Razer: To Be Sure, To Be Sure

25 June 2015 Helen Razer

Razer: To Be Sure, To Be Sure

Photograph by James Braund.


When I was still in my teens and able to carry my own weight in souvenirs and drink my own weight in Guinness, I spent some months travelling in Ireland. This was for several stated reasons, which included “reconnecting with the home of my forebears” and “being moved by the great nation’s lyrical traditions”, and one actual reason, which was to defer the business of being an adult. There is no accessory more effective than the backpack in keeping us from growing up, and I kept mine close.

I had time to kill back then and I welcomed all distraction, so didn’t really mind what I saw to be the Irish habit of inaccurate but agreeable advice. I am not the only fan of Erin to have been struck by the national failure to remember where centuries-old streets were located.

Once, I asked a handsome young man the way to Temple Bar. That we were already in Temple Bar didn’t seem to trouble him. He offered me a series of amusing observations peppered with terrible directions that would have me walking straight out of Temple Bar and into the River Liffey. If I was looking for a cultural connection to the Ireland of my ancestors, this was it. Like the Irish, I have always preferred the act of talking to the point of talking.
If you want to pass 10 minutes in performance poetry, ask an Irishman directions. If you want to get where you’re going, buy a map.

We Irish like to talk and will do most anything to breathe life into conversation. If someone asks us a question, we are far less troubled by providing a reliable answer than we are by the quality of our speech.

This Irish habit works quite well in situ, and an account of it is not intended to contribute to those tedious ideas about the illogical Irish. The nation has libraries and several fine universities, so everyone knows where to find facts if needed. And everyone knows that conversation will not provide answers, but is an extended exercise in glory for its own sake. It may not seem efficient, until you consider that this tiny state gives the world a disproportionate supply of novelists, lyricists, comics, wits and poets. A nation that answers a request for directions with reverie is a nation that produces Yeats and Wilde. There is nothing inefficient about beautiful language.

In Ireland, however, there is a tacit national agreement that a speaker has no authority save for the quality of their speech. In the rest of the Western speaking world, we have always confused talk with facts. Lately, this has mutated into a habit with terrible consequences. If you ask someone for directions and only expect an amusing answer, that’s fine. But now, in our era of instant expertise, if someone speaks well and earnestly enough, we increasingly tend to believe that what they’re saying is accurate.

A legitimate qualification in dietary science, for example, is now less of a reason to believe a statement than the passionate rhythm and emotional delivery of an everyday person who has decided that eating deep-fried cicadas is the surest route to health. Someone who says emotional things about the need for hard work by low-income earners to save the nation is now considered to be more of an expert than an economist. And anyone who cites legitimate, proven concerns for the natural environment can be discredited by a few good jokes about being a ‘filthy greenie’.

Adept and compelling language has always been important, but now it’s confused for fact. This not only diminishes our understanding of the world, but makes the art of pleasurable, useless language disappear. Unless we separate the two in the style of the Irish, we’ll all end up in the river.


Helen Razer (@HelenRazer) loves wearing green and eating potatoes… and hates cultural stereotypes.

This article first appeared in Ed#485 of The Big Issue.