Today on 746 Books I have an interview with Clare O’Dea, author of the book The Naked Irish.
The Naked Irish is a smart and entertaining anaysis of what it means to be Irish in the 21st century. Clare takes some of the commin clichés and assumptions about what it means to be Irish and explores their origins and how many of them are just no longer true for a changing, modern society.
Do the Irish really have a drink problem? Are we really a big gang of friendly, poetic, God-fearing emigrants who love their mammies? Clare’s clear-eyed, thoroughly researched but highly readable response to these clichés makes for a great introduciton to what it actually means to be Irish today.
I was delighted to chat to Clare about her book.
How did the idea come about to write The Naked Irish?
There has always been a tendency by other “more serious” nations take a benign but patronising view of the Irish as loveable rogues. While Irish people are mostly happy to go along with being perceived as special, it is always a mistake to believe your own hype.
In recent years, it seemed to me that this national caricature, the modern incarnation of the stage Irishman, had taken on too much importance within Irish culture. And it wasn’t being questioned enough. It didn’t seem healthy that the old clichés of Irishness were getting more ingrained at a time when the country was changing profoundly. The idea for the book came from a desire to challenge that reaction and face up to the truth about ourselves.
You live in Switzerland now and have done for a while. Do you think you needed a necessary distance between yourself and Ireland in order to write the book?
Well, I don’t think I would have felt the need to write about Ireland in the same all-encompassing way if I hadn’t been deprived of the country for so long. But the distance has been very useful. Life is blurry, like an impressionist painting, and it’s only when you look back across time or distance that you can see shapes and patterns more clearly.
Living in another country, you also unlearn what the norm is. Things I used to take for granted, like ways of communicating or the expectations we have from other people and society, were thrown into relief. It was only after living in Switzerland that I saw what an unequal society Ireland is and the apathy people show towards that fact.
The book manages a great balance between a conversational style and a fact-based study. How important was research for you – both factual research and interviews with Irish people?
From early on, I felt the book would stand or fall on the research. Every claim I made had to be backed up, even more so because I didn’t live there anymore, though I did return for a three-month stay to boost the research. Wherever possible I drew on the experience and voices of others, attributed of course.
I’m not an expert in any of the ten subjects covered in the book, so it was very much a journalistic endeavour to gather the facts and explain in a fair and accurate way. I was surprised by how much history needed to be included. Context really is everything.
What I most liked about the book was not just your debunking of these myths, but your acceptance that, to some extent, there is often a kernel of truth at their heart. Was it important to you to be open-minded and present this often paradoxical aspect of Irish culture?
There is definitely a kernel of truth in each of the stereotypes and, yes, it was important for me to acknowledge that. In most situations, I can’t help seeing both sides of an argument, even when the sides are ideologically opposed.
I also wanted to show that cloaking ourselves in stereotypes can be harmful to ourselves or others by making us smug and lazy. It’s easy to dismiss the real problem of racism in Irish society, for example, if you cling to the notion that the Irish are friendly, full stop.
Given the vast amount of emigration in Ireland to countries all over the world, do you think that some of the myths about the Irish have taken hold out of sheer nostalgia for a ‘home country’ that is being viewed with rose-tinted, or in this case, green-tinted glasses?
For me it’s all about the English language. Because we mainly emigrated to English-speaking countries, we have been feeding each other a diet of nostalgia back and forth for generations. Irish emigrants even made the society they left behind nostalgic for a lost notion of itself. Compare that for example to the influence of German Americans and Germans on each other. It’s insignificant because they quickly lost a shared language.
But it’s not only that we emigrated to English-speaking countries. It’s the fact that those countries, first the UK and its colonies and then the US, literally dominated the world. The limited, packaged version of Irish identity created by those cultural giants is still our starting point.
You discuss the Irish Slave Meme in your book, a myth that has received great traction on Twitter. Do you think social media allows these kinds of clichés to perpetuate by presenting myths as facts with little context?
Yes, unfortunately, it’s like the proverbial bag of feathers released from the mountaintop. Memes that people can get excited about, either positively or negatively, spread much farther than any attempt to set the record straight. I think the Slaves meme, which was even bigger on Facebook, tapped into a pretty nasty mix of phony victim complex and racism. Some Irish people are very quick to exploit our history of victimhood. It’s not a good look.
Ireland seems to be a country in flux and recent years have seen big changes in the country, from the Celtic Tiger to the subsequent crash and the changes in the law brought about by the Repeal the 8th and Gay Marriage referendum. Do you see a changing Ireland moving in to a more progressive future?
Ireland is a better place now, there is no doubt about that. Prosperity is one part of it but, to be fair, the momentum for social change goes back further than the Celtic Tiger. It began in the 1970s and amazing work was done for social progress then, even if some of the rewards were slow coming.
As for the future, we are on the right track in terms of rights, we just have to be prepared to take on more responsibilities. There is a lot more to do to protect vulnerable people. And that will mean not just demanding better public services but also being willing to pay for them. President Higgins has been trying to lead a conversation about achieving a more ethical society but people don’t seem to be listening or engaging with any of that hard work. They prefer to make tea cosies and teddies of him.
You have a background in journalism, theatre and broadcasting and also write fiction. Is there a medium in which you feel most comfortable, or are you happier to work in lots of different styles and formats of writing?
As a freelance writer with a degree in languages, I do whatever work comes along, from translation to corporate writing to journalism. Projects, like The Naked Irish, that I actually choose for my own creative satisfaction, take place on the fringes of that. But I’ve really enjoyed my role as an author since 2016, giving talks and interviews and taking part in festivals on a small scale. In an ideal world, I would devote myself to writing book-length fiction or creative non-fiction and turn out a book a year.
Can you tell us a bit about what your future writing plans are?
I’m interested in writing a non-fiction book with a universal theme and I have two main ideas, one related to death and one to raising girls. There are so many fantastic titles out there so no shortage of inspiration. On the fiction side, I have started working on a novel set in Switzerland on the day of the 1959 vote on women’s suffrage, the time the men said no (they finally said yes in 1971). It tells the story of four very different women trying to make their way in a profoundly unequal society. I’m in the honeymoon stage with that book, before rewriting and submitting. Long may it last!
My thanks to Clare for this great interview! I have one copy of The Naked Irish to giveaway for Non-Fiction Week, just comment below to be entered and Stella and I will draw a winner on Sunday!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!