Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Easter parade of thoughts

Last Sunday was Easter. Like most people, this year the holiday evoked two main reactions: musings on cultural hegemony and ponderings about insurrection.

Okay, these probably weren’t the sorts of things going through most people’s minds. But, trust me, there is some logic here.

Thoughts on cultural hegemony peaked yesterday when, as often seems to happen around major holidays with school breaks, our house was filled with children. Several of the Little Munchkin’s cousins and children of friends of the Missus had been running around the house and garden for a couple of hours and were now ready to sit for a while and watch a movie. I was charged with finding a DVD that would be suitable for and hold the interest of the group, which ranged from a four-year-old to teenagers. Doing my best to ignore the clamoring and browse my collection, I came up with the sure-fire Robin Williams vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire. When the four-year-old realized that he wasn’t going to his choice (The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland), he let out a cry of despair, “Ay! Caramba!”

For a few seconds I experienced what the French call a frisson. How, I wondered briefly, had a tyke in the west of Ireland come to express himself spontaneously in a language other than English or Irish? My mind rapidly ran through the possibilities. Were the parents doing a home Spanish language course? Did they have a nanny from Spain? No, almost immediately I knew the inevitable answer. This was the work of television, and by that I do not mean old reruns of I Love Lucy, featuring Desi Arnaz. No, this child had been exposed to The Simpsons.

This made an immediate connection with something I had heard in the Missus’ house in the wilds of southwest Ireland, where we had stopped for a few days after arriving back in Ireland from our driving holiday in Brittany and Normandy. After a visit to the house of our very good neighbors there, the Missus mentioned in passing what the five children in the family had given up for Lent. My best recollection of past years is that the kids had always given up chocolate or something like that. This year they had given up American television.

I had a strange reaction when I heard that. Now, I have never completely gotten my head around the idea of Lent. I know the basics all right. It starts the day after Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday and goes on for forty days and forty nights until Easter Sunday. And it is supposed to be a period of self-denial. But, as someone who was raised with no formal religious instruction whatsoever, I’ve never truly connected with the notion. I mean, if something is bad for you, then why not give up altogether instead of just for six weeks? And, if it’s not really bad for you, why give it up at all? But I’m not completely thick. I get the idea that there may be something spiritual in the willing self-denial of a personal pleasure, but in practice it seems to be more of a case that enjoyment of a personal pleasure is heightened by foregoing it for a while first, making the self-denial more about pleasure than spirituality. In the case of most people I know, it actually seems to be a case of enjoying something more when sneaking it because it has temporarily been deemed wrong.

Anyway, all that psychological/religious stuff is mostly beyond me. What interested me in this case was, why was American television being put in the same category as chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes and other items that people enjoy but feel guilty about? The best clue I had was a previous discussion with our neighbor after she had started to correct the Little Munchkin for declaring, “I’m done!” upon finishing a meal. She had been trying to break her own kids of the habit because it is a purely American expression. All things being equal, Irish kids wouldn’t say that. Of course, the Munchkin used the expression because she spent her first two years in the U.S. and has an American father. The Irish kids, on the other hand, had picked it up from watching The Simpsons. For decades people all over the world have watched helplessly as their children pick up phrases and attitudes from listening to American music or watching American TV and movies. And I don’t know what, if anything, should be done about it. You probably can’t stop European kids from saying, “Don’t have a cow, man!” any more than you can stop Americans from throwing around French words like frisson.

My thoughts on insurrection sprang forth on Easter night, as we watched highlights from the day’s celebrations in Dublin. Like most countries, Ireland observes this most sacred Christian holiday with a massive military parade. Okay, most countries don’t actually have a military parade on Easter Sunday. And, if you did expect to find one somewhere, it would seem strange to the very casual observer to find one in politically neutral Ireland. But in this country, Easter is not only the day marking the resurrection of Christ. It is also the anniversary of an uprising 90 years ago against British authorities and of a proclamation of a republic on the island.

It was quite an impressive parade. Both my Irish wife and I were amazed at the extent of Ireland’s military hardware and personnel. Generally, you only become aware that Ireland even has a military when a group of them is shipped off for U.N. peacekeeping duties in Africa or somewhere. The reasons for the display were twofold. It was a masterful political advertisement highlighting the heritage of the country’s dominant political party, Fianna Fáil. And it was a stark reminder, a short time after the purported decommissioning of arms belonging to the Provisional Irish Republic Army, that there is only one legitimate Irish army, and it ain’t the Provos.

But beyond that, it was also an opportunity for a history lesson, not only for those of us who didn’t grow up in this country, but also for those who did. What I learned from all the articles and commentaries was that the 1916 uprising had little initial support from the Irish in general and was carried out by a small, intellectual, self-appointed group. The Irish had representation in the London parliament and would likely have followed the same eventual path to separation from the U.K. in any event. In fact, the Easter rising, which never had a chance militarily, might well have been a footnote in Irish history but for one thing. The British summarily executed the insurrection’s leaders within days. This inflamed the existing general antipathy toward the British and gave the insurgents major posthumous support. (These events are portrayed at the beginning of Neil Jordan’s fine film Michael Collins.)

Hearing the 1916 leaders referred to over and over again as insurgents, of course, invited comparisons with contemporary Iraq. In hindsight, it seems perfectly obvious why so many politically engaged Irish people were vehemently against the 2003 invasion. For one thing, the very sight of the British military on the move again was bound to stir old bitter feelings. And the very notion of insurgents fighting a foreign military power is one that evokes sympathetic echoes of Ireland’s history. Never mind that the native Iraqi insurgents mostly represent a tribe that is a minority within the country and which supported a brutal dictatorship that overruled the interests of the majority population. The 1916 insurgents didn’t have majority support in the beginning either, in a country where people were able to vote for the own government representatives.

Can we see Iraq’s future in Ireland’s past? Hopefully. By the mid-20th century, the British were happy to be out of (most of) Ireland and, if the truth be known, would probably love to be out of the six counties they are still entangled with. In the U.S. and Britain, no one wants to remain in Iraq one day longer than necessary. The political arguing is not over whether but when and how to leave. And, in the end, today’s Irish republic was not brought about by the 1916 rising or the ensuing civil war. It was ultimately set up through political and legal means. With any luck, the same will be true in Iraq, and future governments will be chosen by the Iraqi people at the ballot box and not by small self-interested groups using violence.

-S.L., 20 April 2006

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