Some years ago I sat through a lecture by a very distinguished, ex-Marxist, English intellectual who was wearied by his own post-Thatcher cynicism. He’d discovered salvation of a kind in his new-found Irish roots, and twirled his Irish grandmother’s wedding ring on his finger as he spoke. His argument was that English madness was far too rational – in fact, English madness was not really madness at all. Lewis Carroll, for instance, was just following mathematical formulae when he wrote the Alice books. But Irish madness, now that (and here he was excited), that is the real thing – no pretend eccentricity in Ireland, because we’re just absolutely crackers. And the deeply reasonable Samuel Beckett was his example. I was confused by this. I told him I was confused. ‘Irish madness – you see, that’s a good thing’, he said, with all his rational persuasiveness. Good, because the English have bored themselves to death with their own lack of a real nationality (and are thus without a sense of humour, or an authentic way to be nuts); the Irish, well, ye’s are all just crazy, hey, and can I join you and be crazy too?
Needless to say, this man’s floundering on the edges of reason annoyed me a little. It’s alright to class yourself as a bit off-centre, but it never makes you sounds quite so interesting when someone else says it for you. So is there a peculiarly Irish form of madness? Of course even the question produces its own madness (who are you calling Irish anyway?). In any case, it’s not quite sane to talk about national forms of madness (though I once sat through a dinner in a German restaurant in Estonia where three people ate cheese soup for starters to the sound of martial music). Madness is only, as the ex-Marxist argued, not being rational. So then it depends on who defines rationality. And that idea comes mainly from the English, our friend said, so be suspicious, they’re just oppressing you with their reason. Actually I think it was the Scottish philosophers who really got a handle on rationality. And they began with Hutcheson, who was Ulster Scots. Hang on, something’s not right here. That can’t be where the ideas of reason and sanity came from.
Whether the Irish have their own madness or not, they’ve had some spectacular examples of people living out their lives in peculiar ways. So let’s look for a pattern. From the early legends my favourite is Buile Suibhne, or Sweeney. He has had more recent incarnations in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, and in a very proper translation by Seamus Heaney. His madness began when he got fed up listening to the sound of the bells which the Christian clerics rang to announce themselves. Like anyone with a Sunday morning hangover brought to consciousness by the insistent call to worship, he was a tired and irritated soul. So he threw the offending bell in a lake. Not madness yet, just a bad temper. The madness came on when the cleric cursed him, turned him into a half-man, half-bird, and condemned him to a wandering existence, eating mainly watercress (which seems to have been substantially cheaper before Sainburys started packaging it). Sweeney dallied here and there, finding himself at one point in Scotland, which, as we’ve seen, wasn’t a bad call for someone in search of reason. Sweeney’s madness is surpassed though, in his own story, by the hag who challenges him to a leaping contest (these are the days before pool and darts). She is eventually killed when she leaps too far in trying to outdo Sweeney and falls over a cliff.
So wandering is definitely a theme. From here the clerics take over. So there is St Brendan, who may have done the ultimate wander and gone to America just because it was there, long before anyone else did. What an Irish trend he started. Stay-at-home versions of the early Irish Christian clerics seem to have had turned their strangeness in on themselves a little. So they kept worms in order that they could see their own flesh being eaten (by the worms). Findchu beat himself with seven sickles for seven years because he thought this mortification would get him into heaven more quickly. Let’s hope so. Perhaps, like Brendan, he should just have got out a bit more.
Another oddbod was Perkin Warbeck, who wasn’t actually Irish, but kind of French. When he arrived in Cork in 1491 he was dressed in the silks sold by his employer, and was meant to be a kind of Tudor fashion model. The locals assumed that someone so well dressed must be of royal line. Warbeck, loathe to disappoint, went along with it, telling all who would listen that he Richard, Duke of York (who was, in fact, dead), therefore Edward IV’s son, and so rightful King of England. This tall tale got him married into the Scottish royal line, but it also got him executed. It didn’t do a lot for Anglo-Irish relations either.
Warbeck was a ringer, but also another wanderer. The greatest Irish wanderers have been literary. Best of all, of course, is Lemuel Gulliver, creation of Jonathan Swift. Swift himself was a little eccentric, but he sent Gulliver mad. After four traumatic journeys, when his sense of proportion is seriously challenged, Gulliver finds himself back home talking horse to horses, hating his own children, and thinking that humans smell much worse than his new equine friends. Gulliver has a challenger in the eighteenth-century literary strangeness stakes in Laurence Sterne, author of the marvellously off-beat road novel, A Sentimental Journey, and even better The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, in which the narrator has serious trouble getting the story round to his own birth. He uses a black page instead of words when he’s mourning and a marble page for confusion. Unable to describe how someone flourishes their walking stick he draws a squiggle. Not quite madness, but not frightened to look it in the face.
The best site of dark eccentricity in eighteenth-century Ireland was probably the Hell-Fire Club on Killakee mountain, just to the south of Dublin. The ‘Club’ was a burnt-out hunting lodge (deliberately burnt-out to give it atmosphere, it is said) belonging to ‘Speaker’ Conolly, and was used for black masses. Conolly, playing cards one night with a stranger in the Club, dropped his ace of spades and bending down to pick it, saw cloven feet under the table. One of the Hell-Fire Club’s most famous frequenters was Richard ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley, so named because of his favourite Sunday hobby. His son, Buck Whaley, was another man who made his name in journeying. Buck, penniless, undertook an impulsive bet that he could get to Jerusalem and back in two years. He supposedly played handball against the city walls, and was back in nine months, considerably richer.
The nineteenth century doesn’t disappoint either, with a penchant for strangely gothic figures: Charles Maturin, the novelist, who would paste a wafer to his forehead when writing so as to warn his family not to interrupt him. There was the mad, blind Dublin poet Zozimus, who recited doggerel all day and wandered the streets at night in an enormous black cape and hat, muttering his dislike of Protestants. Then later in the century, also in a black cape and hat was the wonderful James Clarence Mangan, a man of genuinely confusing intellectual abilities whose poems purported to be translations from languages he couldn’t read.
Amongst my other favourite moments of collective madness in nineteenth-century Irish history is the ‘atmospheric railway’ in Killiney. This was a Victorian enterprise, which, using the latest technology, sent a small commuter train up a very steep hill using only hydraulics. That is, the train had no engine – it was pushed up by air. It came down with the brakes on. It was a great success for a year or so. Then rats started to eat through the leather bags which the air was held in. And so a great experiment ended.
Most recently of course the bizarre Father Horan, he who disrupted the Silverstone Grand Prix and the Olympic Marathon, has reminded the world of Ireland’s reputation for pottiness, just when it seemed that all had been smoothed over. Picking up the wandering theme, and linking it rather poetically to the marathon’s organised, televised wandering, Father Horan is today’s inheritor of this itchy-feet form of Irish genius. No doubt my ex-Marxist would see his intervention as a radical challenge to empiricism and the totality of reason. So Father Horan is our beacon of hope that Irish madness is still with us, and will never bow down to oppression. Good news for us, bad news for Brazilian athletes.