Green. Music. Guinness. Castles.
1916. Language. GAA Sports. Peace Walls.
Every culture has its stereotypes and symbols, and Ireland of course is no exception. The first things that come to mind when most Americans think of Ireland are typically green fields, castles, leprechauns, and alcohol, among others. Of course, these stereotypes fail to do justice to a vibrant and complex culture in a country with a rich yet often turbulent history. Over the past few weeks of living and studying in this country, I’ve encountered aspects of Irish culture which most Americans are unaware of.
For example, the Irish language, while not in everyday conversational use in most parts of the country, is everywhere you look; from street signs, to bus and train timetables, to Students Union emails written in both English and Irish. Irish Gaelic has more of a symbolic national significance than practical application, as everyone in Ireland speaks English, but its ubiquity underscores its importance in constructing Ireland’s national identity.
Additionally, a good place I’ve found to experience Irish culture has been the pubs, especially the less touristy ones, which often host live traditional Irish music sessions. Pubs are also a good place to go to watch Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) matches on TV with the locals. GAA sports include Hurling (which I can best describe as a cross between lacrosse and field hockey, though that doesn’t begin to explain it) and Gaelic Football, and are distinctively Irish sports. Almost every town in Ireland has a local GAA club, with teams for both children and adults, and the sports are very popular throughout the country. The month of September saw both the men’s and women’s finals in Hurling and Football, with Dublin playing County Mayo in the Men’s Football final match. The teams tied in the last few minutes of stoppage time, and so have to replay the match this weekend.
Another significant component of Irish culture is the country’s political heritage. 2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, widely viewed as the beginning of the movement for Irish independence from Britain. Almost everywhere you look in Dublin, you’ll see some evidence of the commemoration. Though the rising initially lacked popular support in 1916, its aftermath helped spark support for Irish War of Independence which eventually came in 1919. Since then, the Easter Rising has been glorified in Irish literature and folk music, and the scale of the commemoration this year demonstrates how the rising is viewed in a positive light today in the Republic of Ireland.
That’s not to say that Ireland’s political history in the 20th century is uncontroversial. A few weekends ago, a friend and I took the train up to Belfast in Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom. While there, we took a cab tour through West Belfast, the working class neighborhoods which saw most of the violence during The Troubles in the 1970s and 80s. The Protestant (Unionist) and Catholic (Irish Nationalist) neighborhoods remain separated by Peace Walls, built to prevent sectarian violence. They’re not something you would expect to see in a Western European country, to say the least. Our guide, a native of West Belfast, explained that one of the reasons the walls remain in place is to prevent future outbreaks of violence, which suggests that some tensions still remain 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
These examples, of course, only begin to scratch the surface of what it is to be Irish. That said, there’s certainly not enough room here for me to go into detail about every experience I’ve had in Ireland over the past month. And so, I hope that this post can serve as an introduction of sorts for the ones to follow, as I continue to explore Ireland, learning more about its people and culture in the process.