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.

23 Replies to “Green Beer and English: The Actors and Poets of St. Patrick

  1. Re: Irish loyalty and The Departed … one thing I didn’t touch on in the essay was how common the theme of informing and betrayal is in Irish history, folklore and literature. Goes all the way back to Deirdre (at least).

    And a Happy St. Patrick’s to you, Mr. Watson. I am celebrating by attending a French movie. (speaking of historic betrayals of the Irish …)

  2. Perhaps it should be the very definition of irony: the Irish became masters of their slave language. “Speaking well is the best revenge.”

    There is a good play by Brian Friel on Broadway right now called “Translations,” about how the British systematically went through the country renaming things. We could have had “The Rocky Road to Baile Atha Cliath” but the Brits decided it would be Dublin.

    I was in Galway 2 years ago for Christmas, and the amount of Irish being spoken on cell phones in the streets and cafes was astonishing. Constitutionally, Irish, or Gaelic Irish, is the nation’s offical first language, with English as second offical language.

  3. Yes sure, and it mirrors movements in Scotland and Wales to reconstitute traditional languages and custom. My own feeling is that the Irish helped to create what we think of as modern English – they’re creators, not so much inheritors of the slave language. Also it’s fascinating that the geneticists think of the period of, say, 500 AD to present as a short historic period – post-Christianity Ireland, basically. Going farther back, it’s very closely related tribes – so it’s no surprise the language is so easily taken under wing. What a deep subject this can be…

  4. Don’t believe Stephen Maturin was half-Basque, but half-Catalan. Catalonia is at the opposite end of the Pyrenees from the Basque country (thank you, Wikipedia). But in the context of this post it’s a small point.
    I remember reading Matthew Arnold in a college class on the differences between the Celts and the Saxons, as an example of racialist/imperalist thought. Amusing now to think that the distinction he was drawing does not actually even exist at the level of genetics.
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I am obligated to go celebrate the fact that my mother’s maiden name was Riley.

  5. Oh good lord, what a dopey error – I’ve only read the series three damned times! Thanks for the correx. Celebrate away, Mr. Riley!

  6. “Dubliners, strictly speaking, are my fellow-countrymen, but I don’t care to speak of our “dear, dirty Dublin” as they do. Dubliners are the most hopeless, useless and inconsistent race of charlatans I have ever come across, on the island or the continent. This is why the English parliament is full of the greatest windbags in the world. The Dubliner passes his time gabbing and making the rounds in bars or taverns or cathouses, without ever getting ‘fed up’ with the double doses of whiskey and Home Rule, and at night, when he can hold no more and is swollen up with poison like a toad, he staggers from the side-door and, guided by an instinctive desire for stability along the straight line of the houses, he goes slithering his backside against all walls and corners. He goes ‘arsing along’ as we say in English. There’s the Dubliner for you.

    “And in spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the United Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget — the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature….”

    — from James Joyce’s course material, used while teaching English to Berlitz students in Trieste, in 1906. From Richard Ellman’s James Joyce, p. 217

  7. Only recently did I discover that the term “Irish twins” was derogatory. My sister and I, who were born just shy of a year apart, loved being Irish twins. People often commented how very “Irish” it was, too, that while we looked almost identical for many years, our temperaments were opposite. (To me that signaled that she was the nice one, though my mother has begged me to stop saying that.)

  8. *the language of their sometime enemies across the narrow Irish Sea.*

    I think “former” is the more precise term than “sometime”. There is no reason to regard the relationship as adversarial today, but to suggest the hostility has been sporadic, as your phrasing does, is absurd.

    *The Irish, said Cahill, are “generous, handsome, and brave.”*

    As former Fordham Law School Dean and Federal Judge (and Pelham resident) Willam Hughes Mulligan has often put it, capturing nicely the appropriate view toward this sort of nonsense: “It is generally accepted that, execept for the ugly ones, the Irish are the most attractive people on the planet.”

  9. TK – nice quote.

    Sporadic – hmm, not sure I suggested that. Used “sometime,” which is a bit more accurate but perhaps not le mot juste – still, even from Cromwell to the republic, hostilities weren’t sustained. And the period of time the geneticists reference is in the thousands of years, not the hundreds.

    Former is certainly correct.

    Throughout, language has been a uniter, not a divider (ultimately). I’ll assume you enjoyed this one!

  10. An interesting point lurks here: the extent to which Irish literature exists apart from, as opposed to within, English literature. Milan Kundera had a great essay in the New Yorker recently about how you define “national” literatures once you are outside the major nationalities.

    Your presumption is that English literature is enriched by the addition of Irish authors. Certainly, I can see why you think so. But there’s the school — I’ll call it the “Little Englanders” — who say, we’ll stand with Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Johnson, et al., and be judged without the Hibernian contingent; impressive though it may be, it is not us.

    Eliot wrote an interesting essay from this perspective, at a time when, as he admitted, the state if Irish letters was much stronger than the English (1920’s). He basically said, let’s not salvage ourselves by relying on foreign elements: let’s do it by improving English literature ourselves. (I can’t recall if he noted the irony of his own foreigness).

    I suppose it comes down to how you view nationality and culture: are they defined principally by language? If so, English Lit. should include all Eng-speaking peoples, from Washington Irving through Salman Rushdie right there with Laurence Sterne. If you parse it a little finer, the role of Anglo-Irish authors like, say, Swift get pretty tough to fix. All in all, a messy business. But as they said in “Breaker Morant”: “This is what comes from empire building.”

  11. And empire-breaking, of course – the Americans from Cooper and Irving onwards have (successfully) staked a claim to English literature.

    The language, which pre-dated the empire, will far outlast it as well…

  12. *even from Cromwell to the republic, hostilities weren’t sustained.*

    Yes, that’s true. Oppression was sustained, but hostilities were often not ongoing, due to the thoroughness of the most recent ass-kicking administered to the unruly natives.

    I’ll stand by my contention that “sometime enemies” completely fails to convey the nature of the relationship, even while being literally true. (As there was a time before, and after, the adversarial relationship which, depending how you look at it, lasted betwee 400-800 years, and ended in the lifespan of the still-living.)

  13. *And empire-breaking, of course – the Americans from Cooper and Irving onwards have (successfully) staked a claim to English literature.*

    That little “(successfully)” begs the question. Whether Irving and Cooper are part of “English” literature is far from an established thing.

  14. I agree that it’s far from established – but it is true in my mind, yes.

    English literature is written by English-speaking people.

  15. Tom, 2 thoughts:
    I’m with Tom K that English literaure does not encompass Irish and American lit. Unless it has changed since I was in college, an English major takes a core in Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, etc., and must take a designated “Irish lit” class or “American Lit” class to study any of those writers. American Lit is usually its own major.

    And, I just heard in a review of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” there’s a scene where the Black and Tans, in the 1920s, beat a man to death for not speaking his name in English.

    Ken Loach is attesting to the struggle of the Irish to keep their identity through language, even as the Irish Free State was being born, primarily in English.

  16. … i love the irony of the fact that st patrick was a welshman.

    as for irish literature, i have attempted and failed to engage with ulysses so many times now i focus on the works of flann o’brien. that’s more my level.

    anyway, to celebrate drink and literature we should have a dylan thomas day; now that would make a great parade in new york and would be apt also with some of his favourite watering holes being in that fine city – the white horse tavern being a mutual favourite.

    yachy da!

  17. If you are interested in reading more about Irish ancestry I HIGHLY recommend reading Adam’s Curse by Bryan Sykes. Not necessarily about the Irish but the book includes a great deal about what is mentioned in your post Tom.

    Sykes is an Oxford geneticist and probably had a great deal to do with said research.

  18. The site looks great ! Thanks for all your help ( past, present and future !)

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