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Waiting for Ireland
How Irish writers from Samuel Beckett onward captured the hopes and weaknesses of a nation
(Harvard University Press)
Did Ireland ever really exist the way Irish people thought it did? And can it ever exist that way in the future? These provocative questions are at the heart of After Ireland, a new book by Declan Kiberd. Kiberd, who teaches Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of several other books about his native land, including Irish Classics and Inventing Ireland. His newest volume is a collection of essays about Irish poets, novelists and playwrights. But it’s really a book about how a nation can fall short of its own ideals.

According to Kiberd, Ireland’s artists were always able to see their national weaknesses more clearly than other people, and their works functioned as an “early warning system” of what could go wrong. Edna O’Brien wrote about sexual repression. Seamus Heaney reflected on the demise of ritual. Brian Friel showed how the country was turning into a theme park for tourists. We spoke to Kiberd about whether the Irish idea has lost its way, and how the words of its writers can help steer it back again.

Samuel Beckett said in 1916 that “the birth of a nation might also seal its doom.” Was this more the case for Ireland than, say, the United States after 1776?

Beckett said that he was “not fully born,” and you could say the same about the Irish state—that it was, like other post-colonies, incompletely imagined. Yeats had warned that few movements in politics or art outlast the impulse of their founders. The rich ideas of the nation could never have been completely embodied in the flawed form of an inherited colonial state. Partition prevented that—but so also did economic underdevelopment.

The contrast with the fate of the U.S. after 1776 is striking. One out of every two two people born in the Irish state in the 50 years after independence emigrated. Those who remained often felt like part of an underground movement in an occupied country. The sheer effort expended in dislodging the British left people with little energy to reimagine national institutions. And the civil war that immediately followed created a distrust of social innovators, of those who might make an idea the basis for an action.

Most nation-states that emerged in the 20th century went through even tougher times than Ireland, but we were among the first in that century to walk in darkness down what would become an increasingly familiar road (partition, civil strife, economic meltdown). The U.S. was of course an inspiration to decolonizing movements everywhere, but its timing was luckier. It achieved independence during the heroic phase of the bourgeoisie in the modern world. It became a great manufacturing nation, whereas the postcolonial elites of the 20th century seemed more inclined to equate freedom with the freedom to consume. They produced not so much an imitation of the U.S. as its caricature.

How essential is the Irish language to the idea of Ireland as a nation?

The Irish language is central to the identity of Irish people and those who don’t speak it feel this most strongly of all. If a word is, as Emerson once said, an epitaph on an emotion, you could suggest that, by analogy, a nation-state is an epitaph on a lost ancestral language. As languages die, nation-states tend to replace them. The National Theatre, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Sinn Féin movement, even the Free State itself—these were all secondary forms of nationalism designed to fill the vacuum left in most parts of Ireland by the loss of the native language. And yet Irish has never fully gone. In fact, it reroutes and enriches the very English which we speak. Without it, there would probably have been no James Joyce and no Roddy Doyle.

You write that the generation of Irish people raised during the 1980s had a very strong sense of national identity. Why was this the case?

The generation that emerged in the 1980s was pre-digital. It grew to maturity watching the same programs on national television, reading the same writers. And, of course, the “troubles” in the North compelled it to articulate a viable, nonviolent sense of Irishness such as one finds in the songs of Bono. Even when young people got annoyed by the government or by their teachers, they still turned to Ireland as the ultimate explanation. They blamed economic failure on their own political leaders and not on outside global forces, as a later generation would do.

Why did the 2008 market crash have a particularly dramatic effect on the fortunes of Ireland, compared with other countries?

The crash of 2008 brought home to most people the complete lack of sovereignty. It reminded them in a cruel way that Ireland had really always been a laboratory throughout its history—for ethnic separation, religious apartheid, colonial misrule, cultural revival, national insurrectionism and naked market forces.

After 2008, Ireland became the laboratory for austerity and penance in Europe. Huge debts—9,000 euro for each man, woman and child—were transferred from banks to ordinary Irish people. (The corresponding figure for each German was about 180 euro.) The effect has been dire: About 60,000 young people, many of them bright graduates, emigrated in each succeeding year, rather than pay taxes they had not knowingly incurred. This explains the lack of street protest, such as you found in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Also, as ever in Ireland, families soaked up a lot of the pain in private, with older people giving cash dig-outs to the young who remained.

The celebration of the centenary of the Easter Rising last year was conducted against this rather ambiguous backdrop, with many shop-fronts boarded up in the smaller rural towns and villages. Today, Dublin is recovering but not the countryside, where libraries and police stations have been closed and teachers let go. It’s a familiar parable of our current world: The city swells at the expense of rural, fly-over territory. Maybe the novelist John McGahern was right to say that 1922 was not the year of national independence but the year in which responsibility for managing the long decline of rural Ireland was handed over from one elite to another.

Are the Irish pubs and St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States a means through which the national idea of Ireland can live on? Or does this culture have to be rooted in Irish soil to be meaningful?

The parades and pubs are key markers of identity. The St. Patrick’s Day parades were promoted back in the 19th century by the Gaelic league to illustrate the links between cultural self-belief and business success—that is why they featured industrials goods and agricultural produce. The annual march past Macy’s is part of that tradition. In the early decades of the 20th century, the parade in New York featured Friends of the Freedom of India and other radical movements, as in the later decades they welcomed (not without prior controversy) gay and lesbian participants. The parades have usually been markers of modernity and tolerance.

Likewise, the pubs, which are an open, classless “third space,” much like the beach in Brazil. The irony is that, in the few years of Celtic Tiger affluence, many bars closed down in Ireland because it was cheaper to sell the space for apartment blocks. At the same time the “cozy Irish pub” became a global phenomenon. Perhaps the pub is a good global metaphor and sign of hope. (And there are still lots of lovely pubs in Ireland, in which poetry and music resound.) As so many people everywhere fear a loss of economic autonomy and political power, they may turn to Irish artists for proof that culture may yet prove the site and stake of all our struggles. Once again, the island might function as a laboratory, but on this occasion as a means of exploring culture as the ultimate human value.

I’m a Julia
What Sesame Street’s autistic character means to the father of an autistic child
(Sesame Workshop)
When the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ron Suskind’s son Owen was 3 years old, he stopped talking, sleeping, and eating. When the autism diagnosis arrived, comfort did not; the doctor warned Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, that their son might never speak again.

“My brother doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli and Peter Pan.” This was the first complex sentence that came out of Owen’s mouth after four years of rote commands and apparent gibberish. During that time, he’d been relying on his favorite Disney animated films to comprehend the world around him. His parents realized that his affinity for these films was the key to breaking through to him, and began memorizing lines and scenes from the Disney pantheon in order to interact with Owen. The family’s journey is the subject of Suskind’s 2014 well-reviewed bestseller, Life, Animated, as well as an Academy Award–nominated documentary of the same name.

Now, in addition to his ongoing journalism work, Suskind is dedicated to helping families in similar situations. A company he started, Sidekicks, created an app that facilitates conversations and story-sharing between parents and their autistic children, making it possible for them to find and bond over shared passions and affinities.

One such affinity might be for Sesame Street’s new resident, Julia, who has autism herself. For Smithsonian’s December issue, Suskind profiled her and the team that brought her to life: Sherrie Rollins Westin, who is in charge of Sesame Workshop’s global social impact efforts; Christine Ferraro, who writes for the show; and Leslie Kimmelman, who wrote We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3, the first storybook to feature Julia. (Read Suskind’s profile here.)

At the recent Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards gala, Westin, Ferraro and Kimmelman were honored in the category of Social Progress. They were accompanied onstage by puppets of Julia and her friend Abby Cadabby. The women said they knew they’d made an impact after hearing young children with autism using the character as a way to describe themselves (“I’m a Julia”). In addition to providing a mirror and reference for young autistic children, Julia also helps other young children understand life on the autism spectrum.

As Suskind wrote the story about Julia and those who helped get her on the air, he drew on his family’s experience. “What Sesame Street does was so moving, because it carries forward what we’re trying to do: Help people around the world see, understand, and feel what it means to be on the spectrum," he says. “When I saw the episode with Julia, I was very excited because it”s a much more deftly rendered and appropriately nuanced version of what autism really is—very much a mix of deficits and strengths.”

Anna Diamond

A reader response to Suskind’s article: “I’ve tried not to flap my arms when I’m excited, but through Julia I saw that it was okay.” Click here to read the full letter.

Christmas, Kwanzaa, Feminism and the Queen
Forty years ago this month, the Smithsonian was already concerned with many of the same issues that dominate America today
A photo of 90-year-old Georgia O'Keeffe from the December 1977 Smithsonian Torch newsletter
How did the Smithsonian celebrate Christmas 40 years ago? With antique ornaments, Renaissance singing and a Picasso-inspired puppet show. Children and adults were also invited to take part in events for Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday inaugurated a decade earlier. All of these details are included in the December 1977 edition of The Torch, an internal Smithsonian newsletter. That issue (available for viewing here) offers a fascinating window into not just the institution but the entire nation at that time.

Diversity was a focus throughout the newsletter. One article described how the institution had acquired a work by James Hampton, an African-American janitor who created dazzling sculptures out of found materials like light bulbs, cardboard and aluminum foil. “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” an enormous, awe-inspiring display, is now one of the centerpieces of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. Meanwhile, the institution announced a program to help start an American Indian museum in Wisconsin, a precursor to the National Museum of the American Indian now standing on the National Mall.

Powerful women were also a strong theme. One story, headlined “Steinem Comes to WWICS,” focused on the feminist Gloria Steinem and her new appointment at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Another item described a recent visit from the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who was 90 at the time. Meanwhile, the institution was producing medals celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s first 25 years as monarch. The readers of that 1977 newsletter might have been surprised to look into the future and learn that race and gender would still be major issues in America 40 years later—and that Queen Elizabeth II would still be on England’s throne.

Smithsonian in the World
What are the bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres? Researchers believe they might have once been oceans. “We’re very excited about that,” says Lynnae Quick, a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Read more at Newsweek.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is currently displaying cards and packages sent to soldiers during World War I and World War II. The contents of these packages give rare, intimate glimpses into the personal lives of young men serving overseas. Read more at Federal News Radio.

An exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York is currently showing that increasing access for disabled people can be a work of art. The show includes shirts with magnetic closures, versatile canes and customized prosthetic leg covers, among many other functional and fashionable items. Read more at Forbes.
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