Dual to the death

With language it was the same. England, by law, banned Irish at certain points in history to ensure that English would be the official language. Irish is one of the oldest written languages; the Celts didn't come by their poetic reputation recently. The marvelous gift of turning language on its ear is simply, in many cases, a literal translation of Irish into English, making something new that sings.

Living in Ireland (and I go back whenever I can), I found the people warm, kind, sincere, straightforward, helpful in every way, and hospitable beyond anything I'd ever encountered. But, then, there was something else. I found the other side of the coin working as a reporter and studying Irish history (which Joyce said was a nightmare he was always trying to awake from). Oppressed for centuries by a stronger, wealthier neighboring country, they had, like all victims of oppression, cultivated the values of deceit, cunning, false joy in the presence of strangers, envy, clannishness, bristling donkey-headed pride. And they remembered every slight no matter how petty or how long ago.

At times it seemed that's all they had: memory of what had been done to them, and who among them was Judas. The Irish hated themselves equally with their enemy, the hatred a product of divide et impera,yet one more present from the masters, the Brits, the Sassenach, don't you ever forget, oh God bless England so we pray, whack fol the diddle of the die dol day.

Betrayal, plotting, swift country justice by maiming, crippling, lynching. Rage and ballads, poetry and loss, imagination, whiskey and priests, death and insanity, exile, the wanderer, a rambler, a gambler, a long way from home, and if you don't like me then leave me alone. A heritage of noble causes and ignoble people. Blather, slyness, clever at life, soft smiles to conceal the stone heart, and rage near at hand, easy to find and use, like a tool a good workman always replaces in the same spot so he won't have to think when he wants it, but just reach out and there it is, ready to go to work.

This is to say nothing of the Irish vice of searuchas, translated to English as begrudgery. I once asked Frank McCourt if this was still prevalent. "They should put the word on the Irish flag," he replied.

And I caution everyone: Only I am allowed to say what just has been said. It must be kept in the family. I'm thrilled at what is happening in the old country. In the North there has been a cease-fire for two years, and all parties are speaking in Belfast. The cataclysm of the past 30 years might be over for good. And, if that's true, the nightmare of Anglo-Irish history, 800 years long, might vanish in a new awakening. People in Ireland are thriving in a high-tech economy, and here's hoping it will continue.

At Saturday's fair I speak with John Howard, a 57-year-old certified eccentric. He is holding an enormous tea cup, claiming it holds a quart and is flavored by six tea bags. "I'll go through 15 or 20 of these a day, sure I will," he says. You have to meet and hear people like this to believe it. I ask him The Question. "Being Irish?" Howard thinks for a moment. "That's the problem. How can you not? And for God's sake, why would you want to be anything else?"

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