The Essence of Ireland


My very first job as a social researcher, back in 1979, involved finding about about people’s  ‘sense of Ireland.’  A bit like a first kiss, it seems like one’s first job stays very much in the memory and how Ireland is perceived, both by insiders and outsiders, is something that has stayed with me.

My latest foray into this fascinating subject was to pose a question/request  to the  4,827 members of the Irish American Business Network on Linkedin: Could you please express the essence of Ireland in one WORD That was a month ago now and there have been 170 contributions to the discussion.  A few people wondered if I was ‘for real’ expecting Irish people, with the ‘gift of the gab’ to respond in a solitary word and, at one stage a contributor quipped that it was  ‘like a game of scrabble.’  It’s been one of those fun, yet serious, experiences. Apart from the words, at all, I’ve ‘met’  lots of  interesting people, just like I did when I stood in the Liberties and in Grafton Street in Dublin, with my tape recorder in my sweaty palm in 1979!

Looking through the list of  contributions, I can’t but think of the opening line from poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon: ‘Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!  It seems that a considerable amount of thought went into identifying that single word which would describe ‘the essence of Ireland,‘ and each is obviously imbued with particular meaning for the contributor. I can honestly say that every single word made me stop and think and all resonated with me at some level.

It is almost impossible to sort the words into neat categories. One obvious dimension was words which had positive as opposed to negative connotations and it should be stressed that the positive totally outweighed the negative.  Heaven, idyllic, mystical and brilliant were probably the words which were most obviously ‘postive’  while screwed, broke, heartache and stolen were at the opposite end of the sprectrum.  One contributor summed up this sense of the positive -negative dimemsion by identifying the following words as ones which dominate our newspapers on a daily basis: fallen, confused, debt-ridden, disappointed, disillusioned, survivors, hopeful, character, tomorrow. 

Home was the word that was presented most often and  interesting variations on this were sod, tea/tay and homey.  Much reference was also made to the natural beauty of Ireland with words including: green, picturesque, breathtaking and the much-liked verdant.

The fun side of Ireland was highlighted too, with words like craic, merry, guinness, creamy, slainte and stout pouring forth.

The were some very forceful words relating to the determined spirit as perceived in Ireland: dogged, tenacity, resilient, perseverance, enduring, stalwart …..

The cultural heritage of the country was also highlighted through words like: musical, eloquent, poetic, inspirational, rich, genuine and authentic.

Another dominant theme related to the inviting and friendly nature of Ireland with words like open, welcoming,  failte, warm, affable, spontaneous, genuine, interactive, and hospitality being mentioned over and over.

Yet another thread related to what might be described as Ireland’s vigour. The word which dominated here was vibrant with life, bouyant, verve, hope and optimism being mentioned as well.

The word ‘magical’  was used to describe the essence of Ireland on a number of occasions and I think it is useful to include the rationale which one contributor gave:

This may sound like a strange word, but one word to describe Ireland is ‘Magical.’ It is a place that exists in the heart and the mind; it calls to us as we sleep; it inspires us to become a part of the timeless enchantment that envelopes what we know of that land. Maybe this is pure fantasy, but any place that can cleanse the spirit and cause the heart to beat faster with devotion, must be termed “magical.”

While it is not clear if it was being used to counter what may have been seen as a degree of over-romanticisation in the use of the word ‘magical,’ other contributors put forward the word real as their essence word and yet another, offered tangible.

Other notable words were those which seemed to touch on religiosity or transcendence, in a broad sense: soulful and grace.

Two addtional Irish words to those already mentioned were put forward and one contributor said that he felt that ‘ the best word to describe Ireland and the Irish is , appropriately enough, a word in the Irish language.’  For him that word was duchas – ‘which to me means heritage, personality, nature,  attitude, family, ancestry, memories, gene pool.‘ 

The second Irish word was fiontar – ‘meaning enterprise, endeavour or venture.’

In view of the depth of the question and the arguably, infinite number of layers, dimensions, perceptions, experiences and interpretations, it was by no means surprising that some of the essence words reflected this complexity. Notable among these were: elusive, paradoxical, ethereal and reflection.

My hope is that this search for a word to describe ‘the essence of Ireland’ will generate further thought, discussion and debate about this intriguing country of ours.  ‘Romantic Ireland’ may be dead and gone, as Yeats wrote many decades ago.  However,  I have to say that my research about Ireland, both in 1979 and now at the end of 2011, reveals a level of passion which is supremely uplifting and would seem to have the creative energy to ensure that the fire in our collective hearts and minds will continue to sparkle and light up the future of Ireland and her people.