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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

How to be a tourist in Ireland

An interview with David Slattery

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Irish author David Slattery talks with Erin Taylor about his attraction to Irish culture and his advice for intrepid tourists to the green isles.

ET: In your books How to be Irish and Poet, Madman, Scoundrel, you use humour and anthropology to explain Irish culture. Why do they work so well together? Is it because they're both based on taking advantage of cultural differences?

DS: I don’t know if my humour springs from taking advantage of cultural differences because I'm not sure what that means. Anyway, it is far too abstract an explanation for me because I'm shallow.

I like laughing so that's what attracts me to anthropology. I particularly like to repeat the same joke over and over, so maybe that what attracts me to Irish history and culture in particular. 

Historically, anthropology has posed as a very serious discipline by which I mean it has been po-faced rather than having the potential to wipe out world hunger. I thought this was peculiar having grown up in a culture that was often very funny, especially when it was trying not to be.

For many anthropologists the most banal cultural analysis was often elevated into an almost devout observation. The (always foreign) anthropologist would always pronounce on us–especially those of us in the West of Ireland who have been relentlessly picked on by social science–and we would nod and rub our chins knowingly. (It is always an anthropological challenge when the natives can read the books on themselves.) 

I am reminded in this context of Freud's very unfunny studies of humour. Given that a significant part of culture is not sincere–perhaps even hypocritical–I suppose our utterances on it have to make up for that by being even more sincere than what is studied.

If I had the interest, which I don't, I would write a humorous book on the current portentious anthropological jargon that tries to pass for science. I have a love-hate relationship to words like "reimagining," which is what anthropologists tend do these days. Imaginging is something we used to do all the time before anthropology–well I did–so I don’t know how reimagining works.

We bullshit everyday so rebullshitting might be something new: no wait, we definitely do that here in the pubs. Could I be onto a contemporary ethnographic trend?

Now add to this the nationalist and patriotic treatments of our Irish history, which are the opposite of humorous, and you get my inspiration for Poet, Madman Scoundrel. I said to myself, how come people like me–you know incompetent idiots–never feature in our approved history? There must be something wrong here. Could the past have been so different from what I see around me now? How was it our dead politicians were so charismatic, insightful, visionary, or even sober? 

I got a trashing in school for making fun of one of our most pious, abstemious, and right-wing patriots. I suppose that is why I support corporal punishment because I realise it helped me crystallise my attitude. Besides, humour is a very satisfactory way to make a very serious point.

ET: You've said that everybody likes the Irish, but they don't like themselves much. Why is that?

DS: Well, Freud (him again) apparently said we have a neurosis but psychoanalysis would do us no good whatsoever. Maybe we should be grateful for that. Whether he said it or not, he should have because I would agree. I think it has much to do with our collective national consciousness and memory.

Off the top of my head, we never won a war despite millennia of fighting, we never stood united behind any one cause, we never had a Renaissance, a Reformation, an industrial revolution, or even hosted the Olympics. We did have the famine and–naturally we blame the Brits for everything–we have our colonial legacy to deal with.

Ex-colonials like us find it difficult to get the balance right between confidently asserting ourselves and thwarted pride. You see this in restaurants when we would like to complain: we either say nothing or bite the waiter on the neck. (It's great we have someone to blame when things go wrong.) 

We love helping our visitors but we don't help each other. Is that a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome? We are desperate for the other to think well of us but we don’t concern ourselves overly with what we think of each other.

We like the idea of our neighbours more than the real ones who turn up at the door looking to borrow a cup of sugar and the car. I tried to show this in my treatment of the Irish family. The idea of family is one of the most important things here, with the stress on idea. 

ET: I hear that your books have been especially popular in Germany. In the beginning of How to be Irish you mention that the Irish have their own version of schadenfreude. Does that help the Germans feel an affinity with the Irish or is something else going on?

It may not be related to schadenfreude because our version is very specific: it manifests itself at funerals. It is that feeling of satisfaction that it isn't you being buried.

The great Heinrich Boll started it all in the 1950s when, thank God, he discovered Ireland because before that we were rattling around in the same sort of geographical vacuum the American natives found themselves in before Columbus turned up. Someone should definitely write an anthropology PhD on that space.

What Boll discovered here–okay I will say it–reimagined–was an idealised antidote to post-war Germany. When we worked out what he wanted (don't be fooled by our bovine stares–we are very smart) we presented that to him because we like to be liked (see how all this is coming together). His Ireland was free of heavy industry, it was anarchic, we hardly had a watch between us, indeed we had no word for punctuality, we had red hair and freckles, and we drank too much. All in all, German heaven.

Our two nations are symbiotically related. We are perfectly complementary stereotypes. Germans flocked here because we were free of a work ethic but they quickly became frustrated that nothing worked. While our fields were green our farmers weren't. Okay, we probably enjoyed that irony more than they did.

German immigrants have tried to change us and we have tried to wear them down even if, secretly, we aspire to be more like them, you know, better organised. At the moment it is a draw. I suspect it will go to penalties.

We don't have a culture so much as a meta-culture, which is produced for the consumption of the other rather than the self. The American and German versions of ourselves are the two most dominant tropes. It works so long as they don't all meet up in the one place.

Which probably makes you wonder what we do with ourselves when the lights have been switched off and the crowds have gone home. Fortunately, tourism is a year-round business so we are always on and don't have to face up to that collective existential crisis.

Malinowski came up with the now outmoded notion that if you want to understand native behaviour, live with the natives. Tourists, of course, don't want to understand the natives. They want to experience them through a photo opp.

We have long understood in Ireland, being dramatically literate to a peculiar extent, that the whole country is the National Stage and we are but players for the outsider. We know how to strike a pose. Indeed we invented the craic, which is what our tourists believe they are missing out on by not being here. Especially Germans.

ET: Do you ever get tired of writing about your own culture? What other cultures fascinate you and what books can we expect from you next?

DS: Tired? I get exhausted. So I have written three and a half books since Poet, Madman, Scoundrel. I wanted to do something in fiction, or at least stop pretending I wasn’t writing fiction. 

I am regularly overwhelmed by my contempt for education so I thought I would do a parody of academic culture. We constantly exaggerate the dangers of ignorance.

Anyway, I got thinking–what is the easiest job in the world to get away with doing without having a clue? Medicine has been done so I picked Moral Philosophy (I could as easily have said anthropology but fewer potential readers know what that is).

In my (forthcoming) book Exitus, our hero is thrown into the necessity of passing himself off as a moral philosopher–it can happen–and many people die along the way in his efforts to maintain his moral authority. Exitus should be out soon with btb, which is a German imprint of Random House proving that at least I am loved.

I have just finished a sequel, Tortus, where we catch up with our hero who is locked up in a lunatic asylum for reading Nietzsche in earnest. The drama continues with him being pursued on his unwitting escape by a psychotherapist who tends to strangle his clients if they bore him. I wanted to make jokes about mindfulness. I know, I'm shallow.

Back to anthropology, Malinowski’s Diaries were the most disappointing read for me–ever–because I was promised unbelievable scandal. What did I get? Perhaps he wasn't as sincere as he could have been. Oh dear.

Also, I couldn't buy into the idea that a European could just fit into the jungle because I can't. Where were the terror, the bugs, the fevers, the hysteria that goes with cultural immersion?

So I wrote Diary Of A Reluctant Anthropologist, which is my reimagining Malinowski’s diaries. My Malinowski (name changed of course) is a drug addict who is motivated by escaping the trenches of the First World War but who ironically finds himself fighting his own war in New Guinea.

Also, my grandfather fought on the Somme when he was 15 so I wanted to honour his bravery. I am definitely interested in the culture of the First World War. It really did change everything.

The half book is a secret. And, yes, it is definitely what I consider to be anthropological. 

ET: It's been six years since How to be Irish was published. Is there any fresh advice you would give to tourists planning a trip to Ireland?

DS: I refused to include religion, economics, and politics, apart from micro-politics which doesn't really count, in my book. Therefore, it shouldn't age quickly. However, I did write about how to be cool in Dublin and naturally that has changed. So any tourist coming here after reading it should be warned they aren't cool anymore. 

Malinowski came up with the now outmoded notion that if you want to understand native behaviour live with the natives. Tourists, of course, don't want to understand the natives. They want to experience them through a photo opp.

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An idyllic Irish landscape for a tourist. Image by Panimo via Pixabay, CCO public domain.
An idyllic Irish landscape for a tourist. Image by Panimo via Pixabay, CCO public domain.