The subtitle of this book is “Why We Irish Are Awesome” and it’s fair to say that Ulysses Press is equally awesome for producing Rasher Tierney’s unique book.
This little volume is equal parts history, folklore, ethnic studies, pure sass, dour wit, and socio-cultural drama. All mixed together. It’s not a dry and dusty academic tome; not a text written with an eye on narrative control via chronological order.
Instead, author Rashers Tierney (a self-described “itinerant lecturer and anthropologist of note, presenting seminars across North America on all things Irish”) has created a potpourri that is as instructive as it is entertaining. This is the type of little book that makes a perfect gift, because it works on multiple levels.
From the title itself (which actually features the image of a shamrock in place of the “u” in You Know What), all the way through the book’s 14 short chapters, the author walks a fine line between serious and educational information aligned with saucy humor, a great deal of irreverence, and a sweeping assessment of Irish culture.
It’s a tricky balance. From the get-go, Rashers Tierney strikes notes that in almost any other context might sound too over the top. Too in-your-face enthusiastic. Yet, he does so with such verve and goodwill (not to mention backing up all of his claims with abundant and easily recognizable examples and details) that it all meshes well.
Right off the bat, on page one, his balancing act of tone and mood is achieved:
“From our fightin’ nature and inherent good luck to out potato eating and St. Patrick’s Day parading, the clichés regarding us Irish are famous. But our true awesomeness stems not from a few lame stereotypes; rather it can be found in the countless accomplishments for which we’re not given proper credit. That is – until now! Serving up the truth like a perfect pint of Guinness, here are the fun and informative facts about the best feckin’ people in the world – the Irish. Astonishing historical accounts. Profiles of Irish heroes. Stories of struggles and success. Language. Music. Culture. We’ve got them all.”
And that’s the admixture of high and low that gives this book its charm and its exceedingly useful content. From the chapters titled “How the Irish Made America” or “Irish Pop Culture and Its Worldwide Impact” to the chapters called “A Way with Words Like You Wouldn’t Believe” and “More Magic and Mystery Than You Could Shake a Stick At,” the reader receives a staggering array of insights and reminders.
Random examples abound. Like this one:
“It’s often said that ‘the Irish built America.’ The truth is, not only did they build it, they also manufactured, repaired, and cleaned it, especially in the decades before and after the potato famine. As they were largely poor, unconnected, uneducated, and discriminated against, many unskilled Irish women and men found the strongest opportunities in industrial work, domestic service, and blue-collar public works positions. From 1850 onward, more and more immigrants got a head start in America in the form of welcoming relatives who provided moral support, a financial safety net, and whatever connections they might have had. Irish immigrants quickly found employment (mostly blue-collar) in the police and fire departments and other public institutions of larger cities, due in some part to the influence of Irish political machines in the urban areas of the Northeast.”
Or this one:
“By the time that [potato] famine reached its height in 1847 (“Black ‘47” as people called it), public relief was being distributed, but only in return for 12-hour days of intensive physical labor. This further weakened many already racked by hunger and disease. That winter was an exceptionally bitter one, and the workers had to toil in rags – adding insult to their shivering injury.”
However, the dolorous historical information is countered by plenty of uplifting reminders about the great writers (Yeats, James Joyce, and others) as well as the more recent cultural trailblazers whose Irish identity (Bono or Colin Farrell, for example) is unmistakable. Appropriate ridicule is heaped on what the author dubs “Hollywood: The Saintly Irish Version,” and lucid explanations are offered about “Bards,” “Changelings,” “Harps and Heraldry,” and “Ceilis” of course.
There are also succinct explications in relation to the “Bodhran” (the “handheld drum with a tongue-twisting name . . . traditionally made of goatskin”) and “Eejits” (aka: “a clueless but basically harmless fool”), plus “Feck – the Friendly F-Bomb.”
The timing of this book’s release proves to be perfect. Ireland, once controlled by the draconian power of the Catholic Church in all aspects of daily life, has recently delivered the most remarkable “Feck you” to the Vatican’s patriarchal Pooh-Bahs, becoming the first nation ever to legalize same-sex marriages. This rebuke to the “Eejits” in the Vatican is a timely reminder of the Irish habit of making huge waves.
Rashers Tierney’s book is a trove of critical information and varied cultural gems.
(M. J. Moore is at work on a new novel called “For Paris – with Love & Squalor”).
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