Writer, who do you think you are?

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Clare O'Dea

You’ve probably heard the line attributed to Freud about the Irish being the only race impervious to psychoanalysis. It’s fun to think he might have said it but the origin of the quotation has never been established.

So there is nothing to stop my attempt at analysing the national character in my new book, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés.

A lot of clichés have crystallised about the Irish, many benign and patronising but some more negative. All of them cry out to be challenged. As always, the real story is much more complex and more interesting than the simplified messages fed to tourists and investors.

Are the Irish a nation of emigrants if we have the second highest foreign-born population in Europe? Are we Catholic if attendance at Mass is as low as two percent in some parishes? Do we really hate the English and want a united Ireland? Is the oppression of women in our DNA? Are the Irish really friendly or just faking it? And should we be proud of the Irish economy?

Every generation thinks they are the generation of change. And it’s true. I feel the particular change I’ve witnessed in my lifetime has been a process of freeing Irish minds. But, while we enjoy our new-found freedom, it is so important not to forget where we have come from.

I find the Irish story endlessly fascinating. The Naked Irish is a broad canvas, drawing on culture, history, politics and economics, as well as personal reportage and memoir, to interpret that change.

If you’re in a bookshop, check out the index. It’s all there, from the Penal Laws to the Magdalene Laundries to the Troika.

The Irish do not have the burden of thinking of themselves as a ‘great nation’ which means we have never had trouble acknowledging our faults. Until very recently, there was a fog of violence and dysfunction hanging over the state. This did not clear naturally but through great pains taken by brave individuals. Another thing we should remember.

The book introduces diverse voices, from the young priest to the African immigrant to the veteran campaigner for women’s rights. Take tea in Belfast with ordinary unionists, visit Transition Year in Ballyjamesduff, read a poem about identity by a second-generation Irishman in Britain.

But why should anyone care what I have to say about Ireland?

When I was starting out in journalism in the late 1990s, I worked in RTE for three years on a casual basis. I was a researcher for Nationwide and I did overnight shifts as a newsreader for Radio 1 and 2FM. When I finally realised that I had no chance of getting a contract, I decided to leave Ireland and go to Russia. It was time to put my degree in languages to good use.

This was my bid to be taken seriously as a journalist and I had to go to a prison camp in Siberia to get my first story in print. But before I left RTE, I sent an email around the newsroom with my contact details saying I would be in Moscow for a few months if anyone needed reports from me.

I later heard that one senior journalist reacted to the email by saying to the people around them: who does she think she is? At that time, I was full of insecurity but I wanted more than anything to be a reporter. I ended up contributing reports about Yeltsin to the News at One, World Report and other programmes.

To expand on my answer: I am an Irish journalist and author with more than twenty years’ experience working in the media in Ireland and Switzerland, with a stint in Russia. I was a staff journalist at the Irish Times and spent 10 years at the international news service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in Bern. The Naked Irish is my second book.

When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. A lot of what I feel about the country is influenced by the fact that I emigrated. On the one hand, absence has had its usual effect; on the other hand, the distance I have from Ireland gives me a certain clarity.

With each person who emigrates, there is a loss. You never know what the contribution of that person might have been, not just taxes and practical support for family members, but all their skill, energy and passion is removed from the national balance sheet.

In a way, my motivation to write the book is to cover all those stories that I missed out on. I have already written a non-fiction book about Switzerland, which was a response to my getting Swiss citizenship and wanting to put together a fair account of the Swiss. In a way I was claiming a piece of Switzerland for myself and that meant understanding it fully.

So there’s a symmetry and a logic to me turning to Ireland as a subject. I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland. And I wanted to challenge the narrative about classic Irish characteristics, many of which seemed to be imposed from the outside and not sufficiently questioned.

We are at such an interesting point in our history, coming up to a century of independence. I hope this book will be part of a healthy process of self-analysis and contribute to the conversation about whither Ireland.

(c) Clare O’Dea

The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés is published by Red Stag and out on 24th September – pick up your copy here!

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