I recently watched The History Boys on TV. It’s a fascinating play, set in a 1980s Sheffield grammar school, raising questions about history, education, sexual abuse and more, all in that laconic and sometimes hilarious style that Alan Bennett has perfected. Bennett is part of a gritty, provincial-England tradition of writing that I’ve always enjoyed. I got hooked with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning back in the 1960s and I’m still an addict.
Last Thursday I was part of a panel in Toomebridge, discussing what being Irish involves; as I watched The History Boys I began to wonder if my addiction to this strand of British fiction made me in some way British. Memories of playing cowboys and Indians in the Christian Brothers’ Primary School yard followed, and how later as teenagers in St Columb’s College in Derry we soaked in the rock and roll of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney and the rest. Maybe those experiences had made me a bit American?
It’s a question of how we see the outside world and respond to it. I’m convinced my life would have been the poorer if I hadn’t read Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and the likes of Alan Bennett. And I’m equally sure the music of Elvis and Co provided consolation for my ricocheting hormones back in the late 1950s.
But did those influences make me less Irish? Some would say yes, it’s all part of the ‘soft power’ that empires use. Power over weaker nations doesn’t have to come from the barrel of a gun - the more subtle weapon of culture in the widest sense of that word does the job as well or better. When you’ve taught the world to sing in perfect har-mon-ee that they love Coca Cola, you’ve gone some way to making them into mini-Americans. British and American music, fashion, movies, TV shows: you could see them as, um, chipping away at your Irishness.
Yet oddly enough, it was spending several years living in North America that switched me on to the unique beauty of things Irish: the landscape, the music and literature, the verve and passion of the Irish people. A case, I suppose, of learning to appreciate something because it’s been removed from your everyday experience.
So what is it to be Irish? Is it to create a shield between ourselves and outside influences? That’s the thinking behind the famous GAA ban on soccer or other ‘foreign’ games, and we know now it didn’t work. Is it to be born in Ireland? Uh-uh. Michael McDowell changed that one when he was Minister for Justice in the south. Besides, three of my four children were born in Canada and now live in England. If you’re thinking of telling them they’re not Irish, let me know so I can be somewhere else.
Maybe it comes down to identification with a country. Here in the north, we have the strange situation that a large part of the population have in the past resisted identifying with things Irish, even though what they claim as a key part of their culture is represented in the Irish national flag. Until we find ways to move that sense of Irish identity from the symbolism of the flag to an on-the-ground reality, talk of Irish unity will remain empty verbiage.
Yes I know - there was a time when these things all seemed so much simpler. But simple thinking crumbles in the face of complex reality. National identification doesn’t come from closing down the hatches and telling the world to go away. It comes from opening our minds to the ways in which other cultures may enrich us. When we can do that without tumbling into West Britishness or Americanization, we’ll have become a balanced and mature people.