Irishness is for other people

Terry Eagleton

Enrique Vila-Matas’s new novel centres on Bloomsday, the annual celebration in Dublin of the day on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. Many nations celebrate mythical events, but Ireland commemorates a fictional one. It is as if Britain were to dedicate a feast day to Falstaff or to the Artful Dodger. For some in Ireland, Bloomsday is a useful alternative to memorialising the Easter Rising or the United Irish Insurrection: honouring uprisings against the British has been controversial ever since the shadow of the IRA hung over the country. Bloomsday is a secular rather than a sacred feast. It turns a non-existent character into a real-life event, rather as Leopold Bloom himself is a fictional figure who is solidly real. Illusion and reality converge: if Joyce himself crops up in the novel, as some critics maintain, Bloom even encounters his own creator, rather as religious believers are supposed to do when they die. The same may be true of the hero of Dublinesque, who spots a man who may be Vila-Matas.

Like many modernist texts, Ulysses ransacks mythology to provide a fractured modern world with some underlying order. The book, its author and one of its main characters have now been mythologised in their turn. Samuel Riba, the hero of Vila-Matas’s novel, knows very little about Ireland but a good deal about its literature. He first sees Dublin in a dream, as an imaginary city that is nevertheless intensely real. But Ireland itself has long been a kind of fiction. Few nations have been so much the stuff of legend. Its citizens were put on this earth for other people to feel romantic about. To mention that you live in Dublin can be enough to raise a smile, evoking fantasies of a genial, devil-may-care race of hard drinkers and racy raconteurs, from whose lips perfectly formed epigrams fall as effortlessly as booze flows in. Freud saw laughter as a momentary release from the superego, which is how the Irish figure in the global unconscious. They are feckless, indolent, wildly imaginative brawlers whom other people look down on but would secretly like to be, and as such they evoke a mixture of derision and admiration. From Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde to George Bernard Shaw, Brendan Behan and Graham Norton, John Bull’s other island has furnished the British with a series of talented court jesters, praised and patronised in equal measure. Ireland was burdened with the task of writing much of its rulers’ great literature for them. The Irish themselves are adept at turning other people’s dewy-eyed images of them to profitable use, as Bloomsday itself, a notable tourist attraction, proves. Irishness is for other people. Anyone found wearing an Aran sweater or singing ‘Danny Boy’ is unlikely to be a native. Quite a lot that appears indigenous to the country is not. Irish stew was concocted for Irish navvies in Britain. Irish coffee was invented by a chef at Foynes airport in the early days of air travel to defrost pilots arriving from across the Atlantic. Even Guinness is no longer locally owned.

As with most myths, there is a kernel of truth to the notion of Ireland as a breeder of fantasies. Culture – from Bono to Brian Friel, Heaney to Riverdance – is modern Ireland’s most remarkable export. There is a small but impressive film industry known as Paddywood. Artists in Ireland are exempt from income tax on their work, and this respect for the arts goes a long way back: medieval Irish bards were in some ways more powerful than chieftains, and could wither your loins with one well-aimed imprecation. Ireland now has a poet as president. The country’s political life has been dominated by nationalism, the most poetic of all political currents. It is hard to imagine Patrick Pearse chairing a finance committee. The former prime minister Garret FitzGerald, a writer and intellectual as well as a politician, is said to have remarked of a certain policy proposal: ‘That’s all right in practice, but will it work in theory?’

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