I often try to explain to English friends how my Irish family works, usually to incredulous exclamations of ‘What do you mean your mother has 59 first cousins??!’ Large families were once commonplace in Ireland, though times have changed. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be close to my extended maternal family, global phenomenon that it is. There is a system of unwritten rules and traditions that keeps us all connected. Well, that and Whatsapp.
It recently occurred to me that there are several similarities between my experiences of my Irish relatives and those families detailed within the Homeric epics. At the very least, having such an extensive family means I’m not bad at keeping track of the countless names and relationships between characters in the Iliad and Odyssey. It is also remarkably handy when dealing with Herodotus, although keeping up with him is, at times, entirely impossible. In all sincerity, I have listened, bemused as my mother and her sisters have conversations where they describe people as;
“Do you remember [insert random name]?”
“Which [repeat random name]? The one whose mother used to wear the fur coat to Mass?”
*laughs and sips (Barry’s) tea*
“No, the clever one whose brother went out with Sarah’s cousin.”
“Oh yeah, yer man…..I remember him alright. What about him?”
And on the conversation goes, both understanding exactly who the other is talking about while I sit in silent perplexity. I suppose it’s not surprising that there’s a strong similarity in how Irish communities and those of the Iliad and Odyssey interact. Both Ireland and Homer’s Greece were made up of clans and tribes ruled by regional kings. In Ireland, there were as few as five or as many as nine primary kingdoms, the names of four of which (Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and Munster) are still used to describe the four modern provinces of Ireland.
We tend to think of the Greeks described by Homer as one people, or at least I did, until I was robbed of that illusion in Michaelmas term of first year. They are in fact a collection of tribes and oikoi (households) who agree to support Menelaus, referred to as King of the Greeks, in his quest for his stolen wife. Each oikos is connected to several others through relationships termed ‘guest friendships’ (xenia). The rules of hospitality in Homer’s Greece were strict and sacrosanct. These rules work in a reciprocal manner, both through exchange of material possessions and non-material favours and the relationships continue down through the generations. To break a guest friendship is a serious crime.
In Ireland, there are no such inviolable hospitality related rules, but there is a tradition of keeping your door open (not literally mind) for friends or family who may randomly stop by. It’s not at all unusual to pop in for a cuppa whilst passing in the small town where my mother is from and my cousins all go to my great auntie Anne’s for lunch and tea and cake after school. I can’t say I blame them – she makes the best cake I’ve ever had! Here in England, though, when my mum says to a friend ‘pop in for a cup of tea if you’re passing’ they rarely take the offer seriously, assuming it is more of a courtesy than a genuine invitation. As long as you’re happy to take us as you find us (dressing gown, towel turban and all) then you’re more than welcome.
I mentioned earlier that the Celts were tribal, and that some of that has trickled through into modern Irish customs. My theory as to why this is the case is that the Irish have emigrated around the world over the course of the past few centuries, largely due to penal transportation and indentured servitude during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many immediately think of Irish immigrants in America and Australia, but those are only the most obvious destinations. Yet despite this exodus, Irish people are proud of their heritage and their small island, a remnant perhaps of defiant pride in the face of centuries of oppression. One way that this pride manifests itself is that question that all Irish people must ask another Irish person they meet; ‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ The myriad connections between Irish people and their ability to find them extends to rugby pitches, New York bars, boardrooms and classrooms.
Though I am only half Irish, I am fortunate enough to have an Irish lilt (I say fortunate, but if one more person finds the way I say fork hilarious, I may lose my mind) and have been asked the ‘Where are you from?’ question myself, once at a bop at Oriel (that oasis of Irish culture). The gentleman in question who asked me shouted, ‘It’s the girl from Skerries!’ and gave me a massive hug every time he saw me for the rest of the night. It is one of my favourite Oxford memories. One of the first diaspora connections I ever made for myself, though, was at OxLat, an Oxford Classics Faculty run initiative that teaches Latin GCSE to state school students (and the reason I am a Classicist today). It turned out that one of the other students and I were fourth cousins once removed, his grandmother and my great-grandmother were first cousins from the same small corner of north County Dublin. Amazing what you can discover during a conversation about a local rugby club.
In Ireland itself, the ‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ question boils down to the ‘Who are your people?’ question. This isn’t asked so much amongst young people anymore because in an increasingly globalised world, it’s not felt to be as important, which is by no means a bad thing. Apart from anything else, it’s no longer as relevant an interrogatory question for parents to ask a prospective suitor (thankfully). I’m told that a rural Irish marriage proposal was sometimes phrased as ‘Would you like to be buried with my people?’ Who someone’s people are, however, is exceptionally important in Homeric epic, largely due to xenia again. In the Iliad, Glaucus and Diomedes swap armour upon discovering who each other’s people are and realising that there is a history of guest friendship between their households. Even the main characters are often not called by their own names but by patronyms. Agamemnon is called Son of Atreus. Achilles is the Son of Peleus, and so on. This makes for interesting reading if you’ve no idea who Atreus or Peleus are, and I am embarrassed to admit how long it took to get ‘who is who’s son’ straight. Part of the reason for this is to maintain family honour. You are only as good as your most recently produced warrior. So, you know, no pressure.
The more I think about it, the more similarities I see between Irish culture and Homer’s Greece. This article could quite honestly go on for a while longer, but collections revision calls. Ireland is by no means the only place with a culture that bears resemblance to that of the Iliad and Odyssey – take Sir Derek Walcott’s Omeros. We may like to think that a lot has changed over the passing millennia, but all societies are underpinned by a human need for connection, a need that we all recognise even more in a covid-19 world. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this need creates patterns in culture across civilizations, continents and centuries, from ancient Athens to modern Dublin.