It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of mythology; I have shelves and shelves of folktales and legends in my little home library. Yet I’ve recently been taken aback upon discovering that my children are being taught Irish legends in primary school as “history”.
In my last novel (written before returning to Ireland with the family) I have the hero commenting, “You know your history.” To which the heroine replies, “It’s myth, not history.” The irony of this scene comes from the fact the hero is a figure from legend brought back to life, but it could equally apply to whether or not you treat your mythology as ‘fact’.
Some of this, for me, is a culture gap. In Australia, we are taught Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology and stories in school but we are not taught why we cannot ‘own’ them when we are not Aboriginal. It’s still a sideways cultural appropriation: here are the good bits (the stories) without the bad bits (we took everything else off them).
What is particularly at issue in Australia is that these stories have a very real and tangible value to their original owners. Knowing the lore of the land is one of the few means of proving Native Title for a tribal group or family. Other methods are necessarily limited when you have had an oral culture, have been dispossessed, and relocated; but in a time when knowledge is so easily disseminated, establishing it is your people to whom the place-name histories and songlines belong to – well, that’s a huge bar to hurdle, but a vital one.
As a result, Aboriginal people are incredibly sensitive to uses and users of their culture. And, typically, this creates begrudgement on behalf of non-Aboriginal Australians because a) we’ve never been taught to value Aboriginal Australia, and b) we’ve only just reached the point of publicly acknowledging We’re Sorry, but are still in blame-the-victim mode.
Of course, here in Ireland, the opposite applies: teaching place-creation myths not only consolidates an indigenous heritage, it helps build a national identity which applies to the majority of children learning. It is not divorced from other elements of Irish culture. (The reverse of Australia.) Also, Irish people have reached a point where they’re largely accepting of other people adopting as long as it’s well-researched and accurately presented. They are brutally outspoken on diddly-i-di representations claiming to be authentic, but will sometimes choose to own these if they feel it’s in their best interests. (Which is what having agency is all about; something Aboriginal Australians are still fighting for.)
So on the home front, I’m now okay since my children are growing up “Irish”.