A Terrible Beauty Is Born

I’ve been thinking more on the whole mythology aspect of identity, for cities as well as other places. With cities that identity is grown organically, bursting out of the collective experiences, trials and tribulations of their inhabitants. But cities are not the only entities that are steeped in story. Nations, peoples, and regions also have their identity myths, but the maintenance of these are taken far more seriously then those of a city.

This is largely because we no longer have loyalty to our cities. They’re the places where we live, work, and play, but we can move away with relative ease. We no longer have city states—if you exclude the Vatican—that are major political actors or require our undivided loyalties. You can change cities with relative ease, but nationality and religion with difficulty.

What interests me is how these identity myths are constructed, and how they can be a powerful force, for better or for worse. When the poet W.B. Yeats was attempting to tie his writings to some variety of mythology, he sought out legends that had not been so overused as the Greek and Roman stories that his more English contemporaries enjoyed. In part this is what led him to spearhead the effort to catalogue and translate into English many of the old Gaelic legends, whether they were simple fairy tales, or old epic tales, like the Táin Bó Cúailnge. These stories and the search for an Irish identity went hand in hand with the Irish independence movement, so much so that Yeats ultimately felt somewhat responsible for the bloodshed that ensued in the battle for a free Ireland, particularly the deaths involved in the Easter Rising. These stories and myths gave credence to the idea of a long, continuous Irish identity going back into the mists of time. Revolutionary politics became heavily intertwined with Irish myth, a legacy enduring to this day in the names of the two major Irish political parties, Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail. The parties names come from the legendary band of warriors, the Fianna, who fought under Finn McCool, high king of all Ireland, and so the modern Irish state has its foundation in both myth and in blood.

Myths inform identity, so they are the staple of politics and revisionist history. Identity creates nations, wars, and communities. Our mythical histories can give our states legitimacy, or remove the legitimacy of our neighbours. Past Canadian governments sought to destroy aboriginal peoples by destroying their culture through residential schools, Hitler propagated the myth of the Aryan race to justify his invasions, and Israelis and Palestinians battle over archeological evidence to support their political claims.

The important thing to note here is that identity can be created, or at the very least fostered. This can be done in a top down approach, the most unpleasant example being Nazi Germany, or it can occur in a more organic fashion, such as the rise of the Irish national identity, where many educated people came together to renew and reframe old stories. History by itself is a poor source of myth, a dry thing that is relegated to books, weighed down by fact and nuance. It is only by blood, story telling, and time that myth is born. And that’s the ticket. You either have to go the long route for identity to be brought forth by story telling and time, or pay in blood to have it fast. That is ultimately what the Irish national identity had to be earned with. Yeats’s stories were enough to make a few men take up arms, but it was their deaths in the Dublin Post Office and before firing squads that made the rest of the country rise.

But of course, we no longer have such loyalty to our cities as to spill blood for them, as in the days of Sparta and Athens. Time is required for a young city to form an identity, for stories to seep into its concrete bones. The only thing we might take away from Yeats and his ilk is that stories matter and that grounding our stories in our communities or in common history gives them endurance and relevance. If we put the city into our art, then we can go a long way towards creating that mythic identity, that hangs on the tongues of bar patrons and poets alike.