After I back to China, the experience of traveling in Ireland suddenly getting really fade. At the moment I got off my flight, the Celtic mythology, the poems, the stories, and the big houses and castles we visited… are just like a dream. Instead of the green grass and sheep, I’m now facing the “concrete forest” in Beijing, seeing the “green belt” with dry earth – sick trees scattered, some places even without any grass – I can feel the idea or image of Ireland is getting away from me.
Why do I feel so far from Ireland?
In fact, even when I was there, I can always feel the remote distance between Ireland and me.
Sometimes were the moments an Irish tour guide know our group comes from the U.S. The gleam of joy in their eyes was so obvious. Soon they would share their personal connection with the U.S, for example, their relatives who live in the U.S, or their good opinion towards the U.S. It’s not phatic communication, but sincere welcoming. I learned the U.S. and Ireland has a long history of friendship during the English class. The influence of Irish is everywhere in the U.S. From the pubs in the New York to the green Charles river in Chicago in St. Patrick’s Day. In the 19 century, thousands of Irish came to the U.S., and soon the Irish became an important group in the politics area and got their voice. I saw the flag of Ireland, EU and the U.S. in front of many hotels and stores in Ireland, represents their international identity. Besides, Ireland relies on tourists. Visitors means the boost of the economy, and there were a lot of American tourists. In addition, Irish really are friendly people, therefore I was not surprised when heard those warm greetings with open arms, it’s about the history between two countries.
However, when I saw the other visitor groups during the tour, I feel I’m more like an outsider. Those visitors, most were senior, came from countries like Germany, U.K., France, Spain, or Australia — the stereotypical “rich western countries” in my mind. Sometimes, they were among the group guided tour in those big old houses, listen to the historical stories carefully, and laughing when the guide make a joke; sometimes, they appeared on the trail of a scenic spot with nice sneakers and wind coat, looking at the map and discussing which way will be the best. When I saw them, I feel a slight of disappointment or sense of loss. This kind of emotion would grow stronger when I cannot follow the guide tour’s story, or I cannot get the humor of an Irish people. I already took an English course about the literature in Ireland for a semester, I thought, and already watched more than ten movies about Ireland, why I still feel I know nothing about Ireland? This time, maybe is not about the history between two counties anymore, is about a group of counties, is about culture.
Maybe it is the sense of unfamiliar that drove me to make up the decision to go to Ireland.
Before I took the English class — Literature of Ireland, I literally know nothing about Ireland. I watched the video of the River-dance when I was in grade four or five, but I did not think about it until the music performance in Galway and someone mentioned the River-dance. I read a couple of stories written by Oscar Wilde, who I always thought born and live in London or Paris until I started preparing the application essay for the Ireland trip. I had a vague understanding about Ireland and the U.K. — they are close with each other. So what? and then? I did not know, but I want to jump out of my comfort zone and try to learn about a country start from zero. I was hoping this trip can be a template in the later traveling. I thought, for example, professors will tell me how many books I should read, what kind of movie I suppose to watch, and which parts of history are important when really visit that country and so on. Next time, if I visit Jamaica or India, or any other country that I unfamiliar with, I will follow this “Ireland template.” However, I was too naive, I learned far more than that.
The innocent about Ireland reflects my lack of understanding of the western culture, in many aspects. Take some other countries as examples: I learned about the U.S. through Disney movies and McDonald’s; I heard people talk about the demeanor of U.K. the elegance of France, and preciseness of German, then I confirmed these impressions by watching movies about them. These are of course very stereotypical knowledge. However, I even don’t have any stereotypical knowledge towards Ireland. Now I know, the “Irish” culture is hiding behind all those obvious popular cultures, and it’s not easy to find out.
I missed the chance to get to know Ireland for so many times. When I was in primary school, there was a trend of Harry Potter. If I wanted to know more about the book, except the seven books themselves, I may also want to read the Lord of the Ring and more western fantasy novels. Then I may find out the prototypical image of dwarfs and elves are influenced by the Irish mythologies; When I was in the junior high school, there was a trend of Pirates of the Caribbean and Taylor Swift. If I wanted to know more about pirates, I may also want to read more books talking about that period of history, then I will know the colonization of England. If I wanted to know more about the country music in the U.S., I may know the immigration of Irishman and understand its connection between the music in the U.S. and the music in Ireland. If I was interested in Christianity enough, I should know the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, so that know about the conflicts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland…… The books we required to read during the English class, I may be heard one or two of them long ago, but never read. Ireland is famous for its poems, but I even have difficulties read plain English text, not to say poems.
The story of Ireland, the history of Ireland, or, say, the culture of Ireland, is one of the representations of the western and connected the history of many other countries. The early history of Ireland was about mixing everything together — the scattered kingdoms in the island were kind of unified by the Christianity, the aggressive Vikings were eventually settled down. In my opinion, unlike continent Europe, in Ireland, the “humanity” was never faded behind the “divinity”, therefore there were no so call the Renaissance there. The stereotypical traditional cultural of Greek and Roman, for example, the architecture style, the technique of painting and sculpture were all brought by the English man during the colonization process.
It is until the time of W.B. Yeats, after the conflict of religious identity and the hate of colonization getting more and more serious, the Irishman started thinking about their own national state. (Unlike the other nations, for example, Netherlands and Switzerland, signed the Peace Treaty of Westphalia and thought about their sovereignty long before Ireland.) In some sense, Yeats with his friends created the nation “Irish” in the modern sense. They found a balance point among all kind of identity of the nation, avoid the conflict of religion, built a collective cultural imagination of Irish people. With the efforts of politicians, the revolution became successful.
Understand the significance of Yeats was an important step for me to understand Ireland. The person that I imagine as an analogy is Lu Xun (he and a group of intellectuals) during the New Culture Movement of China in the mid-1910s and 1920s. I think both of them tries to encourage the workers and peasants resist to the oppression by reflecting their nationality, and both of them not sure about the what situation will be like or a long-term solution after the revolution. The approach they use is kind of similar but still different. Yeats praise the old lifestyle to distinguish the hard-working and brave Irish people from the English colonist — for example, farming, grazing, mixed with the beautiful ancient mythology. In order to unify both Protestants and Catholics, and stress the unique Irish characteristic, he chose Non-christian, even exotic, imagery intentionally. Because the Irish daily life he described is so dream-like, some people even suspect him beautify the poverty. Lu Xun, on the other hand, criticized the old lifestyle. These intellectuals were really disappointed towards the old collapsed feudalism and wanted to introduce democracy political system to China. Therefore, they against Confucianism — the traditional rule support the feudalism. Yeats advocated for the revival of Gaelic because it is a language that used by the poor people, instead of the privileged class. Lu Xun also advocates for abandon the difficult classic language of the privileged class, encourage the vernacular literature of the poor people. However, for Yeats, English was already popularized during that time; for Lu Xun, it is the vernacular literature already popularized. Besides, Gaelic and English are two languages (maybe can compare to Mandarin and Japanese?), but the written system of Chinese did not change much for thousands of years.
The nationalism in Yeats’ time leaves the Gaelic dilemma. Technically, as a student, if as the market as the target, French or Spanish or German will be a better choice. Besides, Gaelic was a language that used to speak by many nations, and there was no comprehensive, standard system. There are many names hard to translate to Gaelic, also so many new things waiting for a Gaelic name. Although many Chinese students today hate to recite long ancient classic language article as well, the education department doesn’t require us to communicate through that language. Most Chinese intellectuals will only try to write the classic poems to show their talents, and they would like to study the classics. Only a few (I don’t know any) will try to write an article with the classic Chinese — the language already labeled as the symbol of “feudalism.” Furthermore, there is no appealing culture output accompany with Gaelic. Take Korean, the language that takes of Chinese characters away in their writing system not long ago, as an example. Many Chinese students, although without familiar Chinese characters, still love to learn Korean. They are for their loved Korean idol/artists, Korean drama, and Korean pop music. From my point of view, if Gaelic cannot be repackaged, considering English is already enough for Irish people, the situation of the language will be really dangerous.
Yeats and his friends bring the nationality of Irish and avoid talking about religion, however, the strong influence of religion also brings some hidden problem in the education system.
People cannot ignore the efforts that Ireland education department made in order to improve their education and economy. The Republic of Ireland became the member of the Council of Europe in 1949, (long before it joined the EEC in 1973) and there is a project called “Bologna Process” call for the cooperation of education within Europe. Ireland spent a period of time unified its education system — 6 years primary school, 3 years junior high school, an optional transitional year, and 2 years high school, plus 3-4 years undergraduate education — same as most of the education systems in EU. In order to improve students’ practical skill, in the 1970s, the transition year was set up for the students to explore their interests and career, and not to limited within exam-guided classes. At the same time, the government supports the high-tech fields in the higher education, for example, medical, biology, engineering, boost the development of the economy. In 2010, the 47 member states of Council of Europe recognize each others university diploma, and students can seek for job opportunities or graduate school opportunities freely in this area. This policy not only encourages the communication of different education system but also becomes one of the solutions deal with unemployment.
These efforts cannot conceal the strong influence of religion. More than 90% of the primary school is Roman Catholic, and it is hard for the children to study there without the influence of religion. The good schools are always Catholic one, and the parents don’t have a religion will worry their children get isolated if he or she does not participate the pray or any other religious ceremony in the school. The conservative Catholic rules about marriage limited students’ sex education, people did not talk about abortion until recent years. Plus, most new immigrants come from Catholic countries as well, such as Brazil and Poland. The diversity in the Irish classroom is far less than the class in the U.S.
Speaking of the conservative religious atmosphere, I think it’s because Ireland is still an agricultural society. Except for a few cities, people still depend on their lands for the living — farming or grazing. When the lands become their main property, it will be hard for the families to leave their land. therefore, the population in most places is not very mobile. If people do not move around, the structure of the society is relatively stable, which means big change or revolution will be hard. Just as thousands of years ago, the Churches plays an important role in most Ireland communities. I remember for the result of the referendum, there are still about 40% people vote no, and I guess that is the representation of the power of Catholic Church…
The good news is that, although not really fast, Ireland is changing. Even with such strong religious influence, the peace progress with Northern Ireland is going on, and there will be more Non-denominational schools. I also noticed that Ireland also accept a large number of immigrants come from India and China. I believe in the future, Ireland will be more diverse, and there will be more people experience its beauty.
In all, I’m really happy to participate in this trip, almost every piece of information in this informal essay was new to me. I’m really glad I can learn so many stuff within such short time period – only a semester plus two weeks! I’m really appreciate Professor Cozzens and Professor Toliver organized this wonderful experience!