This past week has been rough for my family’s Lenten moderation. Since we were on spring “break” (adulthood imparts more than a little irony to that term), we decided to travel and visit family. This naturally induced us to forget or soften our Lenten resolutions; it is not easy to turn down gifts, food or otherwise. Since this break coincided with Saint Patrick’s Day, I ended up mulling over the specifically Irish element in both my wife and I’s heritage and its impact on our personalities’ specific recalcitrance towards moderation or discipline.
The Irish are an oft-ignored people who, in my estimation, exist in the cultural memory of the West primarily as a counterpart to the English; for every ten drunken Irish workmen there is one middle-class, disciplined, and austere English gentleman. They serve as counter-points to each other’s faults: the Irishman loves life and those that live it with him where the Englishman is cold, detached, and pragmatic; the Englishman is prudent and measured in his habits where the Irishman spends, drinks, speaks, and throws hands precisely when it could do him and his family the most harm. Yet this most obvious take—Irish as immoderate versus English as moderate—favors the characteristically English view and is thus in danger of itself being immoderate. We must be a little more even-handed with the Irish if we wish to understand their specific, contrary ideal to the English. It might be best to nail down exactly where the conflict arises. There are many likely places: the no-man’s land between English Protestantism and Irish Catholicism, the gap in education and societal advancement, or the great distance between the English tendency towards empire and the stubborn Irish love of all that is particular and local. I think the ethical locus of all these oppositions is what my title hints at: that the Irish refuse to extend moderation to moderation itself.
If I am correct that the distinctive Irish trait over and against their world-stage antagonists is their refusal to moderate moderation, then the difficulty the Irish present to us in our time is their untimeliness in this respect: the world is in need of more moderation at the present moment, not less. The right and the left in the US do not need a pissy Irish pugilist throwing his weight around on the national stage over differences of political dogma, for to do so would start the civil war which we all hope to delay by a generation or two. Rather, what both sides seek—or, we should say, their most reasonable proponents seek—is the moderate, calming voice of the Englishman who can convince us that things on which we still agree are reason enough to put off the eventual outpouring of resentment which would blossom into war. The Irishman is precisely the wrong man for this job because he has been bottling his resentment under the threat of English force longer than he can remember. His mind is clouded by it, his fists are clenched to lash out at it, and his guts are twisted by it. It is no wonder he attempts to numb all three with the bottle. Here lies what I believe is the root of Irish refusal to moderate moderation: it is the promise of a salvation that never comes. The utopia promised by the English “Yes, but not yet” has never blessed the Irishman as it has supposedly blessed his English counterpart. A prominent Jewish intellectual once said “The Jews are the living testament to the absence of redemption”; I believe the Irish are living testament to the absence of a genuine Sabbath.
Thus far I have been speaking loosely, so allow me to tighten a few things: I am not saying that the English are wrong for pursuing moderation, nor am I implying that the Irish are somehow better for their drunkenness and irritability. What I am arguing is that the Irish—in a loose, semi-spiritual, Hegelian or Nietzschian sense—are victims of an English putting-off of the reward for moderate behavior. At this time in my life, most of my decisions are made on the presumption of some kind of future reward: I put off the good in front of me for some pleasure down the road. For example, I do not buy myself a beer now so that I may use that money to have a friend over later or perhaps use the same money to help with rent. This is not to say that the good I am foregoing is any less of the good I take it to be: a beer does not cease to be such simply because I choose to forego it for the sake a more necessary good. However the recognition of the more necessary goods—paying rent or dinner with friends—rests in part upon the recognition of the smaller, less necessary good: beer in itself is heightened and broadened when had with others over dinner and the home itself is fulfilled in the act of hospitality. Beer considered in itself is a small good, yet the recognition of it as such broadens the “greater” goods of companionship and the home. What I am characterizing here as English moderation—which I do not mean in any historical sense, as I have no knowledge of English or Irish history save that the former have repeatedly persecuted the latter—is the continual putting-off of the greater good in some kind of grand calculus of future reward. The Englishman says “I will forgo the beer AND the dinner with friends and save for a house.” The miserable Irishman, after a while of being persuaded by this moderation, realizes that he has lost his friends and his taste for beer and now hates his house. With this, he rebels against taking that moderation so far: he wishes to have his beer, if not today, on Saturday night at the very latest. He refuses to take his moderation to the point at which the things for which he chose to be moderate have lost their goodness.
I believe this is the truest thing at the heart of the Immoderate Irish: they are known as drunkards and fools because they refuse to let the coldness of a pragmatic and immoderate moderation deaden the goods at the most primal and immediate root of happiness: love, liquor, land, and the Lord. They are fierce fighters instead of pragmatic politicians; lovers of life instead of simple preservers of it. They may, as a result, actually be drunkards and fools… but you know what, I’m Irish. Now piss off.