Thursday, July 2, 2009

Suffering wuz here

After a lull in the conversation in the graveyard at Ballintubber Abbey, the old Irishman who had become my self-appointed tour guide turned the conversation to me. “So, are you just from the United States, or is your family from somewhere else?”

“Well, on my mom’s side I’m Polish and Czech,” I answered.

The man’s eyes sparked, as if the stranger he had been introducing to his homeland had suddenly turned out to be a long-lost cousin. “Ah, so your people have suffered too!” he exclaimed.

I realized two things in that moment. Number one, I realized that each of the legends he had spent the past half-hour introducing to me from the various nooks and corners of the churchyard was laced with suffering—the suffering of Patrick, the suffering of the medieval priest for whom the Abbey was founded, the suffering of the church during the violent persecutions of Cromwell, the suffering of generations of parishioners who attended mass in the crumbling church on the dirt floor, the suffering of the poor community that had been volunteering on nights and weekends for decades to restore the building.

Number two, I realized that I had not noticed number one when he was telling me the stories.

There are cultures who wear suffering like a badge, and others who wear it like a crutch (my ancestors wore it like a cattle-prod). The Irish, on the other hand, seem to wear it like a t-shirt. It is unmistakably present, but so comfortable and expected that it may be unnoticed. They are a happy people for it; as the frantic economic crisis hits the rest of the world, the Irish who have always known poverty are taking their blows and plodding forward in their lovely indifference. They can’t afford much, but at least they can afford a beer at the end of the day; if you’d care to join, they might even offer to buy the first round.

A friend back home who exhorted me to receive some of “the Irish spirit” while I was away this summer had voiced their position on suffering this way: “Well, we did the best we could, which was clearly not good enough. Oh well. Let’s go get a beer.”


TwoSquareMeals said...

Sounds sort of like their half-cousins, the Scot-Irish of Appalachia :)

Em the luddite said...

I've been thinking that. But I imagine those cousins have a touch of the Polishness to them... at least enough to make them leave before starving to death like the ones who stayed behind.

Em the luddite said...

And of course, some of those cousins became Protestant teetotalers... very different from their Irish roots!