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Jottings contributor Roy Houston shares insights into the Irish culture. Read on to learn more.

A friend told me that she was intrigued by a quote from the famous Irish playwright, author, and poet, William Butler Yeats: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."

She said, with a twinkle in her eye, that she would love to hear my explanation. It is fair to say that the average Irish person has a very different perspective on the world. The Irish are truly a race who "work to live and definitely do not live to work." This attitude should not be confused with a lazy disposition. The Irish are hardworking, intelligent, and have the normal ambitions that we all have, to do well in life.

I would like to pause for a second and suggest that every country exhibits its own unique behavioral characteristics. One significant factor is the collective memories of the countries' indigenous people.

The history of Ireland describes a country controlled by a foreign power, from 1092, when the Normans, having conquered Britain, came to Ireland. Independence was finally won in 1922. Foreign control lead to continuous conflict. Local rivalries vanished and the Irish tribes unified against a common enemy. The Irish became a community. The population became one big family with a singular focus, to be free. This is nicely observed by an Irish proverb: "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live." From that time on Ireland oscillated between famine and insurrection, with the Irish economy and the general population experiencing severe personal trauma. This developed a culture that expected little, now or later.

What does a population do in such circumstances? Laugh or cry?

The historical narratives of the time observed a population living in squalor, in mud huts, bare footed, clothed in rags, and living on a diet of potatoes and buttermilk. It seems an awful standard of living. However, the narrative went on to say that they were the happiest, most contented people, who spent most of their time laughing and having fun.

The famines and revolutions did not happen contiguously, and there were periods without either, but never long enough to recover from the previous trauma. From this difficult life, the Irish were never afraid to stand up for what they believed and if there was a fight, they were good at that too — they never gave up.

This is a fundamental trait of the Irish. A quote by the Irish writer Edna O'Brien says it beautifully: "When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious." 

They knew how awful their lives were, but they accepted their lot, and when they were not actively trying to change it, they made the best of what they had. Living conditions were terrible but they managed to survive in spite of it. They had fun anyway, through their intrinsic trust in life, and total cynicism regarding generally accepted "norms." This developed a national characteristic that Brendan Behan, another famous Irish poet, reflected on: "It's not that the Irish are cynical. It's rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody."

Nothing was so bad that you could not celebrate. An observation that says this nicely is by the author E.A. Bucchianeri: "I've never seen a nation quicker at finding joy in a sad situation, than the Irish at a funeral."

I have described a nation which never stopped trying to do better, while knowing that life had a way of making it worse. This should not be considered pessimism, rather a cautious view on possible future outcomes. So, W.B. Yeats has the right way of it. A quote from another famous Irish writer, Seán O'Casey, said, "That's the Irish People all over — they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing." It is not difficult from an Irishman's perspective to see the ridiculousness of the world we live in and why it is silly to take it too seriously. In other words, it is likely that life will disappoint a lot, but not that badly that you cannot find humor, laughter and fun along the way. The line from a popular song composed in 1936 by Jerome Kern defines Irish behavior very well, it goes, " Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again." A behavior that the Irish know all too well.

Roy Houston is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.


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