Moving Hearts, Irish laws and first-person pronouns

[I first posted this piece on another blogsite a few years ago]

Moving Hearts were an Irish rock band of the early 1980s that grew out of the revival of traditional music in the previous couple of decades. They made some great music on drums, guitars, bouzouki, sax and uileann pipes, but never quite captured their live brilliance on vinyl. I went to see them many times in Dublin pub venues.

They used to do one song that I didn’t like then and don’t like now, partly because of its dirge-like sound but especially on account of the lyrics. The song is ‘Irish Ways and Irish Laws’ (I WAIL (!)), by a man named John Gibbs.

It is a saga of victimhood: the sort of thing that certain anti-Irish bigots like to claim that all Irish people indulge in all the time. (In fact there was an advanced and sophisticated system of Irish law that pre-dated the Norman invasion and carried on in parallel with the Norman/English system for centuries, but that is not the point.)

‘I WAIL’ posits an unalloyed Irish ‘we’ that existed (in ‘villages of Irish blood’) before the Vikings arrived. ‘Our’ idyllic existence was disrupted by these louts (who ‘started building boats and towns’), and ‘we’ have been pushed about by Cromwell and other nasties ever since. First-person plural pronouns are applied to long-dead people no fewer than 10 times. The coup de grace is ‘Today the struggle carries on.’

Why do I find this so grating? Well, there are several reasons. First, I don’t like the victimhood: there was, and is, far more to the Irish story than passivity, conquest and tyranny (also, the ‘starting point’ is chosen arbitrarily). The others have to do with my distaste for the use of ‘we’ as applied to ancestors.

1. ‘We’ means ‘I and others’. I and others did not defeat the Danes at Clontarf in 1014.

2. Different streams and currents joined the river at different times; all contributed to what ‘we’ are here and now. ‘We’ are a complex mixture of genes, cultures and ideas.

3. Although we are all part of greater ‘wholes’ of various sorts, it is psychologically unhealthy to identify overly with the group: facile self-aggrandizement that the weakest are unable to resist, which can lead to all sorts of trouble.

4. It is neither wise nor tenable to feel that one is superior on account of the ‘nation’ to which one belongs, through either a narrative of victimhood or a narrative of triumph. Narratives have their uses at certain times, but by their nature occlude complexity.

Nationalism (sometimes slyly disguised as ‘patriotism’) is for the psychologically needy. Genuine patriotism, of course, is a different matter.

Finally, ‘was’ in the first line should be ‘were’: but I’ll let that pass as ‘poetic licence’, given that it (nearly) rhymes with ‘laws’. 🙂


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Filed under History, Ireland, Music, Politics

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