The Naked Irish, by Clare O’Dea, Mentor Books, 220 pp, €14.90, ISBN: 978-1912514519
The Naked Irish is aptly summed up in its secondary title, “the portrait of a nation beyond cliché”. It is a difficult to categorise hybrid, combining journalism, sociological research and storytelling to explore ten pervasive clichés about the Irish: the Irish are a nation of emigrants, the Irish have a drink problem, the Irish are friendly, they hate the English, are gifted writers, are Catholic, are violent, they want a United Ireland; Irish women are a force to be reckoned with, and our economy is a poster child.
O’Dea combines popular history and light-hearted anecdotes to buff away at the preconceptions we harbour about the pillars of our national identity. In an intimate examination of our tangled relationship with institutions such as the Catholic church, she boldly holds up a mirror, in doing so stripping us of the comfort of cliché and forcing us to confront our nebulous conceptions of Irishness. A two-page bibliography lists an eclectic range of sources, from Heinrich Böll to Melaytu Uche Okorie.
While this book was written in 2019, the unforeseen pandemic has the capacity to both intensify and dilute the given stereotypes. The fraught political climate and ongoing lockdowns may morph or aggravate our relationship with alcohol, with England, and with notions of patriotism.
The Naked Irish emerges at a time when we may be questioning markers of national identity; given that successive ministers with responsibility for the Gaeltacht have not been fluent in our native language we may rightly be questioning our relationship with the status of the Irish language. Or, given the worldwide success of the TV adaptation of Normal People, we may be taking pride in the perceived fulfilment of the stereotype that the Irish are a nation of great writers, when Ireland’s international cultural reputation has catapulted from one of being backwards, conservative and quaint, to being on a par with other European capitals as regards artistic fame and merit. O’Dea is not overly mawkish or traditional, nor dismissive of ‘Old Ireland. Throughout the book she delicately strikes a balance between fact and fiction, and romance and reality.
Her analysis of national identity is particularly salient when read in the context of a generally heightened sense of anxiety, which has led many to seek answers in conspiracy theories. The recent restrictions implemented to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Ireland caused a backlash from far-right organisations and figures in Irish society, who held several rallies in recent months, opposing masks and mandatory vaccines under the banner of “freedom” and “patriotism”. Among them was the Irish National Party, who used the slogan “Ireland for the Irish”, an anti-imperialist quote from Pearse frequently misused as anti-immigrant rhetoric. The irony of this was echoed in Imelda May’s timely poem “You Don’t Get to be Racist and Irish”, which decried the misuse of the word “patriot” by right-wing political groups and exposed the logical fallacy of reconciling bigotry with patriotism in a nation of emigrants.
O’Dea unpicks the stock character of the Irish Mammy with wit and tenacity, and confronts Ireland’s historic institutional mistreatment of women through Magdalene laundries and restricted abortion access. The pared-back style and examination of popular history exposes the contradictions not only in Irish stereotypes, but in the country as a whole. For example, the notion of Ireland as a deeply Catholic nation became a visibly tenuous one during the pope’s visit last year, which drew both devoted followers and counter-protesters alike, revealing an antagonism between the old and new Ireland, and a discrepancy in what religion means for people of different generations. But of course, while the churches have emptied over the past few decades, true to the cliché, the pubs have remained full. O’Dea weaves disturbing statistics about alcohol abuse through light-hearted personal anecdotes of stealthily drinking spirits from fizzy drink bottles in fields, sharply contrasting this humour with the observation that confirmation-age children take “The Pledge”. Just as the reader may crack a smile at the familiarity of O’Dea’s recounted antics, so too are we made aware of cultural alcohol abuse so habitual that it is something preteens are instructed to disown as part of initiation into adulthood within the Catholic church.
The Naked Irish is neither dogma nor daydream; it is well-researched without being dense, and in places light-hearted without seeming fickle. Although it navigates waters muddied by myth, it manages to both celebrate Irish identity and cautiously speculate on the dangers attached to the ten stereotypes explored. While it touches on the idea of Ireland as the country of a thousand welcomes, it doesn’t turn a blind eye to the contradictions between this ideal and the reality of the direct provision system, or the state’s historic abuse of women. While O’Dea at times shows us a reflection difficult to gaze into, as we approach a century of independence, the point is not only to reflect, but to look forwards.
Grace Gageby was born and raised in Rathmines.