Address to the thirteenth Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering.
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I'm Queen Marie of Romania.
Eleven years ago Seosamh and I were filming in the State of Minnesota. In the city of St. Paul we learned that the term˜Connemara was a century-old synonym for lazy. This was curious, because anybody in the 19th century who survived on the rocky garrantaí of Conamara could not do so without hard, relentless physical work. There was no dole.
We learned that the slander originated in 1880 when a Catholic Bishop, John Ireland, publicly blamed his financial troubles on a group of Conamara fisher-families. He had taken them from their fields and currachs in the West of Ireland and settled the oldest and youngest members of the families, against their will, miles from the city on the vast prairies and instructed them to become farmers. For the fit and young of the same families he organized jobs in the city of St. Paul.
The plight of those prairie dwellers was so desperate in the worst winter in history that they became the subject of national debate in the American Press. The Bishop said they were too lazy to work.
It was thirty below out on the prairie!
In Spring the ˜Connemaras" were delivered back to the city of St. Paul which was where they had thought they were going in the first place and made successes of their lives as did at least one Conamara family that stuck it out on the prairie - that of Learai Ó Flathartha.
The Bishop's criticism of them was widely reported. Naturally his flock and his separated brethren did not doubt his word. But the Conamara people, being nonliterate and hardly even English speaking, could not defend themselves in that language, had no access to the print media. Hence the idea that the˜Connemaras were lazy became conventional Minnesotan wisdom.
˜But," as Seosamh O Cuaig grimly said to me during the course of making the film,˜I can read and I can write, in English"
Therefore we intensified our researches and the film eventually showed how these people had been used as scapegoats for the failure of the ambitions of the colonizing Bishop. He was a Republican and an entrepeneur. We detailed his personal ownership of the railway land awarded to him for the purposes of Catholic settlement. It seemed clear that as time was running out on his contract, he used these poor people simply to buy time and fulfill his undertakings to his friends in the Railway company. So fraught were his financial dealings (mind you, he could brazen it out now if he was subject to a Tribunal in Dublin) that after he died his sister, a Mother Superior, destroyed all of the personal papers that related to the incident.
But the mud stuck to the immigrants from Conamara. Two Irish American Minnesota lawyers happily told us, on film, that their father had emphasized to them:˜Make sure people know you are from Limerick, not from Conamara."
Nearly a century after the Minnesota mess, in 1973 in Conamara I did a vox pop with youngsters attending the Irish Summer Colleges in Conamara. All townies, they unanimously dismissed the place as consisting of nothing but rocks, with no attractions whatsoever. The locals, according to a few, were lazy. How could they have made this judgment in three weeks? Presumably they had brought that bit of baggage with them from their suburban homes.
Luckily, they know a little better now and there certainly is no local resentment to the Summer College industry. Business is business and the modern students are referred to locally in the affectionate term 'the cash crop'.
Still, from Marx with his term˜rural idiocy" to Garret Fitzgerald's opposition to Knock Airport, from John D. Sheridan's bucolic ˜Thomasheen James" to stand-up comics to-day, there is something universal in this urban contempt for rural dwellers - culchies. The late painter Michael FarrelI used ask sculptor Eddie Delaney and myself: ˜Are you still rotting away in Connemara?" The perception is based sometimes on ignorance, sometimes on fear of the wild men of the West. A film editor whom I brought to Conamara years ago confessed to me that his ventures beyond the Pale had hitherto never brought him further than Leixlip. Over the years, and quite separately, I remember two old friends of mine, a journalist and an actress, saying they felt threatened in the company of people in South Conamara. In forty years I had never felt thus threatened. They could not explain why they felt that way.
I can only speculate on the reasons.
First there may be resentment at the imposition of obligatory Irish on the monoglot English-speaking population of the island. This State policy was a Dublin invention but the resentment it engendered was directed at the imagined native speakers in their ghettoes in the West, at soft targets like Peig Sayers and at DeValera's quite admirable ambitions for human beings on this island. Incidentally, what precisely is wrong with good looking girls, small local industry and the human activity of dancing? That, roughly, is what Dev was advocating. He was way ahead of Schumacher's Small is Beautiful philosophy.
Another thing: The small linguistic communities of the Gaeltachtaí may in the past have been a material source of resentment in that the grants the natives received were positively discriminatory and favoured Irish-speaking households.
The pure & simple truth of that perception, according to research by Mairtin O Catháin published in the Galway Advertiser, is, as Wilde said, rarely pure and never simple.
Then there is the neo-liberal urbanite's association of the Irish language and rural life with poverty and idiocy. There is the canard that, as in the nineteenth century, incest flourished because the roads were bad and that this resulted in a population of malformed retards. But a medical doctor's RHA survey of Leitir Mealláin in 1891 described that community as the healthiest and most beautiful he had ever seen.
The endless parade of bright and beautiful young native speakers on TG4 for the past ten years should by now have given the lie to that perception. But a lie that's big enough - as Goebbels proved - becomes the conventional wisdom.
And the Source? Ah, the source.
The source of my own experience is nearly forty years living and working in one of the few bilingual communities in Ireland, the only tradition which is not only not narrow and insular but knows Boston better than Mary Harney, and all the main cities of England better than Dublin - in other words, it is made up of men and women of the world.
Long before Sir Tony O'Reilly said Ireland was a great place to tog out in but that the real game was elsewhere, the people of Conamara and rural Ireland in general were forced to explore that ˜elsewhere". And it was not to play the gentleman's game of rugby, but to survive the abandonment by the entrepreneurial class from whose loins Sir Tony O'Reilly sprang.
In the time I have lived in Conamara most of my work has been devoted to countering this subconscious interior racism, trying to persuade Irish urbanites - including its gaeilgeoirs - that my rural neighbours are not lazy thugs but the hardest-working people I ever encountered; not 'thick', but the most coherent and smart, bilingual community in this island. On a practical note, every family in Conamara could traditionally raise their own house and make any repairs necessary, grow their own food, build a boat, excavate their own fuel, subtly negotiate the traps of central bureaucracy and be on first name terms with their local and national public representatives. Such skills are pretty thin on the ground in suburbia and, when global warming intensifies, my neighbours are the kind of people from whom I will certainly be seeking survival advice.
It seems to me that it is inevitable for many urbanites and suburbanites to have an educated contempt* for the idea of self-sufficiency and its lingering manifestations in rural Ireland. These ideas are a rebuke to the consumer lifestyles in which they are now irrevocably trapped. Their winter fruit diet must come by jet plane from the Southern Hemisphere. To assuage guilt they must denigrate advocates of self-sufficiency as tree-huggers and fundamentalists. They must tuttut at radicalism, Catholicism, Communism, at every ism except two: mé féin-ism and capitalism. (Note: this address was given in 2007! Sic transit gloria mundi.)
Which brings me to sociology.
It is a human technique of establishing who we are in relation to the echelons above and below us. So, Toronto English speakers looked down on the French of Quebec. They both looked down on the Scots of Nova Scotia who in turn looked down on the Irish of Newfoundland or 'Newfies'. In the US the Wasps looked down on the Irish Catholics, who looked down on the Italian Catholics. And everybody agreed that all a Polack fish was competent to do was drown. At the bottom of the heap were the Blacks and then the aboriginal native Americans. It was social benchmarking, each group maintaining its pecking order.
Conamara is not free of this. I have heard a man from An Spidéal expressing doubts about the degree of civilization of people twenty miles west of him.
Reference group theory is not just financially and socially alive in class-ridden societies such as ours. It has deep roots in our insecurities. It emerges in Kerryman jokes, yummy mummies and SUVs, the Dart accent, Ross O'Carroll Kelly and especially the terms ˜culchies" an ˜knackers" It is accepted as part of the natural order.
But it can only be neo-conservatives like Michael McDowell who would publicly advocate this primitive state of things when he observed that inequality is good for society, providing an incentive for people to get off their posteriors and get on their Thatcherite bicycles. Whatever the ancient, primitive and predatory origins of beggaring your neighbour, this accepted wisdom flies utterly in the face of one unassailable fact about human beings. We are essentially social animals and have depended for our evolutionary survival not on our natures being red in tooth and claw but on the social behaviour called cooperation which is designed to keep the more ugly parts of our nature under control. Ar scáth a chéile a maireann's na daoine is still true in principle. It is grotesque that in Western civilization since Hiroshima, the species best keeping the human quality of cooperation alive is ANTS. The ruthless competitor, the profiteer at all cost, is now our hero. Take a bow, Michael O'Leary, Denis O'Brien and all those CEOs who profited on paper by getting rid of as many employees as possible.
Urbanites by definition display urbanity. That seems to mean shrugging resignedly at the intolerable circumstances which they endure outside the fragile security of their homes.
Is this an argument against Market values and modern Progress? Yes, if progress and the oil that lubricates the so-called free market and our modern lifestyle mean the death of community and consequent lack of empathy with our neighbour - quite apart from the distant deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis together with the destroyed lives of 30,000 decent young Americans. Not to mention the imminent decay of our planet.
Is there any point anymore in pleading for non-consumptive lifestyles, not to mention understanding, tolerance, respect, love your neighbour, kiss a Traveller for Christ? Is anyone listening to Mountjoy prison Governor John Hederman or homeless children's protector Fr. Peter McVerry. Have Bono and Geldof made us deaf to the fact that Charity begins at home? The corporations and advertisers make so much money from our insecurities, fears and petty snobberies that they have set us on a material and metaphysical road which has no bypasses or ratruns or backwaters. There may be no escape from our unsustainable lifestyle and topsy-turvy values until the oil runs out, the tankers grind to a stop and water is 100 dollars a barrel. It will end in tears.
But I'm also realistic enough to remember Dorothy Parker's words with which I prefaced this sermon.
*2 It has.
26 Sep. 2007
Fáilte go Conamara
The newly restored Atlantean films
are now available on two DVDs in pristine 16:9 format.