Laura E. Andersen
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
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.