Green Beer and English: The Actors and Poets of St. Patrick

The recent news that the Irish and the English come from the same ancient genetic stock, by and large, should be no shock to anyone who contemplates the greatest contribution of the cultural Irish diaspora: the language of their sometime enemies across the narrow Irish Sea. Now that the mitochondrial mystery has been solved at Oxford, we may as well be honest about the great irony of the grand old land.

English and its artistic advancement is the great cultural achievement of the Irish.

It all makes sense that today we’ll swill German beer with a green food dye additive in franchise “Irish” pubs licensed to Italians and Greeks, while paying tribute to a Roman born in Britain.

And we’ll grow teary-eyed at brief passages of Joyce and Yeats, while gobbling soda bread around the big flat screen as John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cavort in John Ford’s mythic Ireland of our dreams. All in English, of course – wonderful English, blissfully enunciated, emotional, profane, onomatopoetic English. Yes, English, the great gift of the Irish.

`A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,’ said Aunt Kate in Joyce’s sublime The Dead, arguably the greatest short-form prose employment of modern English. Written, of course, by an exile who gave to the world his gift beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English.

Now, I’m more of a Joyce dabbler – an occasional tourist – than any form of scholar. But my initial appreciation was laced with the permanent dye of love during Wallace Gray‘s famous guided tour at Columbia, and so I take comfort from merely keeping the volumes around the desk.

From time to time, I’ll dip in – most often, I confess, to the accessible Dubliners, in which the lessons of language have day-to-day application in my writing world. Occasionally, as well, into Ulysses and very rarely into Portrait of the Artist. The prose still instructs, and less often, inspires; instructs, in the case of the mythical writer’s block, in this way:

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
Coin rang. Clock clacked.

Who can read a passage like that from the Sirens episode in Ulysses and admit to the writer’s emotional weakness of being “blocked.” Clearly, nonsense. Just listen, write down the English words, and there you have it. (Of course, “jaunted” is the genius there – but the rest of us can get the basics easily enough).

This is a lesson clearly understood by the great Irish voices of the screen, by way of America and its Hollywood coastline six thousand miles from Eire. I was reminded of this by the Siren’s fine essay on John Ford’s 1935 The Informer, with its tight, dramatic lead performance by Victor McLaglen. The portrayal is of dark, Irish rebellion – but it was created by the Irish-American Ford on the backlot:

The look of the film famously made a virtue of necessity, as The Informer was shot on a tiny budget on an RKO set that would have looked like flats from a high-school musical had it been lit like most Hollywood movies of the period. Instead, characters walk or stumble around a fog-shrouded Dublin that looks like a slum you dreamed on a bender.

By contrast, The Quiet Man was a big budget mid-50s color production, shot on location in gorgeous Irish locales – brought to you, of course, by the same Irish-American set of exiles from the hills of Hollywoodland: Ford (born Feeney to off-the-boat parents from Galway), the dual citizen Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne (aka, Marion Morrison of Irish descent), and Dubliner Barry Fitzgerald.

But Victor McLaglen was British-born, like Cary Grant and Bob Hope – as a soldier, he stood guard duty at Windsor Castle. Ward Bond was an Nebraskan of mixed European parentage, yet often played priests and Irish bruisers.

And Bing Crosby, that great Irish crooner, was a son of the Pacific Northwest who got his Irish from his mother’s family (County Mayo) and the Jesuits at Gonzaga. His father’s family came over on the Mayflower. An English-Irish ancestry produced Father O’Malley, by way of black American jazz and Jewish vaudeville comedic brilliance, of course.

The Father O’Malleys and Sean Thorntons have devolved into character types sinces the 40s and 50s, when the words behind those characters – faith, the use of language – gave them their true appeal. Lance Mannion latches onto this predictable “Irish” quality in his recent scathing review of a new NBC series:

They’re played for the Ah, the Irish, what a grand race of bold, reckless bastards they are laughing ruefully because you can’t help admiring the boy-ohs even though it’s up to no good they are and they’ll come to a bad end and won’t we all have a good cry then laughs. Jimmy, Tommy, Kevin, and Sean, we hardly knew ye laughs.

It’s that wearin’ o’ the green stereotype that Martin Scorcese prods deeply in The Departed – to me, the most interesting facet of a fairly ordinary mob tale of blood and revenge.

The Irish cops and robbers in Boston are a little too green for me – Boston’s not that Irish anymore, if it ever was: the Italians have at least as deep a claim. But I did enjoy the debunking of Irish “loyalty” and its place above other flavors; it doesn’t exist, as the movie’s violent ending accurately portrays.

Life is more complicated. It matches our language in that quality. Patrick O’Brian, an Englishman who actually pretended to be Irish during his commercial lifetime to help sell authenticity and books, understood this.

His great Irish character was of decidely mixed blood – half Irish minor gentry, half Catalan nobleman – the dark Spanish mixing with the Irish language in service of the British Navy as a surgeon and spy.

All written in truly brilliant English that traversed the world – Stephen Maturin is the perfect carrier of English-Irish language; the dialogue is old and deferential, but O’Brian’s system of narrative disclosure is fresh and modern. He’s a Joyce man, after all, and a loving biographer of Picasso. And his language travels the world along with his Napoleanic plots.

The geneticists have traced the common genses. The mystery is over. Says Oxford University geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer:

“The majority of the gene pool of the British Isles is very ancient and dates to the era after the last great Ice Age. It has nothing to do with Celts or Anglo-Saxons or any more recent ethnic labels.”

Fitzgerald didn’t need DNA to understand the humbug of pure English arrogance; he understood the language – some would say he owned it – and put these words into one of his most obvious, simple, and execrable characters, Tom Buchanan:

“This idea is that we’re Nordics … and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that.”

Science and art, and all that. Just as silly as Thomas Cahill’s assertion in his incredibluy popular (and mildly intreresting) How the Irish Saved Civilization, often introduced into evidence in the ongoing argument over Irish cultural hegemony. The Irish, said Cahill, are “generous, handsome, and brave.”

Well, some are and some aren’t.

Today, of course, we’re all supposed to be Irish. I’m watching the parade (with its Scottish warpipe bands) this morning from the comfort of my living room on a bitter and icy Saturday. The coverage is sponsored by Guinness, second only to language as the great export, I s’pose. And here comes the pitch:

“Enjoy Guiness Draft responsibly during the Saint Patrick’s Day season.”

The Saint Patrick’s Day season? Well, stuff and begorrah, I guess it is a long season at that. To the ear and eye, anyway.