26 May 2008

The Australian social commentator of the mid 20th century, AA Phillips, came up the term Culture Cringe to describe that phenomenon where, in a former colony, aspects of indigenous culture are spurned by the social elite who consider them inferior to those of the banished colonial power. Phillips argued that Culture Cringe had made its unpleasant presence felt in several aspects of Australian life – like, for instance, television where imported programming was considered superior to the home produced variety.


More recently the Canadians, the Indians, the Scottish and others have uncovered evidence of the niggardly syndrome lurking in their various societies and have attempted to flush it out. The phenomenon has seldom overly taxed Irish commentators and, at least since the 1980s, with little enough reason. We generate our fair share of culture – from Joyce to Podge and Rodge  - enough to satisfy our needs.


However, there is an aspect of Irish life where I feel an element of Culture Cringe is creeping in and that is: the criticism of the Irish tradition of living in the countryside.


We Irish love the land in ways which others don’t. Having lived abroad I realize that the culture of country living inspires a passion in us is not matched, at least not to the same degree, in America, Britain or the Continent. There’s something about Irish people and their landscape: they’re inseparable.


Chaos, as they say, is what we’re not used to: so I have no doubt that when our British or Continental friends come visit us they are so shocked to see us brazenly building our homes in open fields, they feel compelled to write damning criticisms in their trendy weekend supplements as soon as they get home. 


Unfortunately, a non-quizzical Irish social elite have taken the opinions of these lifestyle theorists to heart and have convinced themselves there’s something wrong with the Irish rural tradition, branding the desire to live in the countryside ‘unsustainable’ – that word which is these days used to pseudo-scientifically discredit something which is merely unfashionable.   


Architects have a lot of blame to take in this regard. Just last week, as the Architecture Association of Ireland (an organisation not to be confused with the Architects Institute and which is, in part, Arts Council funded) announced its architecture awards for 2008, it emerged that a highly regarded, rurally located house near Errigal in County Donegal by architects Doneghy + Dimond wasn’t considered for an award because the jury had decided - in principal - to exclude all one off houses in the countryside (jurist Martin Henchion took issue with the jury’s position).


Now, even if the AAI jurists are genuinely convinced that there is something scientifically wrong with building a home outside an urban area, that conviction alone isn’t enough to say ‘one off houses’ should be excluded from what is, after all, a design competition. No. In order to exclude, there must be an element of disapproval. So, the message the AAI sent out with their awards announcement last week confirmed a nagging suspicion many rural dwellers in this country have been harbouring for some time: there’s an element of cultural superiority in play. Something fundamental to the Irish way of life makes some of our culture commentators cringe.   

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