The Immoderate Irish

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.

6 thoughts on “The Immoderate Irish

  1. The Michael Bolin in me hesitates to join a discussion wielding such vague and unspecified terms, but here we go: I actually agree with your point about the lack of moderation in moderation. There might be one more element you’ve missed: that in a perpetually and culturally oppressed society (Ireland), where one has no real cultural hope of climbing a social ladder or becoming an elite, there’s no need to stand on propriety or social correctness. “I am who I am, and I want to get drunk,” an Irishman might say. Perhaps it’s that same quality that gives us our instinctive like of the Irishman: he might fight you, but he’s not going to butter you up and use you for his own benefit.

    PS: that’s a nice whiskey collection you have there; though I must admit partiality towards the Bulleit.

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  2. Now, you’ve got me all fired up and ready to attack the English, too!

    I’ve often thought about this distinction between the Catholic cultures in America as opposed to the Puritan/Protestant cultures. The Cajuns and Irish have a lot in common as both having the history of being persecuted by English Protestants and both being immoderate about moderation. We Cajuns also have a reputation for drunkenness (i.e., Mardi Gras).

    To put this excessive love of life in a more positive light, though, because I am proudly Cajun by blood and Irish by marriage, I think there’s an understanding of leisure and living life to the full that Puritanical Englishman have denied in their attempt to preserve their image of the city on a hill, their heaven on earth. The Protestant work ethic denies a place for leisure, for rest, for the restoration that is supposed to take place on the Sunday. They have taken moderation to an immoderate level by not allowing a space for the overflow of love, thanksgiving and praise for the goods God has given us. Cajuns and Irish are a testament against this. They know that Christ came so that they might have life and might have it to the full! Their foolishness is a wisdom against the foolishness of the Englishman who does not look to God for salvation but rather adheres to the religion of humanity and lives in the miserable illusion that his own efforts will win him salvation.

    So, let us give thanks to the Lord for the goods He has given us! For, He “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies (i.e., the Puritanical English); [He] anoints my head with oil, my cup overflows (🍺). Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalm 23:5-6). So let us follow His command: “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat” (George Herbert, Love III).

    After all, if we don’t remember this, what’s the point of Lenten fasting anyway? We’re preparing for and looking forward to Easter, where all shall feast royally upon the fatted calf and share in the riches of his goodness! (See John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon). Let’s live according to the rules of Lent, but let’s not forget that the end is Easter and we are meant to enjoy life!

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    • I just got out of Sunday Mass, where there were at least a dozen babies plus some toddlers and other children. It occurred to me that another way that the Irish and Cajuns are accused of immoderation is under the aspect of reproduction. How appropriate that the Gospel today was about the curse of the barren fig tree. God commanded us to bear fruit. What are children but the tangible fruit of love in marriage? The Irish/Cajun immoderation with regard to children is yet another testament to the Catholic mindset of receiving the riches of God’s gifts and living life to the full as opposed to the Puritan/English mindset of having to plan and be “ready” for each child. Anyway, this would be interesting to flesh out. Maybe someone could write more on this Puritanical Americanism in relation to the contraceptive mindset and the religion of humanity, etc.?

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  3. This reminds me of Glenn’s latest newsletter, titled “free time” (unfortunately, it has not yet been published online, so I can’t link to it. But it should be up by next week). In it, he discusses how the sabbath is an antidote to what you call “immoderate moderation.” He ends the piece by observing “It is difficult to stop working, but there is also a time (once a week, in fact) when work can actually become—well, a sin. It’s revealing that God Himself must tell us to stop working and something of a paradox that we must be commanded to be free.”

    I think this mirrors the wisdom of your abstract “irishmen.” Their lifestyle recognizes that we are made for more than labor and that austere work, although necessary, is a means to an end.

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    • It does make me wonder if the American promise of “the harder you work, the more wealth you can accrue” is actually too much for us to handle. Could it be that this freedom, wonderful as it is, can also become a terrible burden? (I’d obviously rather have the freedom and exercise it with prudence than not have it, obviously).

      The “Irish,” as long as we’re being inexact and metaphorical, didn’t have the opportunity to rise through the ranks; thus, we might infer that they might have had greater freedom to leave a job and go rest. We actually need to impose leisure upon ourselves. Hmm.

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