Monday, August 29, 2011

Ireland: patriotism, unity, and national identity

I learned a lot in Ireland. Not just factual information about Irish history and literature, but more subtle cultural differences. The kinds of differences that made me question the greatness of my own country.

One of the amazing aspects of Irish culture was this almost unexplainable sense of unity and national identity. Even though nobody I saw in Dublin had personally witnessed the Easter Rising of 1916 or the Civil War in 1922, they all seemed to act like they had all gotten through those events together. They show compassion and hospitality toward each other. They have this ever-present sense of optimism and determination. They spoke of heroes like Michael Collins and Daniel O’Connell with the kind of pride one uses when talking about a neighbor or best friend who happened to write a famous novel or appear on a popular television show. 

The O'Connell statue in Dublin

In our country, even important figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Abraham Lincoln do not receive that much affection from present-day Americans. For example, Michael Collins died in the Irish Civil War in 1922. Almost 90 years later, the Irish people are still flowering him with adoration. Literally. Every Saturday morning, the Irish send dozens of flowers to Collins’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. By contrast, I cannot even guess where Martin Luther King, Jr., is buried. 

Flowers given by the Irish for the beloved leader, who was killed in the Irish Civil War.

How beautiful is that?

Ireland’s unity and national identity is not simply beautiful, but also more logistical. I could simply sense this beautiful unity among the Irish people that made me realize how disconnected my own country was. 

America is so vast, and Americans are so diverse. I have very little in common with Californians or New Yorkers or Texans. Visiting a different state is often like traveling to an entirely different country. The language is different; the demographics are different; the food is different; and, of course, the political agenda is different. So how can our government logistically please us all? 

Such unreasonable expectations has left our Congress in its current state of shambles—a massive group of representatives fighting for vastly different laws, regulations, and outcomes, each trying to please his or her own regional culture.

Sure, having a Congress with representatives for each state sounds like a lovely idea. But how effective can they really be?

I wish America could be smaller. It took an event as tragic as September 11th to bring our country together. How sad is that? Three thousand people had to die for us to bond as Americans. The rest of the time, we barely see eye-to-eye.

I'd like to share one more story. While we were touring the tragic Kilmainham Gaol, our guide brought us out into the courtyard and told us about the Easter Rising rebels who were executed by firing squad there. She pointed to single black crosses on each side of the small area, explaining how they were there to memorialize those fighters.

The crosses stand over the execution site of fourteen men involved in the Easter Rising.
The crosses were the only thing in the courtyard, except for one brilliant flagpole, proudly waving the iconic Irish flag. Our guide explained to us that the tricolor of green, white, and orange represent the peace or "truce" among the people of Ireland. 

The Irish flag in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin
The green stands for the native people of Ireland, and is generally associated with the Catholic population. The orange symbolizes the Protestant population who came from England in the 17th Century. The white in the middle represents peace and honesty between the two distinct groups.

After explaining that, she smiled and said, "Can you guys tell me what the American flag stands for?" We all stared and blinked. We stammered things like:

"Um, the stars represent, y'know, the fifty states."
"Red symbolizes blood. Like, in honor of the blood shed by soldiers and stuff...?"
"The thirteen stripes symbolize the thirteen original colonies..."

Followed by an awkward silence. Now, I'm not telling this story because I think the Irish flag is better than ours (although it may be). The point is that we, as Americans, do not have the national identity and patriotism like we often pretend to. We like to sing songs about how we're "Proud to Be an American," and wave Old Glory in front of every bank, school, and post office...

But how proud are we?

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