And Britain, what of it?
What are we? Are we West Brits, as Molly Ivors accused Gabriel Conroy of being Joyce’s brilliant short story “The Dead”? In it he writes reviews for a unionist paper. She jabs him for it, taunting him like a lovesick child in a playground, who might at any moment start to pull his hair.
When he tells her that he is going to go on a cycling trip around Germany and France, she implores him to holiday in his own Emerald Isle. He retorts that he is sick of his own country, echoing generations that have left these shores, first out of starvation and hunger, then to look for work, or perhaps because they felt crushed by the weight of that village mentality, where everyone was in everyone else’s business, and it was everyone’s business to conform.
Sure couldn’t they get plastered on the weekend, was that not good enough for ‘em?
Conroy looks to Europe for the place where he hopes his thirst will be quenched, just like Joyce, living in France most of his life as he did. Molly looks inwardly almost, to her own then-nationless land, forcefully trying to forge an identity of selfhood for it.
Neither look across the pond to the colonial power that has laid claim to their land, this land, for many generations before.
Molly calls Conroy a West Brit. But she is too busy defining Ireland as exceptional and unique, transcendental even, and everything else as “not Ireland”, that she does not see that Conroy is looking for the same thing as herself in a way. He is looking for another way. True, he has forsaken his own country to a small degree (a degree to which Molly takes umbrage with), but he does not look to Britain as she accuses him of doing. He looks to Europe. In her fight for Irish identity, she has lumped in Britain with all those other places that are simply not Ireland. Perhaps this is why she leaves the party her and Conroy are attending so abruptly. Other than the fact that she insists she has a meeting to attend, she has sensed the complexity of Conroy’s answer which does not sit well with her own sense of national pride. This is an answer to what I would call the English question, with my tongue placed firmly in (the other) cheek.
The English question. Our own march (or fits, bursts, and momentary lapses) towards independence was Christened by various English MPs in the nineteenth century, with a characteristic English flippancy, as the Irish question. I would here like to flip that on its head. I think that eighty years of nationhood allows us that much.
The English question.
What is it? A quote from Churchill might shed light on the matter: “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English!” If we are to reverse this as we did with the Irish question, what do we get? Could it be something like this: “We have always found the English a little odd. They actually are English!”
Where the bloody hell do we go on from there?
Lets go back to Molly and Conroy for a moment. She calls him a West Brit for writing in a unionist paper. Though he does not deny it, he nonetheless writes under a pen name, choosing not to reveal his identity. He then paints Europe as his own answer. As an entity Europe ideally transcends national boundaries. Perhaps Conroy dreams of a Europe where the necessary sins of the nation could never happen. By contrast, Molly hopes that we can forge similar sins, ones we can call our own, very Irish sins. History Both, however, are against the notion of England holding any kind of a future for them. They both reject the West Brit thesis, in their own way.
Now it’s time to talk a little philosophy. Hegel style. By way of metaphor we should look towards Chistopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, specifically the Joker and his relationship to Batman. At the end of Batman Begins, Lt. Gordon describes escalation, how criminals rise to the challenge of any particular gauntlet law enforcement puts in their way. “We use kevlar, they get armour piercing rounds.” He then shows how this is relevant to Batman’s case, handing Batman a plastic bag with a joker card in them, describing the perpetrator of a double homicide, who left behind the cards only, as having “a taste for the theatrical” just like Batman. Just like Batman. But the joker is the yang to Batman’s yin. He is chaos where Batman seeks to ultimately establish order and the good society.
The Joker then is in some ways the shadow of the bat, a possibility that exists only in response to Batman, but a possibility of an utter negation of the bat. “You complete me!” The Joker cackles at one point. The Joker exists to thwart Batman, and exists only because of this possibility of utter negation of the symbol of the bat. It is not that the Joker is a foregone conclusion. He is not an embodiment of all that Batman is in some elemental pure way. If the Joker did not exist, something similar might haunt Batman’s fight for justice and order.
Is the Joker Batman’s antithesis, an expression of that fundamental possibility of the complete negation of the sign? Hegel is held to have spoken of a thesis producing its own antithesis. I would agree, though I think it acts as a shadow, a undrawn fear, a shapeless spectre. The Joker is then not some pure antithesis, but rather someone who understands the shadow of the bat, who finds within it inspiration for his frenzied plans.
Perhaps something similar is happening with the notion of the West Brit. Molly and Conroy are perhaps denying the shadow within them both, the shadow of the West Brit, the possibility that they are in fact English.
We watch English television, follow their celebrities, watch their sport with devotion and fervour, but yet with the first question of our national devotion, there is no question that we are Irish. We get mighty pissed off when they jibe us over being Irish.
On holidays years ago, I met this English lad who seemed alright at first. He then began to ask me about all those people with guns and balaclavas that he had seen on the news. That’s the North, I replied, perhaps revealing a sin unique to Ireland, a sin of our nation. He pushed the matter a bit, in that cocky English wanker sort of way. I proceeded to educate him in Irish history, proceeding to tell him about our independence and his country’s crimes in ours.
“Tell” might not be the word actually. I felt a fire in my belly, an indignation at the fact that he did not know the story of our origin, which so deeply involved his own country. I don’t think a German or a Pole would have inspired the same kind of fire within me.
What lies at the heart of this, if not a disappointment? I was disappointed that he did not know, that his knowledge of our country was so poor. He should know, I thought. Cocky English wanker. But I wanted him to know, to acknowledge us. I hesitate to draw this overly dramatic parallel, but I wanted acknowledgement of our shared history like the victims of the Irish famine wanted acknowledgement in the form of food and aid relief from a Westminster parliament too preoccupied with its own version of laissez faire economics.
Some of that wish for acknowledgement has been passed down to us, somehow.
We read their books, eat their food, a scribble down the recipes of Jamie bloody Oliver, watch with glee as Gordon berates someone, and sit mesmerised as Nigella licks hot chocolate from her finger, staring up at you for a moment, smiling with those deep brown eyes ...
England; the posh mistress, the cocky wanker.
I have one last anecdote for you. When the Queen visited, I was in work on O’Connell St. The road was closed off and we heard that she would be driving passed soon. A couple of women decided to go out on the street to see if they could catch a glimpse of her. “I’m not going to wave,” one of the women proclaimed defiantly. “I’m just going to see what all the fuss is about.” Once she had driven past, they all rushed in gushing. “She waved at me!” That same woman exclaimed with glee.
I must say, there was an electricity in the air that day. There was something bittersweet about it all. Before there was a kind of confusion in the air, an apprehension. We weren’t prepared for this, not in school, not in the tales of our parents, not even in Doctor Who, who could travel any place in any time and yet failed to foresee this one. Then there was a certain kind of jubilation. Most of us gushed like those women had done.
It was a return, and also a maturation, and a remembering of a shared past for so long relegated to the shadows.
It seems that there is a shadow within us all, in that place we call ourselves Irish. And it might sometimes take the shape of a little West Brit.