Saints and Scholars

Tomorrow will be Saint Patrick’s Day, an annual celebration of Irish culture. This is a unique and distinct culture which has had a tremendous impact all over the world, but due to rampant commercialisation the Irish identity is in danger. Even very recently the notion of Irish nationality has disappeared, and the meaning of Saint Patrick’s Day itself has been lost.

Ireland prides itself as the “land of saints and scholars”, as most of Europe descended into the Dark Ages, Irish monks like St Columba pursued in their mission to enlighten and educate. The brothers established monasteries across Ireland which became centres of learning for many generations. This is a piece of history that should be preserved and remembered but rather disappointingly far too much emphasis is placed upon the darker episodes of Ireland’s past.

Ireland’s long struggle to claim independence from the British has overshadowed an occasion which should be a day of joy. The relentless focus on Ireland’s “Troubles” has imbued a misplaced feeling of shame in almost every British person. This is the fault of the propagandists who have presented and disseminated a distorted view of Ireland and Britain respectively.

Crude caricatures of the Irish and the British people are unfortunately present in contemporary films like “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Titanic”. In “Ryan`s Daughter” the Irish peasantry are simple minded fools, almost recreations of Huxley’s trope of the “Noble Savage” living amidst the supposed barbarism of the British. A similar cartoonish situation is presented in “Titanic” with the poor, oppressed Irish toiling below deck while the British nobility play cards on their luxurious upper berths.

It might seem silly and laughable, but the effect of films like the ones I mentioned can be serious. They actually demean and dehumanise real people. The Anglo-Irish author J.G Farrell was acutely aware of this when he wrote his tragi-comic novel “Troubles”, set during the 1919 Irish War of Independence. It is written as a kind of meta novel, the characters are deliberate stereotypes. The narrative takes place in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a relic of British imperial hegemony.

The imagery is stark, allusions to parasites abound in the opening scenes, with even once harmless plants and vegetation threatening to destroy the building. Yet again the Irish are presented as simple and superstitious people, while the British are cold, humourless and brutal.

It presents common prejudices back to the reader, while the Irish seem hot headed but poetic, the British are emotionless and immune to any romantic sensibility. One British officer’s overtly pragmatic character made me think about Sir Francis Drake coolly finishing a game of Bowls before returning to the fight against the Spanish.

Eventually the Majestic is destroyed in a conflagration and by default the British Empire itself is steadily being dismantled, as devastating news from India is relayed to the British residents. Farrell had a rare insight into both worlds and he succeeded in his ambition to show the terrible effects of enduring historical misunderstandings.

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