Another St. Patrick’s Day has rolled around and many parts of the world celebrate Irish culture and heritage by painting things green. While this can actually be nicer than a curmudgeon like me might admit, I’d like to suggest some alternatives that reflect the Ireland of the 21st century. All are lockdown friendly and better for your health (physical and mental) than drinking shite green beer.
1. Watch the Tommy Tiernan Show
If you want to get a sense of Ireland in 2021, watch the Tommy Tiernan Show. There’s nothing earth shattering here – it’s just people talking, but my god the chats are electric.
If you’re not familiar, Tommy Tiernan is probably Ireland’s funniest comedian/philosophers. The gimmick of his talk show is that Tiernan doesn’t know who’s coming on in advance and the guests are as much a surprise to him as the audience. The guests aren’t always famous, but they’re always interesting. Tiernan is an intensely curious person and isn’t afraid to ask the idiot questions, like “why should I know you?” More importantly, Tiernan listens to the answers and engages the guests in two-way conversation.
The latest episode featured Joe Slattery, an addiction counsellor who specialises in equine therapy; Eamon Dunphy, Ireland’s favourite professional grump; and singer Tolu Makay and poet Felispeaks, two Afro-Irish women who stole the nation’s collective hearts on Saturday night. You could start anywhere though.
The Tommy Tiernan Show is streaming on the RTE Player. Many interviews are available on YouTube. I’m sure international readers could find full episodes online if they go looking. Each show closes with a live musical performance, which leads us nicely onto my second suggestion ….
2. Listen to Contemporary Irish Music
Each year on St. Patrick’s Day, the same auld music is wheeled out – some fiddles and whistles, a few comeallyas and a bit of U2 for the “young people.” No offence to Bono or trad aficionados, but the sounds of Ireland in 2021 are much richer and more varied.
A good place to start would be to check out the albums for this year’s Choice Music Prize shortlist. The gong was awarded to Denise Chaila for her excellent collection ‘Go Bravely‘, but honestly any of records on the shortlist would have been deserving winners. To save you time, I’ve created a playlist (21 for 21) with tracks from all ten albums, along with 11 other brilliant representatives of contemporary Irish music. There’s the lyrical majesty of David Keenan, the noise-core trad sonic fusions of Lankum and Daithi’s blippy beats.
Shameless plug – you could also listen to my radio show Irish Beats which is broadcast every Sunday evening from 8-10pm GMT on Beat 102-103. 😀 You’ll hear these acts, as well as many others. Bottom line, there’s more to Irish music in 2021 than four blokes with guitars. Bono would probably be the first to agree.
3. Read a 21st century book by an Irish author
There is nothing wrong with the classic Irish literary heavy hitters. I recently read Ulysses by James Joyce (more on that another time). Tell you what though, I preferred The Thing About December by Donal Ryan. That’s one of the most affecting books I’ve read in the past five years. I genuinely did laugh and cry.
There are loads of Irish writers publishing excellent material today who’ll give you a different set of insights into modern Ireland, such as:
- Normal People by Sally Rooney
- Pure Gold by JP McHugh
- This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie
- The Watch House by Bernie McGill
- Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
- My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan
I’m currently reading Patrick Freyne’s OK Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea, which is a collected set of short essays and both hilarious and poignant. Next up, I’m going to read Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading Irish classics, but there are current voices in Irish writing who demand attention. After her appearance on The Tommy Tiernan Show last week, I’m putting Felispeaks on my reading list too.
I must admit, I am a bit thick when it comes to discovering new authors, but thankfully I’m led by my wife’s (Dr. Jenny O’Connor) recommendations. She also hosts a podcast (The Nerve) in which she speaks with with many authors and poets. You could always scan through that and try something that tickles your fancy.
4. Watch an Irish film or TV show
I’m not talking about Far and Away, Darby O’Gill, The Devil’s Own or any of that shite! There’s more to Ireland on screen than bad accents, leprechauns and terrorists. The past few years have seen an explosion (geddit!) of Irish talent on screen. I’d end up writing another thousand words recommending films, so instead I’ll recommend one film-maker and just go with anything of his – Lenny Abrahamson.
Regardless of nationality, Abrahamson is one of the most interesting writer/directors working today. It’s difficult to imagine, but this time last year we didn’t all have intimate knowledge of Conall’s GAA shorts or how sexy a Sligo accent could be. Yup, he’s behind Normal People (obviously Sally Rooney’s novel helped!). He’s held up a mirror to mental illness (Frank), addiction (Adam & Paul) and the cruelty of small town life (Garage). Actually, Garage includes a career best performance from Pat Shortt. Don’t let the weighty subject matter put you off, Abrahamson also has a wicked sense of humour and there are always laughs in his films – they might be super-dark laughs though.
5. Explore Irish food/drink
Please don’t indulge boring stereotypes about corned beef and cabbage! There is so much more to Irish food than boiled salty mush. Depending on where you are in the world, you mightn’t have access to fresh Irish produce, like a thick hake fillet or sweet juicy local prawns. However, you can probably find a pairing of lip-smacking cheeses and zingy Irish ales anywhere. If you’re in Ireland, your local Centra will have some savage homegrown food. If you’re outside of Ireland, you might have to look further. Online shops such as beercloud.ie can deliver worldwide.
There’s wonderful insight into modern Irish food from Russ Parsons, a former LA Times food critic who moved to Co. Waterford about a year ago and has been writing about about his culinary adventures. He recently wrote a reflective piece about his experience with Irish food that definitely worth reading:
The seafood has been a revelation. Roaring Water Bay mussels, steamed with leeks and just a bit of white wine and finished with cream and chives, is my wife’s favourite treatRuss Parsons “My vision of Irish food was as askew as that of any green-beer-guzzling yahoo“
My tip would be to get your jaws around some smoked gubeen or cashel blue cheese and wash it down with a few tins of Metalman ale.
There’s plenty of non-Oirish culture get feed your mind, soul and belly. Of course, the St Patrick’s Festival website has a wealth of material you can digest at your own leisure. There’s music, poetry, craft – all human life is here. I’d start with this short performance piece by Waterford’s Curious State Theatre, featuring music by Joe Harney.
As for me, I normally dress up as an eejit, run around the streets of Dublin and make some noise. Instead, for the second year running I’ll enjoy spending time at home with my family, annoying the children with my musical selections. Some people just don’t appreciate the good stuff!