Irish Myths and Legends

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  • Fortnight Publications Ltd.

    Irish Myths and LegendsAuthor(s): Michael FoleySource: Fortnight, No. 252 (Jun., 1987), p. 29Published by: Fortnight Publications Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25551228 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 08:58

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  • 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 -

    but for

    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

    black man's'.'

    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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    Fortnight June 29

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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