The Irish as Playful Souls

Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist Father Andrew Greeley.

By Andrew Greeley, Contributor
October / November 2000

The old St. Patrick’s Day quip about there being two kinds of people – those who are Irish and those who wish they were – turns out to be not so far from wrong.

The research my colleague Michael Hout has carried out shows that there are a lot more Americans claiming to be Irish than one might expect from immigration records, because the children of ethnically mixed marriages tend to identify with their Irish ancestors. Perhaps this identification is helped by the fact that the Irish are playful. Their incredible skill with words in poetry, drama, and fiction is the result of the play that infects their culture at every level. They play with their kids. They play in their conversations. They play in their pub chatter. They even invent new sports on which to gamble. They see politics as a form of play.

There are of course some Irish and Irish Americans who are dull and somber and nasty and mean, God forgive them for it. The broad culture, however, exalts play, legitimizes it, and reinforces the mystical dimension of the Irish heritage, allowing us to understand what John O’Donoghue (author of Anam Cara) means when he says that the body doesn’t have a soul, the soul has a body.

By “soul” he means the human person reaching out to embrace others, the world, and God. My own research suggests that while many of us (in both countries) repress our mystical possibilities, they still lurk within us. Perhaps this is why the revival of Celtic spirituality is so popular in both countries.

Our Irish heritage also permits us to remain Catholic despite the nitwits who so often run our church. We can laugh when we contemplate that, for all their pomposity and ignorance, they are still the successors of the Apostles and that the latter were a pretty disreputable and undependable lot of traitors and cowards and thieves.

Being Irish also provides justification for being recklessly generous. Just as the monks went off to Europe in huge numbers and converted much of it, and in more recent generations Irish priests and nuns went to every nation under Heaven (including this one), so too do Irish and Irish-American young men and women show up in all the places of the world where bravery and energy and compassion are needed to take care of the suffering brothers and sisters.

None of these characteristics I celebrate are qualities of which to be proud. They are rather obligations, challenges, and opportunities. We do not use them as standards by which to compare ourselves with others, but rather as criteria against which to judge ourselves in comparison with the norms of our heritage. To be playful, mystical, Catholic, and generous are provocations and indeed vocations.

How are we doing? It is a question which always troubles us, especially when we consider that there are still those in our society who think we are corrupt, superstitious, rigid, puritanical.

There’s no way to really answer that question. Only God knows, and She hasn’t issued any reports lately. Not as well, certainly, as we might. Better, perhaps, than we sometimes think. Still impelled and compelled by the place and the people and the heritage from which we come? I think so. Moreover, I think we will be that way – that is, we will be Irish – for a long time to come. ♦

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