Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Imaginary Homelands: the long way around... and is a prosperous society boring?

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The same thoughts come every day. They’re vexing but necessary, and in a strange way they are reassuring. But in their wake the same bewilderment and anger leak in, the same wishfulness and longing. Such thoughts are also embarrassing to air publicly… so therefore I will. These thoughts are hardly thoughts at all actually; they’re more imaginings. They are, of course, about Ireland.

Some background first – some ‘cover.’
I’m not a hyphenated Canadian. Yes, born and grew up in Ireland, but firmly of the present, and a Torontonian. Canadian by choice, as they say. I’ve lived and worked in the NWT, in BC, in Ontario. Only Nunavut has escaped my attentions in visiting. I’ve lost track of the number of times we ‘ve driven from Toronto out to Victoria. We know the Yellowhead – 16 all the way from Portage la Prairie to the ferry at Prince Rupert too - nearly too well. Tofino, Saltspring.... Add in the East Coast, ‘The Rock,’ De Nord Shore, the Quebec City to Windsor run. In southern Ontario we have returned to favourites: the concessions out in Mennonite country, up to the first signs of the Shield showing by the side of Hwy 11, the afternoons near Penetang and back home the long way through Grey County.

There is a very shopworn trope looming here: to ‘get’ something, you have to leave it. I don’t mean the New Age guff about butterflies. I mean writing better about a place, a people, from away. For me it has always been an embarrassment that the compass needle on my imagination ends up pointing out east over the Atlantic. There is some rubber band tying me to the place. It’s an imaginary homeland, what Nabokov called his unreal estate: imaginary friends, imaginary lands.

No amount of visits and Skypes and stays there can hide that. Sometimes, the imaginary Ireland collides with the Ireland of daily life for people living there. It happens within the family too and it can cause sparks, especially when I argue down what I see as hidebound ideas, and stupid myths. Irish are big exceptionalists. There is a strong national narrative, a potent teleology to Irish views of time, past, present and future, and destiny. They/we are chosen people. And because of this, the same they/we are also very thin-skinned about who really ‘gets’ Ireland ancient or modern. ‘Get’s means to understand, thereby to possess.

That common emigrant irony – those who leave often value the place more - seldom dawns on the Irish in Ireland. They see only an emigrant nostalgia that they can manage with sentimental songs and hospitality. Visits and stays offer permission to argue and to comment, and one often notes how much lip-service is paid to getting the views of ‘the disapora.’

So, intellectually, I accept Wolfe’s doleful ‘There is no going home. No one leaves home. You carry it.’ It took me some time to live it nevertheless. Absent the ‘artist’ rigamarole in these insights, I stick by these insights.

1. Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself. (EE Cumming on Ezra Pound)

2. One composes within oneself one's true place of origin. (Rilke – I forget which and where he wrote it)

So: writing ‘away’ then. Ireland is an easy mark for writing in many ways, even if you didn’t start out there. There are plenty of ‘Irelands’ to go around. The visuals are well known and they do exist: preternaturally green views, really soft air, patchwork fields and unexpected heart-stopping views at almost every bend on those twisting coastal roads.
There is a general wary affection for the place, this home for merry, mischievous, soulful, freckle-faces. The blather and charm don’t put many off, it seems.

Close by that imaginary Ireland is Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/ Middle Ages Ireland, full of hearty peasanta, eccentrics, Little People, castles entwined in ferny woods. A bit lost in time, clever and winsome, retiring, wise, ecological and calm. It crosses awkwardly with ‘Celtic’ Ireland, an odd ensemble that issues from the early, lyrical Yeats through balladeering and storytelling, and right into the dreary slough of despond of aromatherapy, pop psychology, Chariot Of The Gods ‘Celtic’ mysticism.

The longest lasting Ireland of the mind is the Braveheart view, expressed maybe best by Chesterton’s ‘all their wars are merry, all their songs are sad.’ Irish-American Ireland is huge, the scrappy, indomitable survivors who won freedom from the Redcoats, and suffered for it. John Wayne stalks there. There is an Irish cop whistling on the corner. Country music flows like a current through the ocean from its roots in Ireland.

A more recent accent (and to me far closer to the real one) is the Pogues Ireland, bred from Roddy Doyle’s Dublin and Patrick McCabe’s and Dermot Healey’s rural Ireland. That Ireland teems with uncouth vitality, cursing, wild music and dark, savage acts. It is from these regions that people of Irish descent here can trace there less-than-picturesque antecedents, as in ‘Yep my Dad/Grandad was an angry, fighting, church-going drunk.’

Yet even today, outside of literature, there is less talk or knowledge of how savage the mockery was and is in Irish society, something that I think has had an incalculably stifling effect on Irish minds. How sharp that tyranny of small differences, on the island is ('Great hatred, little room' Yeats). How dark are the hidden truths only recently accepted, such as the unimaginable child abuse by priests, of that degrading deference to the Irish Roman Catholic church. How oppressive the air can be, filled as it is with so many people living and dead and crowding the mental landscape. How large a streak of melancholy runs through the place, a jarring companion to the fecklessness that masquerades as entitlement and larger-than-life ‘character.’ I often wonder if we have too much ‘character’ in Ireland. And how, within families, who to the outside world seem to be as loquacious and vivid as any other, there is often a desperate quiet, and a no-man’s-land of chill, grudging intimacies.

Lately – you can even date it to three years – modernity collided with Ireland. It was a hit-and-run, the vehicle laden with credit default swaps, a housing bubble, bogus wealth, inept government, and a general delerium of greed, ignorance, arrogance and dissociaton – that Irish exceptionalism again. The financial crash came at the same time as revelations of how the linchpin of Irish life for so long proved to be so corrupt, and so damaging: the Catholic church’s abuse of children.

The state of the nation today? Anxious, heartbroken at the emigration of sons and daughters (75,000 expected in 2012), bitter, angry. Peeping out from this wreckage though, I hear older and more familiar voices. There are the cynics of course, and the mockery that comes so easy to Irish people, those twin consolations of the weak. An old contempt for modernity and the contamination that wealth brought is out front again. There is a grim satisfaction at the Irish return to austerity, to deprivation, to banishment into the wilderness – as long as the deprivation and the wilderness is someone else’s. This is the ugly face of the old Irish Catholic church and its captives. Had we anticipated the phrase and the study behind the phrase, maybe we should have taken Stockholm as a name for our capital….

But there is also a long-overdue pull-back from the giddiness and the excesses and the excuses too. There is also an awakening to the fact that Ireland is a very class-ridden society yet, with an elite or insiders who escape hardship through their personal connections and a nod-and-wink cronyism. There are rueful reappraisals of what progress can mean, and a quiet, eccentric contentment that there is a clearer view now of family, of place, of priorities. No need for those model kitchens, or the godawful Southfork homes slapped up to ruin the landscape. Other old saw are being blunted here too: Irish people are fine scrappers for freedom abroad, but they're quite meek at home: for a society roiling with conflict, there are no riots. Another ugly truth exposed is how Irish people stifle their own. There are many fine minds in Ireland - truly everybody knows better than the next person there - but they all crumble in the world of action and deeds. The Irish are no Chosen People immune from the world – there is no Irish Discount.

At any rate, there is no going back to an Ireland where there were so few new arrivals either. People know that even Australia is only a flight away. There is a confidence that Irish kids will do well abroad – how could they not, with 40 million ‘Irish’ in the Anglosphere? At least they get a break from an Ireland that has been stolen - stolen by bankers, by EU technocrats, by the Irish insider elites, and by their own foolishness too.

I should be annoyed at how Ireland has led itself into such a swamp, but in truth I’m not. It’s not because there’s free schadenfreude on the menu. But I have no archaeological or folkloric interest in Ireland, absolutely no desire to preserve any of the ‘Irelands’ that have led to this mess. There are enough palsied open-air museums in Europe for tourists to gape at and to wonder where the vigour that made the enlightenment happen has gone.

The guilty pleasure I have is from that Chinese saying, surely a tip toward writers: Ireland in all its tumult and miseries and upheavals has become interesting again.

Ouch, and tally-ho.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page