Skip to main content
Indiana University Bloomington
  •  
  •  

Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Laura E. Andersen
Summer 2001

As I presume many of you, self-avowed Scavengers of Knowledge, might already know, "beyond the pale" was a phrase first used by the English Crown of the 1300's to describe the Irish countryside outside of Dublin's borders, i.e., English control. Even before then, and since, the Irish have continually struggled to define for themselves a cohesive national identity outside of that which was determined for them by colonists, or perhaps nowadays, tourists like myself. Therefore, a cautionary note: this brief essay contains no deep, penetrating insights into the Irish psyche, no judgments as to the wisdom of constitutionalized Catholicism, World War II isolationism, or the perpetuation of Yeats-ish, green-rolling, fairy-mounded myths. Irish identity cannot, I believe, be found at the bottom of any foam-ringed pint, nor may it be found in the all-too-commonly-evoked literary trinity of abusive father, alcoholic mother, and tuberculosis-inclined child. And despite the insistence of economists, both Irish and otherwise, it will not be found in the workings of a booming "Celtic Tiger" economy, with the (albeit historical) shift from a country of emigration to one of immigration.

Ireland has found its current definition under the auspicious flag of the Tourist Industry, a change that would likely make Yeats shudder, as his oft-valorized four green fields are first leveled, paved, and finally given new shape as the grounds for a shopping mall. South of the Liffey, immortalized by Joyce's Anna Livia, streets are thick with English bookstores and Cafe Sols. Buskers sing songs by Nirvana, and Davy Burnes' pub is now a swank, boring bar frequented by older women who sport Oscar de la Renta. Beggars position themselves near the omnipresent ATMs, and Georgian townhouses serve as corporate headquarters for these same banks. Older bars have been gutted to make way for splashy, three-level discotheques that feature bad music night after night, as well as piles of European adolescent girls with bejeweled American flags marching across their chests.

Despite all this I hesitate to characterize Ireland, or even Dublin, as offering an easy-to-swallow coating for any but its most oblivious tourists. There is something there so utterly un-American (not, I should note, anti-American. Unlike many of my friends in London, I never felt shy for my corn-fed, tooth-braced blondness) that it might not defy description, at least not for a better writer. It exists, for example, in words. Despite what appeared to me as the transparency of a shared language, my conversations with Irish acquaintances were at first hesitant, stilted, as though things were lost in translation. Dubliners embrace the shape of their language, how the lips and tongue combine for the drawn-out sounds of "brilliant", "super", and "fabulous". That such effusive words are used seemingly without care gives an indication, I think, as to the loveliness of nearly everyone I met. Hearing someone say "thanks a million" for a 70 p. cup of coffee was always slightly unexpected, and pleasurably so.

There is also a sense, beyond the crowds of black-suited business people with their ever-present lavender dress shirts, that one's job did not define one's life. I met numerous cabbies who, despite the fun in carting drunks home all evening, were quite aware of other dimensions within themselves, held jobs on their off hours as singers or part-time actors. I met teachers who made enough money during the semester to work on their short films for a few months each summer, bartenders who spoke animatedly of Harold Pinter. All seemed to prize themselves on a dark humor, as though they knew before anyone else of the Celtic Tigers eventual decline, and held a strange, Beckettian joy in human frailty.

Study abroad does not provide a pair of rose-colored binoculars through which one might view one's own native land. Instead, it offers something like a high-powered microscope capable of noting viral infection from a distance of twelve miles. Even so, I've enjoyed my return. My parents recently convinced me to take a day trip up to the Wisconsin Dells, a hodgepodge tourist trap of concrete teepees, motels with names like "The Vagabond", miniature golf courses, a couple of wooden rollercoasters named after Greek gods, and a UFO museum with a flying saucer balanced at an angle on its roof, a green rubber alien visible through the clear plastic dome. There must have been six or seven "Indian Trading Posts", all happy to sell plastic tomahawks, moccasins made in Singapore, and headdresses of blue, green and red feathers. The whole strip teetered at the edge of a gorgeously preserved stretch of river, and along its banks were sandstone arches hundreds of thousands of years old.

Lest you think the preceding paragraph a simple exercise in description, allow me to elucidate. My parents and I took a boat ride, and I noticed an Italian couple sitting nearby, both neatly dressed, with lovely leather sandals and gold jewelry. At fast I wondered what they saw in their surroundings. They appeared quite comfortable. I looked around again. There was a certain beauty in the mix of rust and faded paint, the apparent lack of function, an atmosphere beyond something, if not the Pale itself. The feeling of exile that occurs as a result of traveling abroad is a unique form, self-imposed and wary of cliches. Remember that James Joyce was only able to write "The Dead" after leaving Dublin. Though I may not have returned with a brilliant novella of my own, this new sense of wonderment is, I believe, a nearly even trade.