MICHAEL FOLEY concludes his series on of essays on...
Irish myths and legends IF THERE are concealed values and a surface
of codes and signs then nothing is what it appears and you are in danger of violating taboos or missing urgent messages. This can
happen when you return to Ireland after a long absence or even when you move to a different
part of it -
say from north to south.
Once, after several years teaching in
England, I went back to a job in Belfast. What attracted me was the opportunity to teach
adults for a change - schoolteachers in fact.
And indeed it went well. A middle-aged teacher from Limavady was especially friendly, prais
ing my dedication and enthusiasm and so forth, almost offering to carry my books like the younger pupils I had left behind. I like to give the impression of being blas6 about jobs but I
have to admit that I found this...well...
encouraging. Then he made his move, snuggling up as
we walked down the corridor, putting his head close to mine and - after a swift glance to
make sure we were not observed - confiding in a low tone heavy with significance: "You
taught a niece of mine in London."
He waited - intimate, emotional -
what? Something deep, powerful, urgent and
possibly dangerous was being communicated. In England a sexual advance would have been
the only plausible reading. I sneaked a look: hardly likely. All I could do was interpret the words literally and, with an uncharacteristically swift scan of the memory banks, come up
with a profile of the girl in question - a
profoundly mediocre pupil whom I made to sound dazzling. But the more I assured him of
her brilliant future the more irritated and impatient he became, eventually walking off in ill-disguised annoyance.
It was several weeks before it came to me.
The school where I had taught his niece was a
Catholic school (God forgive me and pardon me) and what he had been trying to get across was an elementary and essential fact, a comfort and a consolation, possibly a life-saver: that we were Fenians together in a hostile Prot estant establishment. My obtuseness must
have seemed incredible, fantastic. No wonder
he was so annoyed. And yet, oddly enough, it is not mistakes
about religion that cause most trouble (perhaps because one is especially vigilant in this area).
What brings about the most furious anger, violent and vicious opposition, is any sug
gestion that there are class distinctions in Ireland. Such distinctions are perceived to be
solely an English problem, to do with
aristocracy and royalty, hereditary privilege and
silly hats at Ascot - a despicable business
followed nevertheless with intense interest.
But to suggest that the Irish could be capable of such a thing! An unforgivable calumny, a
corner-boy trick of the lowest kind.
Why should this be so? Before considering the reasons it is necessary to establish the
facts, which are surely incontrovertible. Not
only are class divisions present in Ireland, they are endemic. Differences are recognised and enforced not just from one district to another but street by street, house by house, almost
yard by yard. Take the street where I spent my formative
years, perhaps 150 yards long -
yet to do
justice to its divisions would require the
subtlety and dedication of Proust as well as his
perfect working conditions and a large slice of
one's life. At the top were the well-off Prot
estants (mature gardens, pebble-dashed fronts);
then, attempting unsuccessfully to blend with
them, the swanky Catholics (solicitors, doc
tors, long-established business people); then
the hard-working, decent, middle-grade Catholics (mostly schoolteachers) and, on a
par with them, impoverished Protestants forced
to supplement dwindling income not by jobs (unthinkable) but by measures like taking in
Divinity students from Magee College
(Divinity students for Crissake!). Then came
the Catholic nouveaux (better nouveau than
never, as Groucho said), who had made money from new and contemptible businesses like
public house management and scrap metal
dealing. These were hated and feared for their
pushiness: continually overstepping the mark,
they considered themselves as good as anyone and sometimes even (God forgive them)
superior. Finally, at the wrong end - a running
sore on an otherwise proud street - a group of
houses let in flats to large families of untouchables.
But no, I tell a lie. Below the bottom of
the scale - too far off to be measurable - came
the two Indian families who shared a house
known as 'the black man's'. All the other
groups interacted but the 'black men' and their
dependants had no contact with anyone and were never seen. (How did they get in and out
of their home, I wonder now.) Nor would any
bourgeois enter their drapery shop (also known as 'the black man's') except when absent
minded matrons mistook it for the Catholic one a few doors up
- an occasion for great
hilarity when the error was discovered and rectified. 'Sacred heart, Paddy, ah went into the
Vital as these distinctions were, it was a
shock to discover them reproduced in a council estate like Creggan which one had imagined to be a homogeneous block of misery and degrad ation. How astounding to find the earliest
residents regarding themselves as Deep South
aristocrats fiercely superior about traditions
like the communal Rosary in the street, which
the chicken-stealin' white trash of Creggan Heights could never understand or emulate. How frightfully amusing really! Didn't they realise they were all white trash?
The entire social scale is finely calibrated but of course the crucial division is between
bourgeoisie and riff-raff. The interesting diff erence in Ireland is that - unlike its
counterparts elsewhere - the Irish bourgeoisie
does not flaunt its property and status. It
pursues these things as ruthlessly and single
mindedly as anyone and its contempt for the
riff-raff is uniquely intense, yet the image it likes to project is composed of riff-raff
qualities, ie wildness, irresponsibility and abandon; indifference to property, punctuality and the law; and a natural tendency towards
devil-may-care disorder. A familiar phenom enon is the bourgeois lady who would happily petrol-bomb any gypsy encampment within five miles of her home but affects to be a
gypsy at heart herself.
Why is this form of hypocrisy so essential to Catholics? First, Catholicism lacks the sanc
tion for social differences provided by the ideas
of the Reformation. As Weber showed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism, the elect with divine grace came
to be recognised by their worldly success -
obviously a blessing from God. In Protestant
cultures affluence is a source of pride, not
guilt. But in Catholicism the humble mendicant
has remained the ideal. Also, this notion is
powerfully reinforced in Irish Catholics by the illusion of shared hardship in the grim old
days. Weren't we all robbed of our homes and
livelihoods? Didn't we all stand out in the wind and rain at the hedge schools and under
the Mass Rock? In fact, as Anthony Cronin
has pointed out, the suffering was never
equally shared: "There were indeed vital distinc
tions of class and interest among the rural
populations of Ireland in the bad old days: distinctions between the landless labourers
who had nothing at all, the small-holders who
barely hung on to miserable plots, the large farmers who had leases and the others who
were merely tenants at will."
Contradictory facts seldom hinder a myth,
especially a comforting one. We are one
people, a homogeneous community united by a dispossession which only served to bring out
our essential spirituality and disdain for prop
erty and status. Material differences are
accidental and insignificant. The detached home
in leafy grounds well away from council
estates is only a deserted cave you happened to
stumble on, the antiques ruthlessly bargained for only haphazardly collected utensils, the
regular lavish meals and snacks no more than a
garnering of wild honey and berries. What appears to be affluence is really hand-to-mouth
existence in a temporary encampment. 'Hold your tongue,' you cry, pouring tea
into bone-china cups and passing round a three
tiered silver cake-stand with wheaten scones, sultana cake and a cream-filled flan garnished
with mandarin orange segments. 'Och, sure it's
nothing. Sure it's only a wee cup in your hand.1
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Article Contentsp. 29
Issue Table of ContentsFortnight, No. 252 (Jun., 1987), pp. 1-32Front MatterBriefingShipyard SOS [p. 4-4]Flags out for Equality [p. 4-4]Troubled Debates [p. 5-5]Victory on Harassment [p. 5-5]Divis: You Just Can't Help It Making You Sick [p. 5-5]
Cover StoryA Dialogue for Devolution [pp. 6-8]Unionism Taken to Task [p. 7-7]
Scots Look to Local Power [p. 9-9]The Changing Face of a Queen's Student [p. 10-10]Abortion: An End to Silence [p. 11-11]Capital Moves [pp. 12-13]Events Diary [pp. 13-14]Letters [p. 15-15]BooksReview: Stalker: The Jury Stays out [p. 16-16]Review: The Politics of an Irrepressible Gaiety [pp. 17-18]Review: Ephemera [p. 18-18]Review: Pithy Puns and Askance Analogies [p. 19-19]Review: Urgent Jottings [p. 19-19]
Brick Walls and Bricks and Mortar [pp. 20-21]Artistic Appeal [pp. 21-22]Foreman's Estimates [p. 22-22]Cannon: A Loud Report [p. 23-23]Flemish Fascination [p. 23-23]The Politics of Language [p. 24-24]Aisling nr Comhlonadh [p. 25-25]Homecoming [p. 26-26]Vandal [p. 27-27]Poems [p. 28-28]Irish Myths and Legends [p. 29-29]Sidelines: Carried Away Copywriters [p. 31-31]Back Matter