So iTunes just cued up Mystic Lipstick
(Celtic Tenors cover), a folk song written in 1989 by Jimmy McCarthy. (McCarthy wrote a number of Christy Moore's folk hits.) And it seems strangely appropriate, because I've just finished watching an episode from the fourth series of Waking the Dead
that featured Irish nationalism and British politics, and I have been having thinky thoughts about Romanticism rolling around in my head since I got back from Greece.
Greece has been terribly romanticised in its turn, of course. Leaving aside its mythological status as the Cradle of European Civilisation (a construct of the European Renaissance), the 18th century saw it constructed as a Romantic destination on the Grand Tour (et in Arcadia ego
), a construct which bore little relationship to reality. The 19th century and the Greek war of independence saw the construction of a (self-built, internally contradictory) national mythology, and its growth as an Interesting Place for international Classically-interested archaeologists... well, let's just say that from a certain point of view the likes of Schliemann on the mainland and Evans in Crete contributed to the erection of Whole New Interesting Mythologies.
And now the stories northern Europe tells about Greece have to do with laziness and profligacy, and you know what? No more true than ROMANCE. Fuck off, ECB in Frankfurt. Look at some context
Ireland did not, of course, see itself lionised and mythologised during the European Renaissance - quite the opposite, since the 16th century saw it viewed as a land of barbarians ripe for colonisation and the 17th century witnessed the repurposing of martyr and atrocity stories from the Thirty Years War to give voice to the anxieties and stife arising from the Rebellion of 1642 and the English Civil War - but the 18th century saw the beginnings of an interest in Irish antiquarianism and the start of a "national" impetus towards myth-making and - as the 19th century began - lionising the Catholic Emancipation movement in messianic and nationalistic terms. Nationalism and tenants' rights are the two major themes of Ireland's politics in the 19th century, and though the lack of a Home Rule victory until the 20th century prevented the canonisation of an officially-sanctioned nationalist mythology until much later, the pantheon contains numerous unofficial and contradictory saints. Complicating matters for Ireland is that its Protestant and Anglo heritage is much less easy to disavow than the Turkish heritage of Greece. If it is to be disavowed, it must be done in subtle terms, acknowledging Exceptional Anglo-Irishmen, casting the others as West Brits, betrayers of nationalism and the Historical Imperative of Irish Nationhood.
Then you have the Romantic Irish movement at the end of the 19th century, existing alongside Gaelic revivalism and the growing European antiquarian interest not only in "Celtic" cultures, but in magic and mysticism. No overview of Irish Romanticism is complete without an understanding of how the likes of Yeats and the rest of the Celtic Twilight
literati partook of an international intellectual/literary atmosphere that included members of the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn. (And if anyone can point me to a solid and readable academic study that discusses this, I'd be grateful - I used to have a handful of references, but that was when I was still in school.) Lady Gregory was connected with figures from this milieu, and Yeats himself was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. A misty mysticism pervades much of Yeats' writing. He positioned himself as a "national poet" of the new Ireland, even after independence, and as many of the other literary figures who entered the national pantheon (Pearse, for example) not only died in the Rising or in the War of Independence/Civil War years, but had a vested interest in portraying their relationship to Irish Nationhood in mystical, quasi-religious, at times messianic terms (it is easier to get people to die if you position dying as a salvific act), misty mysticism pervades
Irish literature of the late 19th and early 20th century.
It is an obscurantist haze layered over a complicated reality. What makes it worse is that misty mysticism - or at least its salvific/messianic nationalist offshoots - remain common currency in certain puddles of political rhetoric, and enjoyed a much wider currency than they do now within my own lifetime. (See Northern Ireland, pre-Peace Process.)
And both the misty mysticism and the complicated historical reality inform present national politics. But because our national myths (our dialectics
, even!) rely all too much on the Romantic Mirage (and its obverse, the Lazy Irish Savage: hello, ECB! Our financial woes are actually mostly your fault
, since you helped provide the credit - and then mandated the socialisation of debt - that got us to this point!), it is nearly impossible to even construct an argument
about history today without engaging the Mirage. (The Mirage is politically useful, in that it elides discussion of class and the historical benefits conferred thereby: many of the present prominent political figures of the Republic have several generations of political connections, and those that do not generally come from publican or professional backgrounds.)
It's impossible to ignore it, you know. It just sits there, even if you never mention it, pulling the conversation askew with all the gravity of a soul-sucking black hole.
I say this, because I am contemplating opening Kevin Hearne's Tricked
, which based on previous track record, will be an entertaining pseudo-Celtic mixed mythological romp set somewhere in the continental United States. While at the same time I am still reading Ian McDonald's King of Morning, Queen of Day
- which at least in its first part, juxtaposes the weird and Romantic with the utterly mundane and is the better book for it. The more painful: but McDonald understands that the layers of the rotten onion (the Matryoska dolls of Irish mythology, each one stranger than the next) have a kind of recursive complexity impossible to reduce to linear clarity. The only possible shape is the spiral. Not the line, not the circle, but a twisted helix bending around an indefinable centre.
My analogy runs away from me. Still.
*rambles along, ramblingly*