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Aspects of Culture in Ireland

1. Introduction

The pristine environment on this westerly island helped, long ago, to fashion a race of people who cherish not only freedom but also independence. Culture comes firstly from strands of different ethnic sources – Celtic (Gaelic), Viking, Norman, English, Anglicised-Irish and recent admixtures from all over the world. Anglo-American influence determines much of Irish life today, with Celtic influence surviving in niches where it does not meet conflict.

Culture can mean different things. No cultural distinctions of any significance exist between social classes or different regions. Nowhere lies more than fifty miles from the sea. Areas do keep their own accents, going back to pre-Norman times. The counties of Ireland are Norman divisions. Older, Gaelic divisions relating to ancient kingdoms are recognised in places.

Culture evolves. Its features reflect social and economic life. There is no race memory in mankind. A way of life which has endured unchanged for centuries can be shed in a generation. Countermeasures to such instability are tradition and a degree of nostalgia.

Irish-American visitors have sometimes expected to see an agricultural country, in which people speak English with a lilting accent. Irish people of Celtic stock do speak English with a lilting accent (even if it this muted by international television). However, the economy is now thoroughly industrialised.

2. A Lesson from HM the Queen and US President Obama

On her visit here in May, 2011, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II showed her knowledgeable appreciation of Irish history and culture. She began her magnificently crafted speech in Dublin Castle, with the words; ‘A Uachtaráin agus a Chairde...(President and Friends…)’, said with flawless pronunciation and inflection. Some moments of the Royal visit are to be seen in the video here. Her every act and every word were sincere and moving. Her visit wrote her an indelible place in the hearts of everybody with Irish ancestry. Nobody but a Monarch, who stood in her line of descent, could have won such lasting affection and respect. She invited us to be friends with her subjects, proud of our culture and language. It is up to us warmly to respond to the message of her visit, as graciously as it was given.

Some days after the departure of Her Majesty, President Obama, of the United States of America, addressed young people in College Green. He also reminded the World, in his elegant style, that Irish people have a distinctive culture and a persevering attachment to their historic tongue. He said of our approach to a challenging economic future: "Is féidir linn! (Yes, we can!)", to rapturous applause. Indeed, it is by nurturing our roots and the identity this gives, that we can best take on the rigours to come.

Elsewhere on this site, information is provided on 5,000 years of Celtic culture across the Continent. Such information derives from folklore, linguistics and our very DNA. We should educate all our young people to prize the great identity which only they can own. The Romans saw educatio as a leading forth of what is deep within, thereby forming a disciplined character, enabling the student to progress.

3. The Irish Language

Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx are sister languages, closely related. Cousin languages are Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Galatians in Anatolia (Turkey), to whom St. Paul wrote his letters, spoke a Celtic tongue. So did Polish people in Galicja and Spanish people in Galicia. Celtic languages are Indo-European. All the same, Irish has some connections to Hebrew, Arabic, Amazigh (Berber) and even Igbo.

Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man actively maintained a standard literary language, for over a thousand years. Ogham writing bears the earliest witness to Irish, around 400 A.D.. Linguistic development occurred as follows: Old Irish c650-900 A.D., Middle Irish c900-1200, Early Modern Irish c1200-1600 and Modern Irish c1600-.

The oldest literature north of the Alps was written in Irish. It has an unbroken literary tradition spanning 14 centuries. Written in 597 A.D., the Amra Choluim Cille (or 'life of St. Colm Cille'), is the oldest text which can be dated with certainty. Early Irish writings consist of copies of the Latin Gospels. Occasionally desisting from their arduous labours, monks would write poems in Irish in the margins of their manuscripts, which can be seen in the University Library of Würzburg.

In the 1600 and 1700s, Irish was the spoken tongue in Ireland. By 1835, because of colonisation, the number of Irish-speakers was cut to four million. During the Great Famine of the late 1840s, anglicisation became necessary for survival. By 1891 there were 680,000 Irish-speakers.

In the 1991 census - in the seven officially designated Gaelic areas (Gaeltachtaí) - there were 56,469 Irish-speakers. The Irish language radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta, and television station, TG4, have demonstrated, under excellent management, the value of rallying around our ancient and unique roots. Raidió na Life is Dublin's own Irish-language radio station. The number of urban dwellers, who speak Irish, is increasing. In a survey by the Linguistics Institute of Ireland, in 1993, 9% of people said that they had used Irish in a conversation in the past week.

Since independence from England, the Irish State has had various policies to promote the language. The Official Languages Act, 2003, guarantees the right to communicate with the State in either Irish or English. These policies are more honoured in the breach than the observance. The vast majority of the ordinary people, however, value Irish as the first national language and an important part of our heritage and identity.

The 2002 Census of Population showed 43%, claiming a knowledge of Irish, but only 2.6% speaking it daily. It is noteworthy that among children aged 3-4, the percentage speaking Irish daily increased from 4.6% in 1996 to 5.4% in 2002.

4. Names for Children

Both Christian and Family names are generally important. The former are normally given to do honour to grandparents and other forbears. The latter mark lineage, clan, and the area lived in, in Gaelic times. Keeping the family name on farms is thus immensely important to farmers (but not to legislators).

In these times ancestry is, however, always not adverted to. Christian names may even not be Christian and may show no cultural or family allegiance at all. They may clash with Irish family names. The parent(s), indeed, may know nothing of the provenance of their family. Even the word ‘family’ now has a fluid definition.

Nonetheless, the naming of a child is always important. Where family and extended family structures are weak, the bonds between generations will be weak and communal culture suffers. Naming children is now frequently based on personal parental experiences. For example, watching television has replaced human social interaction to a degree. The implications of practices which, in the future, may or may not constitute aspects of national identity is a subject for discussion.

5. Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA: An Cumann Luath-chleas Gael)

Gaelic football and hurling are the mainstays of Irish amateur sport. Hurling is the most skilled game of its type in the world. It is played with a hurl or stick. The small hard ball can travel at speeds of 120mph. The game can be traced back thousands of years and is recorded in legend. It was prohibited by law in early attempts to suppress Gaelic culture. At the highest county level, hurling has been dominated for the last number of years by County Kilkenny. Ancient Brehon Laws show that football was regulated from at least the 8th century. Ladies also play football and a form of hurling called camogie. Croke Park, the largest GAA stadium, seats over 80,000 people.

Besides games of football and hurling, the GAA organises handball and rounders. As the strongest community-based organization in the country, it is also dedicated to promoting all aspects of Irish culture. Soccer and rugby are also very popular sports here, as are field and track, boxing, horse-racing, fishing, handball and golf.

6. Faith and Philosophy

Celts were ever given to deductive argument. In the modern era, Catholicism, grafted onto ancient pre-Christian philosophical roots, found a solid base here. We espoused a Holy Tradition, unaltered now for 2,000 years. The principle of unconditional love for others is the anchor. ‘Light-touch ecclesiastical regulation’ (departures from its teaching) by the institutional Church in recent times, however, exposed our simultaneous loss of Gaelic culture and fortitude. This latter underpinned the logical, robust independence of the Cosmhuinntir (the ordinary people). Sunday Mass attendance has fallen to under 30%, at least for the time being.

A sense of egalitarianism was embedded in Gaelic Brehon Law. This may be reflected in the high number of Irish people who help others, at home and abroad, who are in some way in need. The concept of class, as a function of character rather than of wealth, is traditional. Our political system, without sufficient checks and balances, is not that which was ended by feudal Norman invaders in 1172. People are sometimes said to have a mindset 'against the Government'. It is arguable that they feel the current system to be a colonial hangover.

Without our Gaelic cultural firewall, we have run into difficulties of spiritual and temporal governance. Both acculturation and, lately, deculturation have impacted. This latter, apparently a worldwide phenomenon, is a subject for discussion. In any event, we ourselves could well take responsibility for our human-run institutions and act to fix them. Effecting complaint and not reform, we display an acultural disposition.

The descendents of English settlers here are mainly of the Protestant Church of Ireland. As Anglicans, they constitute an important strand in Irish society. Relationships between them and the Catholic population provide a template for how mutual cooperation and respect can benefit different traditions.

The majority, mainly Presbyterian, population in Northern Ireland want to stay separate and British. However, the Reverend Ian Paisley could say we share an old history, with many Presbyterian family names being of Scots Gaelic derivation. And then, there is really no simple definition of ‘British’, itself a word referring to pre-Roman Celts.

Recent immigrants into Ireland include Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Protestant (whether adhering to Christian Traditions or relying solely on the Bible), Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Alawi, Suffi etc), Hindu, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic. Religions are confronted by new attitudes here, like secularism, which generally (but not always) have little philosophical base. Making big decisions about life, without logical authority or even care, is a subject for discussion.

7. The Economy

Kevin Gardiner, a UK economist, coined the term 'Celtic Tiger' in 1994, to compare Ireland's apparent economic performance with so-called Asian Tiger economies. The metaphor is widely used, here and abroad. Employment effects culture and outlook.

From the late 1980s until about 2003, the Irish workforce performed as an able, competitive, economic powerhouse. Those in the upper echelons of our public life were, however, unsteeled to business disciplines. They oversaw a building boom from around 2002, which relied upon massive flows of cheap, borrowed European capital. GDP grew by 6% p.a. from 1995 to 2007, when property prices rose more rapidly in Ireland than in any other developed economy.

Ireland has a high percentage of owner-occupiers in housing. Irish people always owned their own land in Gaelic times and doing this is another value which has endured. Flawed spatial planning procedures, however, resulted in lasting social, economic and architectural problems.

In 2008, following the inevitable crash, the Government guaranteed all bank deposits (in advance of knowing the debt overhang). In late 2010, a $112 billion 'bail-out' loan from the EU and IMF was accepted, with penal interest rates, to pay off EU bond-holders. Since these debts had been 'socialised' (i.e. given to the tax-payer), the monies were needed to avoid a default on sovereign debt. A four-year austerity plan was adopted to cut the budgetary deficit of €20bn. The matter of domestic debt (mainly on mortgages) has yet to be tackled.

Towards the end of the last decade, Agriculture accounted for very roughly 2.5% of national income. Industry (including building) accounted for 34.0%, and Other Services (including rents) 45.0%. Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing accounted for around 120,000 jobs, Manufacturing Industry for around 280,000 (somewhat more than the number in Construction).

These sectors mainly formed the stable productive economic base for a workforce of over 2,000,000. During the 1990s the so-called 'Celtic Tiger' enjoyed annual trade surpluses, falling inflation and increases in consumer spending. Unemployment at 12% in 1995 has since gone up to over 14% at the time of writing

The export sector, dominated by multinationals, is again the key component of economic growth and the country again enjoys a trade surplus. Reports have shown, however, that educational standards have fallen seriously. The availability of thousands of jobs which cannot be filled at this time, for want of qualified workers, is an indictment of the educational system and is a subject for discussion.

8. Craic (Conversation and Social Amusement)

The polite informality of Irish culture facilitates easy interaction between people. The unique informality may be reflected in there never having been special forms in Irish for the word 'you' (as in 'tu' and 'vous' in French). [English has largely lost this feature, except in dialect.] Unacquainted people, in urban and rural community areas, may greet one another. Showing affection in public has been regarded as a 'Continental' practice. Good humour, literary acumen and being 'a master of wit and repartee', are important. Engaging in black humour is an enduring test of mental agility, from Gaelic times.

9. The Arts

Performers and artists are especially valued members of society. Music, acting, singing, dancing, composing and writing are all admired occupations. Some of our current artists, versed in North American and international art forms, include U2 and Westlife (popular music), Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynnott (Rock music) Daniel O'Donnell (Country music) and James Galway (classical music). The Chieftains, Dé Danann and Clannad have popularised Irish traditional music. The Riverdance show, for a long itme featuring Michael Flatley, gained international acclaim. The Joe Mooney Music Festival in Leitrim and the Galway Arts Festival are just two of many acclaimed cultural events. In film, directors Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan have advanced the international standing of the Irish industry. Outstanding actors include Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson and Stephen Rhea.

In many countries, traditional arts are relegated into the background or will be used only to provide a quaint atmosphere for tourists. In Ireland, especially with the upswell in confidence engendered by recent economic development, the arts have flourished.

The renaissance of the late nineteenth century integrated the old traditions of Irish literature with new writings in English, in what came to be known as Anglo-Irish literature. Some of the greatest writers in English over the last century were Irish: W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Seán O'Casey, Flann O'Brien, and Seumas Heaney.

10. Useful Reading

  1. Clancy, Patrick, Sheelagh Drudy, Kathleen Lynch, and Liam O'Dowd, eds. Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives , 1995.
  2. Curtin, Chris, Hastings Donnan, and Thomas M. Wilson, eds. Irish Urban Cultures , 1993
  3. CIA World Fact Book
  4. Finfacts – Ireland’s Business and Finance Portal
  5. Government of Ireland, Central Statistics Office, Principal Statistics.
  6. Government of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs. Facts about Ireland
  7. Embassy of Ireland, Singapore
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