Top o’ the mornin’ to ya’,
Why are the Irish so happy? With crappy weather, widespread poverty and the Catholic church’s ridiculous constraints on daily life, you’d think they’d be the most down-at-heel, sad and forlorn people around. Add to these constant torments, they have a tortured history of poverty, famine and disease. But they don’t appear to be unhappy at all (at all, at all).
Perhaps their positive national disposition actually stems indirectly from their adversity. Doing it tough helps one to appreciate what little one has, eh what? Jonathan Swift thought that “blessed is the man who expects nothing for he shall not be disappointed”. Oscar Wilde wrote that “all of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. I suppose it also helps to have a common enemy for so long to engender a spirit of defiance. The English were the enemy here in Ireland and remain the target for gentle loathing today. The Irish opposition to the English certainly encouraged a larrikin ethos. Brendan Behan said it was “not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. They certainly learned to stick together. George Bernard Shaw commented that “a happy family is but an earlier heaven”. One more for the readers of great Irish authors: James Joyce said, “I fear those big words which make us so unhappy”.
death and disease
A hundred years before the great potato famine of 1845-1849 (An Gorta Mór), the people of Ireland were beset by a different catastrophe: outbreaks of dysentery, smallpox and typhus which killed 400 000 people (proportionally more than the potato failure in the nineteenth century). This period of disease and death was known locally as Bliain an Air (the year of the slaughter) and lasted from December 1739 until the beginning of 1741.
It’s easy to understand how modern young’uns travelling the world can be so happy and relaxed about life. After all, they all come from prosperous origins, they are enjoying the longest period of peace ever and they have a capacity to suspend commitments to enable travel. Why shouldn’t they at least appear to be happy with their lot?
It’s not quite so obvious as to why a people with such a troubled past can be so innately happy and so unfailingly positive. Is it because they are acutely cognisant of their history and appreciate the fact that they – by comparison – are living in a prosperous era? Is it because adversity naturally breeds optimism? Or is it because they simply know there’s no alternative to life but to face it with a laugh? They certainly have developed a sense of humour rooted in gentle self-deprecation. This begets an expectation that others have a licence to join the frolic, so there seems to be a national sport of gentle ribbing of their fellows which goes without fear of misunderstanding or reprisal. I surmise that this is where our Australian humour has its genesis.
Lots of Americans are here in Eire, presumably interested in tracing their antecedents. The Americans tend to stand out somewhat. They’re the ones who insist on speaking loudly (and incessantly) to announce their presence. Local shopkeepers in Killarney are savvy enough to hoist American flags on their shop fronts to attract these cashed up visitors: smart marketing that. Americans love to spot the Star-Spangled Banner and love to think there’s a fellow worshipper within.
It’s great to eavesdrop on animated Irish conversations, with their broad vowels and ‘tirty trees’ etc. Linda says being here is a bit like watching television, deciphering all of the accents. It’s also great to be in among such an optimistic people.
Oi’ll be gettin’ ‘ on then,