I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?