John Banville on “The grim good cheer of the Irish” – New York Times

The Grim Good Cheer of the Irish

Published: December 17, 2011


IN an early memory of mine, if it is a real memory, I was taken one
smoky winter afternoon by my Uncle Tom to Rosslare Harbor, some 10
miles from our hometown of Wexford in the southeast corner of Ireland.
It was the early 1950s, and I would have been 6 or 7 years old. At the
harbor’s pier, the ferry to Britain was preparing to depart. Memory
magnifies, and the vessel I recall is the size of an ocean liner, its
sheer flank beetling over the dock, its mighty smokestacks puffing out
great gray cumuli and its hooter shaking the air with its
deep-throated bellowings.

The unlikeliness of this magnitude leads me to suspect that what I am
entertaining is not a recollection of my own but a fragment of
exaggerated folk-memory. For I see what seems an impossibly vast
number of weeping mothers and ashen-faced fathers, bidding farewell to
a host of young men, each one carrying a cheap suitcase, who are
streaming on board the ship, bound for London, Birmingham, Coventry,
to seek work in Britain’s postwar reconstruction drive.

Perhaps I am not deceived. Tens of thousands of young men and women
did leave Ireland in those years. We had been neutral in the war, and
therefore missed out on the largess of the Marshall Plan. Our economy
was based almost entirely on agriculture, and many a desperate
household subsisted on the few pounds or dollars sent home weekly by
exiled sons and daughters.

Today, the Irish of my generation have a distinct sense of déjà vu.
Tens of thousands have left Ireland in this year alone. The age of the
Celtic Tiger, those fat years in the 1990s and early 2000s, the first
period in our history when we knew what it was to be rich, has given
way to a time of crashes, debts, austerity and, once again,
emigration. There is hardly a person here who has not been affected.
The hangover that the years of false plenty left us with is the worst
we have ever suffered — the worst, but not the first. And if there was
ever a people that knew how to handle a hangover, surely it is we.

Irish memory is long, and darkened by bitterness. The country has
suffered repeated waves of emigration, much of it compulsory, ever
since the Flight of the Earls at the beginning of the 17th century,
when English forces defeated the army of the Irish aristocracy and
drove its leaders into exile. After the disastrous uprising of 1798
and throughout the rebellious century that followed, thousands of what
would nowadays be called freedom fighters were deported to the penal
colonies of Australia. In the 1840s — the Black Forties, as the decade
is called — Ireland’s population was disastrously reduced by famine
and the mass departure of the starving and the destitute; the vessels
that carried emigrants to America were known, with good reason, as
coffin ships.

The violent poetry of leave-taking is ingrained in the Irish
consciousness. I once read an account of a Black Forties parting
between a young man setting out for America and his father. The two
men stood face to face and, instead of speaking, danced their
farewell, their stony gazes locked, while the womenfolk wept. A far
cry from “Riverdance.”

Much has changed since then, of course. The young people leaving
Ireland today are nothing like the pitch-capped rebels of ’98, the
starvelings of the Black Forties or the youths with their suitcases on
that 1950s ferry. They are well educated and, for the most part,
middle class — I.T. operatives, engineers, construction workers, off
in search of jobs no longer to be had here. In a depressingly neat
variation, many are immigrants themselves — Polish masons, Czech
electricians, Romanian plumbers — who came during the building bubble
of the Celtic Tiger years and are now moving on to London to work on
the construction of the Olympic Village.

In the old days, emigrants would in all probability never see their
families again. One of the most heart-rending results of the mass
departures of the 1950s are the aging, single and destitute Irishmen
living friendless and lost to their families in that urban England, so
much of which they helped to rebuild after the war. But now emigrants
are less likely to forget, and be forgotten. Budget airline travel and
communications technology mean they can return home from the far side
of the world, even if only virtually, as often as they wish.

One of the biggest differences is that today Ireland is the Good Boy
of Europe, a shining example of newfound fiscal rectitude when
compared to what the more prudent northern European countries consider
the irredeemably profligate Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards and
Italians. This is a novel position for us. It is as if the shiftless
urchin who used to skulk and daydream in the back row has been
summoned to the front of the class by President Nicolas Sarkozy and
Germany’s latter-day Iron Chancellor to be presented with a medal and

Our most effective succor, however, may rest in what has not changed
at all: our persistently grim cheerfulness. One could say, as some do,
that we Irish are congenitally masochistic, that we secretly welcome
misfortune. But it does not feel like that. Rather, we have always had
a propensity to laugh at ourselves, which stands us in good stead in
these melancholy times, when laughter, even the self-mocking kind, is
at a premium.

Yet laughter cannot allay some memories. Here, from my sad store, is
another. It is the sweltering summer of 1969, and I am living in
London. Walking through Hyde Park one Sunday afternoon I hear,
faintly, a familiar sound. At first I cannot identify it, then I do:
it is the leathery smack of a hurley stick hitting a hurling ball.
Hurling, along with Gaelic football, is the national game of Ireland;
it is very fast, and highly skilled, but can look to the uninitiated
eye like an all-out battle between two bands of nimble, swift and very
angry warriors armed with wooden battle-axes. I stop, and scan the
greensward, and see, in the distance, in a long glade between two rows
of trees, a pair of young men in shirtsleeves, one at each extreme of
the grassy ride, hitting a hurling ball to each other, over and over,
from end to far end, and my heart is pierced by this image of
yearning, of loneliness, by this quintessence of homesickness in the
vast world of exile.

John Banville is the author of “The Sea” and, most recently, “The Infinities.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 18, 2011, on
page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Grim Good
Cheer of the Irish.