Educating the Urbanite

Address to the thirteenth Lady Gregory Autumn Gathering.


Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I'm Queen Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker
In 1971 I had an article published in the Irish Times entitled The Doleman Cometh.
It praised the social welfare system and that rural subsidy, the dole, which enabled strong, unemployed men to gather around the corners of their villages, entertaining tourists and providing photo opportunities and quaint chat. Tourist interests, I suggested, should recognize the high amenity value of such men and get four square behind the principle of the Dole. Of course I was being ironic.
Where servants of the State are concerned, never use irony.
A week later a man from Galway city, in a suit and tie, came to my rented home in Rosmuc asking questions about my income from such writing. I, having abandoned an urban career as a TV producer, was on the dole, supporting a wife and child on 6 pounds& 15 shillings a week and trying to supplement this with sporadic articles and stories, Because I had earned perhaps 2 pounds a week from such writing, the suitman from Galway docked that sum from my dole.
I would term that man a professional urbanite - doing his permanent pensionable job, interested in how lesser beings survive only to the extent of suspicion that they are getting away with something.
Even trade unionists share this partly-amused, partly contemptuous attitude to casual rural workers. Here's a story I heard from a Trade Union official:
On a large building site in Donegal all the labourers were known to be on the rural dole. These men could smell a 'gauger' a mile off and they vanished as soon as one came over the horizon. However the local Social Welfare officer showed enterprise. He sent a pretty female clerk out to the site with a book of raffle tickets. On a bicycle. Wearing a miniskirt. She got the name and address of every manjack on the site. Good enough for non-unionised workers!
Back to my own experience. With my rent money - 2 pounds a week - thus confiscated by the State I got a job as a telephonist in Andrews St Telephone Exchange, Dublin. I endured that nightly prison for six months and then fled back to the freedom of Conamara.
The same Summer, a close relation of mine on holiday in Conamara fulminated about the laziness of the natives. He, cityman born and bred, could not get anybody to fix a minor problem in his rented house. I explained that Summer was the only time of year when my adopted neighbours could actually earn something from the seasonal backbreaking work of fishing and turf-cutting. Thus, his trivial inconvenience was not their top priority. He remained unconvinced.
Coincidentally, many years later, his son brought his bicycle on a one-day visit to the Aran islands. The bicycle got a puncture. Now, renting bicycles for the short Summer season is a small industry on Inishmore. The young man simply could not understand why it was almost impossible to borrow a pump and swore he would never go near the place again. At least not with his bike.
An old friend of mine in Conamara, Seosamh O Cuaig did not speak English until he was nine years old. Nowadays he is more articulate in English than myself. When he was eighteen and working as a journalist in Westport Town, a colleague asked the rhetorical question:˜Where would you find the thickest man in Ireland/" The answer, uttered with much hilarity was: Conamara.

Eleven years ago Seosamh and I were 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.

O Catháin showed that 'real' Gaeltacht grants, not the petty ones based on linguistic facility, but the serious ones for business and enterprise actually benefit more the fictional ˜gaeltacht" people of booming suburbs such as Bearna, Moycullen, Knocknacarra and Claregalway than the actual Irish speaking families in small villages like Cill Chiarán or Carna. Garnering votes from such dense English-speaking suburbs guarantees Fianna Fáil success in elections to such as the Board of Udarás na Gaeltachta. Indeed the party's last success in this field was a man from Claregalway who could speak no Irish at all! This is the pragmatic reason why the outrageously fictional borders of ˜the gaeltachtaí", invented by Fine Gael's Patrick Lindsay fifty years ago, are maintained by Fianna Fáils clever directors of elections. The result is that only people for whom Irish is their first language get a minimum of the kudos and all of the brickbats for speaking Irish.
You can be sure that the modern version of W.B.Yeats' freckled fisherman in Connemara cloth going to a place where stone is dark under froth is no Irish speaker at all. He probably has a pad in Ballyconneely, Connemara where 75% of the houses belong to weekend visitors from Dublin and environs.

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.

Ten years ago I attended a Temple Bar debate in Dublin where Dr. Terence Browne of Trinity Colloege and Fintan O'Toole of the Irish Times locked horns. In the course of it Terence referred to Irish as a dead language. Fintan did not disagree. I had just driven up from my Béal an Daingin post office, where the staff and customers all joked and did their business in Irish. I mentioned this as evidence that the rumours of the demise of Irish might be exaggerated and asked Terence how he could support his impression. His dismissive answer was couched in analogies to 'dead' Latin'. I concluded that his impression was not personally researched, was simply a secondhand opinion derived from the conventional East coast urban wisdom i.e. that Irish was a suspect badge of the unholy trinity of nationalism, Catholicism and Provo-ism. I did not have the cheek to remind this fine scholar to take his own academic advice and˜go to the original source', before dismissing the language.

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.

Three years ago I attended the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of my leaving Cert class in Synge St. Dublin and recorded interviews with my ex-classmates. All but three of the approx. 30 survivors still lived and worked in Dublin. They all said the Christian Brothers were tough, beat the shit out of us, ha ha, but we're still grateful for our education.
We were a privileged lot: only 7000 students in the country as distinct from 10 times that many nowadays who could afford to do the Leaving cert. Most of the Irish that had been beaten into them had vanished. Apart from myself at the above celebration there were only three who had left Dublin - three migrants returned for the occasion. two from the States, one from Limerick, and these were almost the only ones who gave calm, thoughtful and devastatingly honest reactions to my questions. Most of the others were still in a discreet urban cocoon.
By the way, Raidio Teilifis Dublin refused my offer to present the material in documentary form. The female commissioning editor who turned it down stoutly declared that she was completely ignorant of my work. So it goes.

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.

Years ago in Canada I learned the principle of reference group theory.

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 on that note I refuse to end. The situation may have been ever thus but never, I believe, have we been so aware of what we are collectively doing or, at best, are accessories to.
So, I'm an optimist. That's why I long ago embraced the rural life, plant trees for my six children and ten grandchildren and cut wood for my stove.
I believe truth will out, that we are all now aware of our responsibilities, that the decency in human beings will prevail, that we will overturn our imposed burdens of greed as a virtue, ridiculous mortgages as inevitable, passive consumerism as a lifestyle and social benchmarking as our moral compass. That we will cease to express helplessness. That love of neighbour will prevail and that we might even begin to tolerate muintir Chonamara, warts and all, just like ourselves. We're all travellers on the road to God-knows-where, all tourists in the departure lounge, all mice sailing on a ship made of cheese.


But I'm also realistic enough to remember Dorothy Parker's words with which I prefaced this sermon.

*2 It has.

Bob Quinn
26 Sep. 2007


Fáilte go Conamara



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