Modern Irish Identity in Comedy: “How to be Irish”

Now that my login issues are sorted at last, here is my slightly ridiculous contribution.

The Internet has been an extremely useful tool for expanding general knowledge about all cultures, as it is accessible to people all around the world, of all sorts of different nationalities and backgrounds. As a result of like being able to find like more easily, communities form: around similar interests, shared beliefs, and identities (to name a few).

The analysis of the transformation of identity as a result of the internet is definitely not a subject I can cover in one blog post because, though fascinating, it would take a metric ton of research at the very least to even begin to comprehend it, and that is far beyond what we’re focusing on in this course. That said, I think the significance of being a member of a niche culture has changed on a global scale, and that includes the Irish. (Not to say that Ireland itself is “niche,” just that it does have a particular culture that is reserved to a small area, i.e. one island in the Atlantic Ocean.)

What I want to discuss today has to do with this specific video by an Irish YouTuber who goes by the name JackSepticEye:

Irish Time With Jack

(Precaution: This YouTuber has a somewhat shrill voice and there is a lot of cursing in this video, so viewer discretion advised. You don’t have to watch it to understand this blog post since I’ll be summarizing the specific aspects I want to talk about.)

This video is called “Irish Time With Jack,” and it begins with his typical intro, a high-five and a rather boisterous, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, laddies!” This is characteristic of him as a YouTuber, specifically a Let’s Player. A Let’s Player, for those unfamiliar with the term, is someone who records themselves playing video games and giving commentary. It is generally considered a comedic category of entertainment, so it serves the dual purpose of being able to watch someone play a game one might take interest in while also hopefully getting a laugh. Jack (as he’s popularly known – his real name is Sean) capitalizes on the fact that he is one of the few popular Let’s Players out there (though certainly not the only) who is Irish by co-opting the stereotypical “top o’ the mornin’ to ya” greeting that is so familiarly and stereotypically Irish, usually associated with leprechauns or any similar stereotypes those of us non-Irish exposed to media representations of Irish people would be familiar with.

He goes on, at the start of the video, to mention that he has been asked numerous times whether or not he is “actually Irish,” or if he just puts on the accent for his YouTube persona. He affirms this is not the case: he is Irish, “as if you couldn’t tell by how pasty white my skin is.” (Note: I’ll be putting all of the things Jack himself says in Italics.) He’s proud of being Irish but notes that he is “one of the worst Irish people ever,” and he has thus purchased a particular book to help himself, and his audience, “be as Irish as possible.” The book is titled A Massive Book Full of Feckin’ Irish Slang That’s Great Craic for Any Shower of Savages. “By the end of this video,” Jack says, “we’re all gonna be Irish.”

Appropriately, it is green.

Obviously, becoming Irish isn’t as simple as learning some funny slang, but again, the purposes of this video are purely comedic and not truly instructional. The way he describes being Irish would probably make Yeats roll over in his grave, but being an Irishman by birth gives him a specific perspective into Irish culture, as he is part of it, no matter how poor of an Irish person he believes himself to be. (Whether or not you can be bad at being part of your own culture is another topic entirely, but I’m shelving that for now.)

The rest of the video entails Jack going through this book and describing various Irish slang terms such as “gas,” “howiya,” “how’s she cuttin’,” “craic,” “the black stuff,” and so on. Jack inserts various personal asides into the video as he remembers them and notes that he hasn’t heard some of these words in a long time.

“Of course, the base of learning any culture is how to like, introduce yourself to someone, because it’s all about mannerisms,” Jack notes in preface to the term “howiya.” He says that this means “hello” and in other cultures would entail “how are you,” “but the Irish are so evolved and so evolutionarily smart that we just shorten it all down to ‘howiya.’” He repeats this specific language later on when addressing the term “Jaysus,” saying, “Again, we are evolved, we are descended from potatoes, so… we are carved out of potatoes from the hillsides, so we have… we’ve a funny way of saying things.” As most things in this video, saying Irish people are made from potatoes is being playfully satirical toward the stereotypes about the Irish and their deep, intense relationship with said root vegetable. To me, however, what struck me as the most interesting was Jack’s use of the term “evolved,” and earlier, “evolutionarily smart.” The reason why that strikes me requires only a very brief glimpse into the past:

Not long ago, the English used “scientific” imagery and language to attempt to prove the Irish to be subhuman. Considering that Irish people, particularly Irish Catholics, were second-class citizens until very recently, historically speaking, this was what I found the most intriguing regarding Jack’s discussion of his own culture. Of course, the bit about potatoes is meant to be funny, but he does say evolved and smart. Within a comparatively short period of time, an Irish person is proud to justify the quirks of his culture as being smart or evolved in comparison to the way other cultures speak. (Jack does mention at the beginning that he is proud of being Irish, or, as he puts it, “I’m f*ckin’ proud of it, dammit!” and mentions that one of the purposes for the video is to improve his own Irishness as well.)

A lot of the Yeats we dealt with recently concerned Irish identity, and as I said before, Yeats would be likely rolling in his grave if he knew a video like this existed, or that the contemporary Irish behave this way. And yet, Jack not only makes Irish culture (specifically dialectical differences) into something one can learn, but he presents it as important knowledge. He is sharing an Irish perspective on Irish culture. One could say that he’s possibly trying to justify his own Irish heritage in the face of those who have disputed his nationality, but I prefer to look at it from a lighter perspective than that. Though Jack is clearly parodying the doubt and criticism about his nationality by capitalizing on numerous Irish stereotypes (the Irish are always drinking, they’re descended from potatoes, they spend most of their time insulting each other), he does so playfully, and he lets his audience in on the joke, so to speak. He makes Irishness inclusive instead of exclusive and provides a way, however joking, to access Irish culture in a more natural and far less scholarly way than Pearse, for example, might have wanted.

The silent, judgmental stare of a dead Irish revolutionary.

Instead of instructing his audience in Gaelic, Jack takes a more practical approach: “If you just wanna hang around Ireland, and you just wanna see what the place is all like, […] and then you come in to […] the C’mon Inn, and then you’re just like, ‘ah, Jaysus, ah Jaysus gimme a pint there now, Peter, will ya? Good man yerself, what is it, forty euro? Jaysus, pints are gone up a lot…’ See what I mean? You just work it into your language like that and it just comes out naturally.” He is making Ireland itself accessible to those unfamiliar with the dialect or the language. Of course, this is also largely comedic, as there’s just as high of a likelihood that any Irish person would laugh themselves silly at a foreigner trying to sound too Irish.

I think a lot can be conveyed in comedy, though, and I think this video, in all the fun it pokes at itself, is an interesting representation of how Irish perspectives of Irish identity have evolved since Yeats’ time. Obviously, one Irish YouTuber does not speak for the Irish people as a whole by any means. This video certainly isn’t a reliable source for learning how to actually be Irish, if that is something you can learn to begin with. However, it does explore Irish identity in a contemporary context, particularly regarding how it is viewed externally versus how it is viewed internally (i.e. Jack’s non-Irish viewers’ perspectives vs. Jack’s perspective as an Irish citizen) and where these viewpoints cross, collide, or complement each other. Padraic Pearse might not be satisfied with exactly how Jack goes about trying to teach people to be Irish, but he might be satisfied with the fact that Ireland is free enough and its people confident enough in their heritage that a video like this can be produced.

There is something more profound in this than I can put my finger on, but mostly I just thought the video was hilarious and interestingly relevant to our exploration of Celtic identity, particularly through language. Perhaps someone else can provide further insight using the words I can’t find.

 

Works Cited:

JackSepticEye. “Irish Time With Jack.” Online video clip. YouTube. Google, 16 October 2016. Web.

 

Uilleann Pipes

One thing you have to get accustomed to when traveling around Ireland is the really fun pub scene. There are more modern pubs, jazz pubs, sports pubs, but in your standard pub scene there are always people I call hidden musicians. By that, I mean people who put down their Guinness and pick up an instrument from under their table at some predetermined point. There’s no way to tell if they brought this instrument or if it was just there, but without a doubt at some point a band will form and play traditional Irish music, seemingly out of the blue. Amongst the fiddles and flutes, one of the instruments you frequently see is a strange sort of bagpipes with a much softer, lighter sound. They are uilleann pipes.

A set of uilleann pipes

Maud actually briefly mentioned these in class as an “alternative” to bagpipes, and that characterization is pretty accurate. Uilleann pipes are a type of bagpipe that is powered by bellows pinned between the arm the hip. Uillean (roughly pronounced as “illin”) pipe players are unique because they can play in quieter settings, sitting down. A number of Irish traditional music bands use them because the sound has become distinctly Irish. The Chieftains are probably the most famous artists to use the uillean pipes, their pipe player Paddy Maloney is quite good.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lEq6yYl17s

You can hear it as part of a band here:

Pipe music in general is very important to Celtic cultural history and tradition. Most forms of bagpipes came from war pipes. Bagpipes are still used today within military contexts because of that history and the power they produce.  While I am a big fan of their sound, I can admit that the most common bagpipes played are unwieldy and very loud, so they don’t lend themselves to indoor playing or listening. Matt Molloy, the flute player for the Chieftains, owns a pub in Westport, Ireland. That’s the pub from the second link. I was there when a local bagpipe band began to play in the next room. A group of fifteen or so students from the music school came out to play. They were really cool to see, but the building was shaking and pictures were falling off the wall. Bagpipes are good for cutting through the cold March air on St. Paddy’s day, but not a great choice for musicians playing for pub audiences. Uilleann pipes don’t drown out every other sound and have become a unique Irish sound.

Pipe band at Molloy's. Note the guitarist in back trying his best.

Pipe band at Molloy’s. Note the guitarist in back trying his best.

The actual history of the uilleann pipes is pretty vague. They were first developed sometime within the late 17th century to the early 18th century, with the first mention of bellow-powered pipes coming as early as 1619. The Irish name, píobaí uilleann, translates to pipes of the elbow referring to the bellow system. They are a distinct instrument with a significantly softer sound that still maintained some of the character of highland pipes. Throughout their history, people also referred to them as Union pipes, in reference to the construction of the instrument, but the uilleann name stuck by the start of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, a large force that drove their original development were the English landowners precisely because of the ability to play indoors. English social customs and culture moved music and life indoors, so the uilleann pipes developed as a way to bring in traditional Irish culture. Most trad music bands nowadays have a set of uilleann pipes, in large part due to the Chieftains and other bands before them. They are also a fairly common sight on the streets of Galway, Cork, and other southern and western Irish towns. Some of the buskers even use them to play American folk music and pop music. Get Lucky sounds incredible on the pipes.

“Love and Stuff”: The Claddagh Ring

I have always struggled to conceptualize the ways in which identity transcends religion. As a Jewish-American woman, I have constantly rooted my sense of both self and community in religious practices and institutions, a relationship which has allowed me to not only maintain my own spirituality but also immerse myself in social, cultural, and historical spaces. Tradition for me has, then, inevitably become a matter of religious practice: though the majority of my friends from my hometown in Wayne, New Jersey identify as Irish Catholic, the tangible ways in which I’ve imagined their experiences have been linked to Catholicism. In attending their communions, visiting their homes on Easter and Christmas, and engaging in conversations about the Catholic Bible, I have seen the ways in which Catholicism has been a manifest presence, continually permeating their lives on a daily basis. Because of this, I envisioned identity—and, more specifically, cultural affiliation—as being devoid of ethnic and national ties.

That is, until one afternoon, when I was sitting and talking to my friend Nicole McCloskey and noticed a small, silver ring on her right hand. The ring featured a pink heart with a crown above it, and I was captured by the way in which the pink gem glittered in the bright light of the midafternoon sun. Yet, the more I stared, the more I noticed something unusual about how she was wearing it, leading to a pressing question which sifted within me until I finally reached the point of asking:

“Why are you wearing your ring upside down?”

“I’m not!” she laughed, fumbling with the silver band of the ring. “It’s a Claddagh ring, you know?”

“No. No, I don’t know.”

“Oh, well, I mean—I guess, like, it’s an Irish thing about love and stuff. So, like, I have a boyfriend, so it points towards me. But if you’re looking for a new beau, you have it the other way.”

“But couldn’t someone just… ask if you’re single?”

“I mean, yeah,” she replied. “But it’s tradition. Kind of like your hamsa.

My hand awkwardly reached toward the light blue hamsa strewn across my neck, the mystic symbol that had been passed down from generation-to-generation and openly screamed, “This girl is Jewish!” Suddenly aware that I had subconsciously conflated Irishness with Catholicism, I was shocked to learn that community could reach beyond religion, could trickle into a national or cultural identity; for me, my connection to Judaism so clearly marked me as Other that I struggled to envision the critical differences that distinguished people from various ethnic and national groups. Inspired by my newfound knowledge of the Claddagh ring, I discovered a desire to uncover its history, its cultural implications, its significance beyond just “love and stuff.”

Claddagh Ring (1)

This is what my friend Nicole’s Claddagh ring looked like. SOURCE: www.kriskate.com/claddagh-rings/1178-sterling-silver-pink-heart-cz-claddagh-ring.html%5B/caption%5D

Upon looking into its history, I learned that the Claddagh ring is a really unique part of Celtic tradition, imbued with symbolism and marked by an ongoing sense of connection to Irish culture. The ring gets its name from the village of Claddagh in Ireland, and legends vary as to its origins. One story, however, claims that:

“…a man named Richard Joyce, who was supposed to be married to his true love [created the ring]. According to the story, he was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery, where he worked for a goldsmith and learned to design jewelry. He created a ring with the Claddagh design, and when he eventually managed to escape slavery, he brought the ring back with him. His beloved had never married during his long absence, so he gave her the ring he’d made while in slavery, and they were married immediately” (Crandall).

Although this is not the only legend related to the Claddagh ring, it serves as a particularly useful and unique reminder regarding Celtic tradition. Though in class, we have been reading groups of poem that seem to emphasize the futile attempts of noble Irishmen in the face of struggle—that is, various figures continue to fight for their causes only to experience defeat—this story serves to mark success. In the face of slavery and hardship, Joyce recovers his demeanor, creates something effectual for the Irish people, and ultimately finds himself victorious in his return home. Thus, the different narrative that the story presents serves as a reminder that the underdog still has the potential to emerge the victor, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The very structure of the Claddagh ring speaks directly to the symbolic meaning—that which my friend Nicole referred to as “love and stuff”—which the item itself actually displays. The ring is designed such that it contains two hands holding a heart topped by a crown. While sometimes, the ring is bejeweled like that of my friend Nicole, it can also simply be made of various precious metals, such as silver, gold, etc.

Essentially, the ring comes to symbolize that the wearer’s heart belongs to his/her/their “one true love” (Fantasy-Ireland). It is, perhaps, for that reason that each way the individual wears the ring signifies something different. According to the Celtic tradition:

Wearing one on your right hand with the heart facing away from you shows that you are looking for love, while wearing it with the heart facing toward you indicates that you are in a relationship. Wearing a Claddagh ring on your left hand with the heart facing away from you shows that you are engaged, while wearing it with the heart facing toward you indicates that you are married (Crandall).

It therefore makes sense that my friend Nicole had opted to wear the ring “upside down”—that is, toward her—on her right hand: she had a boyfriend and certainly would not have wanted people to think she was searching for love.

 

[caption id="attachment_970" align="aligncenter" width="300"]SOURCE: Google Images SOURCE: Google Images

Not only does the Claddagh ring emerge as a simple token of love—it also marks a sense of communal belonging, a heritage in which individuals of Irish descent take great pride. As I learned more about the Claddagh ring, I was able to reflect on the various ways in which cultures culminate, the complexity of identities which go beyond religious distinctions, and the essential nature of communal history and belonging. Though fairly cliché, I really did have an eye-opening experience wherein I saw myself in the other person and recognized that each of us maintains the traditions of our communities in order to preserve ourselves, whether Jewish, Catholic, or Irish. Effectively, then, I found in the Claddagh ring a site of material culture that allowed me to get closer to the poetry which we are reading, the Irish tradition on the whole, and my friend Nicole, as well.

Works Cited

Crandall, Maegan. “History of Claddagh Rings.” History of Claddagh Rings. Overstock. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

“Claddagh History, Folklore, and Symbolism.” Fantasy Ireland. Fantasy Ireland, 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.