The Parting Glass must rank as one of the most beautiful of Irish songs: a man rising from the company of his oldest friends and bidding them a final farewell. Sung at a funeral, it is a moving lament. The song opens:
Of all the money that e’er I spent
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.
Are we content if we have done no great harm to anyone but ourselves? Is there something deep within our psyche that finds joy in melancholy? Or are these stereotypes? Do they go with the sort of English humour that say, “The economic situation in England is serious but not hopeless, while the one in Ireland is hopeless but not serious”?
Are we bound forever to follow a tragic-comic script? Are we bound forever to Juno and the Paycock and Fluther, and all the stage Irish figures?
Writing in last weekend’s Financial Times, columnist Matthew Engel seems able to find a resilience worthy of the pages of O’Casey. Engel visits a housing development in Co Meath where the remaining houses have been sold at a knockdown price:
. . . perhaps one difference between Ireland’s crash and everyone else’s is that here cheerfulness has a habit of breaking through the clouds. The Irish are used to being put-upon; prosperity was just a brief blip.
“Oh, well,” said one Athlumney Wood resident, taxi driver Stephen Byrne, “win some, lose some. I’ll get it back some time. I have to be an optimist in my job. I get enough doom and gloom listening to people all day.” His neighbour Davitt Ward has been trying to sell since August. He shrugged, too: “The way I see it, the less this is worth, the less I’ll have to pay for a new one.”
Unlike anyone else’s, the Irish boom was essentially construction-led, and places like Athlumney Wood are the new Ireland. And sometimes it seems as though the old Ireland has gone completely. The bars are smoke-free and sanitised and increasingly deserted. The churches are scandal-stained, and also increasingly deserted. In Dublin, people seem as brittle and bad-tempered as in London. The papers are filled with crime stories. But maybe there are a few smiles left.
“Maybe there are a few smiles left”, hasn’t that blessing been also a curse? Hasn’t it led to an air of resignation in which people have accepted appalling government, cronyism, corruption and clericalism? Why must the man’s friends drink a ‘parting glass’? Because he’s going away. Generation after generation went away because there was nothing for them. David McWilliams wrote in the Sunday Business Post:
We -that is, my generation – don’t want to be the first Irish people who have had to emigrate twice in their working lifetime. Those who were born in the mid1960s to mid-1970s face the very real prospect of having emigrated in the 1980s and early 1990s, coming back in the late 1990s and early ‘noughties’, and now having to go away again.
The Parting Glass is a fine song, but a grim reality. But O’Casey’s script only applies if we are prepared to say the lines, maybe there is no longer an inclination to smile at everything. Maybe Engel’s ‘brittle and bad-tempered Dubliners’ are a first sign that Irish people will no longer accept second best.