mother, she wanted children and I wanted a Porsche”.
A few months back, just before I emigrated, I went to visit Bridget and her two beautiful children. Her husband was in Nigeria waiting for his visa to come to Ireland to be with his family. It was great to see them but the journey there was awful. My Ford Fiesta kept overheating in the traffic and the wipers wouldn’t work in the rain. But what else can be expected from a fourteen year old car.
I have since married the Russian girl and we presently live in Singapore. It’s a fascinating place full of people from all over the world but mainly from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, and even Singapore. In terms of population, 500 Irelands are needed to equal the combined population of these countries, and 200 Irelands can fit into Russia alone in terms of land mass. Ireland is but a dot on the map to Asian people, we are insignificant nonentities to them, and rarely do I find anyone here with a real interest in or knowledge of Ireland. That maybe because people today regard themselves as citizens and not members of a tribe, that as the world gets smaller they want to belong to something bigger, or it maybe because our ability to influence does not extend beyond the borders of our adopted language. And now that we have stopped fighting for the preservation of our identity it is becoming more difficult to recognise our uniqueness as a race, and much easier to see us as just members of the English speaking world. To the majority of non-Westerners, I am inseparable from Americans, English, Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders. In other words, I am just another English speaking white man. To be Irish doesn’t mean anything here. And why should it when in Ireland the question of Irishness is discussed only in a European context. It is not uncommon to hear modern Irish people, especially those of the ruling class, unashamedly call themselves European. If proof is needed to show the demise of the Irish race, surely this is it.
So, what is it to be Irish? Is it in the soul or the spirit, the character or the personality, the genes or the blood? Can a stranger inherit the spirit and an aboriginal lose the soul? Does the location of one’s birth confer identity? In other words are Bridget’s children Irish? Less or more Irish than the children of Irish emigrants that have never tread upon Irish soil? Or is it to hear the voice of an ancient people calling, wherever you come from, spoken through its music, its art, its landscape, its people, and be forever drawn to it with inexplicable love and a desire to belong.
Paul Jones was born in 1967 to a couple of hippy parents who almost called him ‘Winter’. As a child he wanted to become a priest but after meeting his first love at the age of eight, he resolved to become a dreamer. Upon finishing school, he wrote his first short story in an exam paper on biology instead of answering the questions. After failing all his exams, he decided to become a businessman in order to insure his future as a poet. For the next 20 years he toiled, never picking up a pen, only to go bankrupt at the end of his career. Now, when he has learnt what his heart truly desires, he is wandering the world without a penny in his pocket, a poet at last.
–Foreground Art by Zak Milofsky
–Background Art by Sarah Hardy