Definition Of Irish: Ludicrous and illogical

  • 28 January 2005
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... is one of the definitions of "Irish" in the Collins Concise Dictionary. Vitali Vitaliev goes in search of a more plausible version

"Three fourths of all armed conflicts in human history were triggered by the violent pursuit of self-identification."

From The Clash of Civilisations by Samuel Huntington

One of the undisputed gems of my collection of old travel and reference books is the dog-eared volume of Near Home or Europe Described, published in London in 1910. Aimed at dumb and hooray-patriotic post-Victorian English teenagers, the book is full of supercilious (and super-silly) generalisations about European nations as viewed from "good old England".

It characterises "The Bohemians" (Czechs) as "a merry people", who are "very fond of music and often carry little harps in their hands". It claims that "in Poland, the men shave their heads", that "Bulgarians do not work fast, for they are generally very slow in what they do", that Romanians "eat nothing but a kind of flour called polenta", and so on.

One of the book's lengthier chapters is on Ireland – the country that the authors benevolently refer to as England's "little sister": "Many English people know very little about Ireland. Some of them seem to think that the Irish are half-savages, who live in mud cabins with their pigs, and eat hardly anything but potatoes... I have heard of a family who kept a horse in their room! This family lived in a dark cellar in a town."

And on the next page: "The poorest of the Irish do not care much about mending their clothes, and often wear them in rags"; "Almost all the Irish speak English, though they have a language of their own", and – to cap it all – "The Irish children are rosy, merry little creatures".

I could quote endlessly from this revolting little book – a shining example of blunt imperial stereotyping of countries and people. And it was not just the Irish who found themselves on the receiving end.

"The theory of right conduct universally accepted and acted upon in Russia may be truly affirmed to be on a level with the egotistic principles or instincts which determine the un-heroic actions of the average man and woman – which is another way of declaring it devoid of ideals."

E.B. Lanin ("the collective signature of several writers") stated this unequivocally in his (their?) book Russian Traits and Terrors, published in London in 1891. The chapter titles of this poorly written folio speak for themselves: "I Lying; II Fatalism; III Sloth; IV Dishonesty," and so on. At least "Arrogance" and "Narrow-Mindedness" did not feature among all those despicable "Russian traits".

All these could have been easily written off as ridiculous anachronisms, had we been able to say that generalisations about national identities were now things of the past. Alas, they are not. Only now they more frequently stem not from the patronising British ("The Irish when good are perfect", said Lord Byron) but from the US – a new global empire.

While in Liechtenstein several years ago, I was shown an extraordinary brochure under the title The Nation's Culturgram. Produced and distributed by Mormon-run Brigham Young University in Utah, it was one of a series of brief "cultural identity" descriptions covering every single country in the world.

From the Culturgram on Liechtenstein, one of Europe's most peculiar mini-states, an inquisitive reader could learn that, in the tiny principality, "a handshake is usually the appropriate form of greeting"; that "both men and women may sit with legs crossed with one knee over the other", and that "to wave or nod to somebody across the street is acceptable".

It also listed such bizarre and, clearly, endemic to Liechtenstein, local customs as "hands are not used much during conversation, but it is impolite to talk with hands in the pockets".

It provided a would-be foreign visitor with useful behavioural tips of the type: "gloves are removed before shaking hands"; "pointing the index finger to one's head is an insult"; "any acts of personal hygiene, such as cleaning one's fingernails, are not appropriate in public"; and, to crown it all, "if a yawn cannot be suppressed, hand covers the open mouth".

Browsing through the brochure, I felt an urge to point my index finger to my head – in a brazen breach of Liechtenstein's unique rules of etiquette.

And although I haven't yet come across a "culturgram" on Ireland, it is not hard to imagine what it might read like.

It would probably say that in Ireland it is customary to appear in public with one's private parts covered with tailored pieces of cloth, locally known as shirts, skirts and pants; that while consuming food, it is advisable to do so with the help of one's mouth rather than nose, eyes or ears; and that spitting into someone else's mug of Guinness in a pub – as well as hitting an Irishman on the front side of his head, which locals call "face" – can be taken as an insult.

"Stereotypes about the Irish and those of Irish heritage are so pervasive in American society that sometimes they are not even recognised as generalisations or considered offensive, as they would be if they were directed at racial minority groups," writes Pat Friend on his excellent website He then gives an example: "The other day I tripped over my shillelagh as I was watching a leprechaun swing at a fairy because he was drunk and fighting, having had too much Guinness on his way to find his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

All those US-bred modern clichés and "Culturgrams", alongside their British precursors, are but outrageous trivialisations of the important concept they are trying to represent. "Cultural identities... were never monolithic and are becoming much less so," in the words of Professor Paul Gifford, Director of the Institute of European Cultural Identity Studies at St Andrew's University.

As a former Fleet Street colleague of mine once noted, "generalising about nations is a tricky and not entirely respectable business, even though whole careers are built on it". The same can be said about separate individuals. It is tricky and not entirely respectable to pigeonhole and to label others on the grounds of where they were born, what name they have or what language they speak. National characteristics, to my mind, can only work as a jest. Or as a children's game. The moment they get 100 per cent serious, they become xenophobic and capable of triggering all sorts of disasters – from pub brawls to wars and terrorist attacks.

Having lived in Ireland for more than four months, I can conclude that the Irish are as preoccupied with pinning down their elusive national identity as are the Australians, or, say, the Scots. And whereas the former keep fluctuating from declaring themselves European one day and Asian (or Aboriginal) the next, the latter still tend to define their identity first as "un-English", and only then as Scottish – a trend that can be found in Ireland (particularly in the South), too.

So what is "Irishness", after all?

"A logical place to start the exploration of the Irish question is in a dictionary," according to Pat Friend. Let's follow his advice and consult my London-published 1990s Collins Concise Dictionary: "Irish – 1. Relating to, or characteristic of Ireland, its people, their Celtic language, or their dialect of English. 2. Inf. offens. Ludicrous or illogical."

It baffles me why the respectable dictionary had to perpetuate the bearded "inf. offens." stereotype on its pages.

"Inf. offens." bits aside, the dictionary's first definition of "Irish" seems to be "covering" only one part of the forcefully divided nation and has little to do with the Irish in the country's North, for whom, according to Edward Moxon Browne's National Identity in Northern Ireland, "British national identity can be regarded as a primordial umbrella".

"In Northern Ireland", he continues, "national identity is an exclusive and divisive concept..." (Isn't this true about every country?). "It is rooted in the colonisation of Ulster by Protestants; and, consequently, by opposing views of the legitimacy of the state and its boundaries."

Indeed, how can we talk about one monolithic Irish identity when the nation itself is split between two different sovereign states that until recently were at war with each other? The concept of "an open national identity", suggested by Rutherford Mayne and Gerald MacNamara in the Spring-Summer issue of The Journal of Irish Studies, makes much more sense to me.

"We Irish are true Europeans," a Dublin-based academic once told me proudly. But – again – is there such thing as a Pan-European identity? In 1985, the leaders of European nations officially subscribed to a strategy "to create a European identity" – the project that didn't go further than introducing a European Union passport, the starry flag, the equally starry EU car licence plates and – more recently – the Euro.

I find it hard to understand how one can artificially "create" an identity – a category that, by definition, appears by itself and staunchly resists outside influences? Uniform passports, flags, licence plates etc. are but offshoots of a common "identity" (even if an invented one) that is already in existence rather than factors helping to mould it.

Having travelled all over Europe researching my latest book, I came to the conclusion that, whereas the very notion of a common "European identity" is but a Brussels-generated myth, there definitely exists a common concept of a "European uncertainty" about this very identity. It is the willingness to accept the latter as a substitute for a non-existing "identity" that, to my mind, defines "true Europeans" and makes them different from Americans, or, say, Australians, who are frantically trying to bestow various fictitious identities upon themselves.

To me, a modern Irish national identity (if any) is as fluid and as promisingly uncertain as "European-ness" itself. And it was nice to find a person in Dublin who shared my point of view. "Ireland and Palestine are two good examples of the futility of trying to define a nation by religion," Roy Johnston, a retired physicist and social scientist, a former Irish Times columnist and the author of Century of Endeavour, about to be released by Academia Press, told me over a cup of tea in his Georgian house in Rathmines.

"We don't have the Irish nation yet and therefore we don't have a national identity. Perhaps in future Irish identity will be defined as that of the people who live in Ireland and work together – and that will include immigrants from all over the world. For that we'll need one single Irish state, and I am sure we'll have it in the foreseeable future. Then and only then we'll be able to talk about the Irish identity."

I very much hope that he is right.

In the meantime, I am more than happy to repeat, after my late friend Sir Peter Ustinov: "Ethnically, I am filthy." When people, bewildered by my name or accent or both, ask me what my national identity is, I would reply: "I am Vitalian!"

And this, I dare assume, makes me a tiny bit "Irish", too.p