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Ireland - Introduction

The Irish have many national characteristics which are celebrated: a gregariousness, a volubility, an affable charm, a clannishness, an amiable distinctiveness, especially compared to the English. Impetuosity, a refusal to plan, a contempt for consequence: for whatever reason, these could also be common characteristics of the Irish. Its often said that the national pastime (well, the male one anyway) is slagging. Ribbing, messing, taking the Mick youll find all manner of ways to describe these crafty torrents of affectionate abuse.

Frederick the Great used to say, that while the French fight for glory, the Spaniards for religion, the English for liberty, the Irish are the only people in the world who fight for fun. The love of fighting seemed to be a general infirmity. The fairs, which, in every town and village of Ireland of the 18th or 19th century, were regular and of long duration, afforded the grand theaters, first of unbounded mirth, and ultimately of bloody conflict. The Irish did not fight single-handed, but in bands, and on a great scale. On receiving a supposed injury, they went round to their companions, friends, and townsmen, and collected a multitude, with which they made a joint attack on the objects of their wrath. All the world agreed that the Irish were a brave and warlike people.

Ireland's exiles were called "wild geese," because, like these birds they flocked together in concert, and made their annual emigration for foreign shores. The "wild geese" was a popular name given to such young men as volunteered into the Irish brigade in the French service. Those who left Limerick with Sarsfield (the Wild Geese, as they came to be called) were destined for the invasion of England, and were all assembled at Brest in May, 1692. But the French navy, which was to have destroyed the combined English and Dutch fleets, was itself defeated off La Hogue, and the invasion of England became impossible. within the 50 years which followed the Treaty of Limerick, 450,000 Irish soldiers died in the service of France. The "wild geese, who had emigrated to France before the war, and returned, though late, to pay a passing visit to their surviving relatives.

Irish turbulence consented in the 19th century to submit to the yoke of military discipline. Poverty drove into the army a vast number of young men, who became excellent soldiers. Ireland was the nursery which supplied the greater part of tho recruits of the British army. A considerable proportion of the most distinguished officers, of all ranks, were also of Irish birth. One of the most remarkable traits in the Irish character was their great aptitude for a military life. In the ranks of the army, where turbulence must yield to a severe and strict discipline, the national spirit of the Irish appeared in the most favorable light, and was entitled to the most unreserved praise.

It was said that their hasty passions were quickly excited into all the violence of anger; hence arose their imprudent resolves, of which reflection did not retard the execution ; their transition from good-humour to passion was short, and quickly embraced. In politics, they were as headstrong as in private life. Anger was the monitor to whose counsels they most willingly listened, and they were ever prone to adopt its suggestions. Acccordingly, they were perpetually falling into error, the first consequence of which was an aggravation of their evils.

In the 19th Century the Irish character presented very marked features, many of which were amiable, and even admirable. Hospitality is an universal trait, and was enhanced by the scantiness of the portion which is liberally shared with the stranger. The Irish are brave, lively, merry, and witty; and even the lowest ranks have a courteous and polite address. They are celebrated for warmth of heart, and for strong attachments of kindred and friendship, which leads them, out of their scanty means, to support their aged relations with the purest kindness. Benevolence was a distinguishing feature of the higher ranks. They were curious, intelligent, and eager for information.

Johnson, who, according to Boswell, showed, upon all occasions, an aversion to Ireland and the Irish, nevertheless, said: "The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, sir, the Irish are a fair people ; they never speak well of one another" (Boswell's Life of Johnson, chap. 29, p. 235).

With so many good qualities, it were too much to expect that there should not be some faults. The 19th Century Irish were said to be deficient in cleanliness; had little taste for conveniences or luxuries; and were destitute of that sober and steady spirit of enterprise which distinguishes the English. The other blemishes of the Irish are rather frailties than sins. They were represented as vain, talkative, prompt to speak as well as act without deliberation: this disposition, with their thoughtless gaiety, betrayed them into that peculiar blunder called a bull, which their neighbors have so long held forth as a national characteristic. The Irish were a nation of orators.

Thomas Carlyle wrote of the Irish that "In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back -- for wages that will purchase him potatoes. He needs only salt for condiment, he lodges to his mind in any pig-hutch or dog-hutch, roosts in outhouses, and wears a suit of tatters, the getting on and off of which is said to be a difficult operation, transacted only in festivals and the high tides of the calendar."

Engels wrote in 1845 "If we except his exaggerated and one-sided condemnation of the Irish national character, Carlyle is perfectly right.... The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink.... In short, the Irish have... discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are now making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them. ...

"The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves it is impossible to describe. The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch. A piece of wood, a broken chair, an old chest for a table, more he needs not; a tea-kettle, a few pots and dishes, equip his kitchen, which is also his sleeping and living room. When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door-posts, mouldings, flooring, finds its way up the chimney. ... And since the poor devil must have one enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself to the drinking of spirits. Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman's life worth having, drink and his cheery care-free temperament; so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness. "

In estimating the wealth of a country, it is best not to leave out of sight its beauty. Beauty is a kind of wealth which grows more valuable as civilization advances. As life becomes busier, and more beset by care and turmoil, there comes a longing all the more for the refreshment afforded by the silent and pensive loveliness of nature, which increasing refinement of mind and sensibility render at the same time more able to appreciate. Ireland with its beautiful coasts, and its hideous central flats and bogs, has been compared to an ugly picture set in a rich frame: but the frame is rich, both in loveliness and in wildness.

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled from America across the planet between 2002 and 2008 was more than a simple financial phenomenon: it was temptation, offering entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. The Irish wanted to stop being Irish. Michael Lewis writes that they " ... used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do was buy Ireland. From each other." Ireland was the first European nation to watch its banking system crumble, but its business-friendly conservative party stayed in power. Also, Lewis marvels there was not much protest. Lewis chalks up such acceptance to the long and intimate relationship between the Irish and wretchedness. Theyd gone from being abnormally poor to being abnormally rich without pausing to experience normality, he writes. So when the boom ended, it was painful, but at least historically familiar.





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