Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World

I'm very fond of Henry McDonald's opinion columns in the Observer. It's lucky for him, though, that taking the Irish down a peg or two can be quite an easy task for any half competent writer. On Sunday he once again hit the nail on the head when congratulating Booker-winner John Banville for, as he puts it, his "refusal to allow himself to be portrayed as the literary version of a Eurovision winner."

McDonald satirically defines the 'Irish Conceit' as "the belief that 'we' are the most special, gifted, talented, put-down and oppressed people to walk upright on this planet." The context of his piece is the ridiculous exchange of views between Father Alec "I believe the IRA when they say..." Reid and Willie "I had loads of Catholic friends when I was a wee lad, which gives my opinions so much more validity" Frazer of FAIR.

It's all very true, of course. For a country our size we seem to command an awful lot of column inches across the world. I suppose that this is because we are the one 'conflict' zone in the world that speaks English; and maybe it is also because our large numbers of English speaking emigrants made it to the other, globally influential, English speaking nations. I note my use of the word 'world' above. It probably ought to be prefixed 'English-speaking'.

We do seem to feel special. How many times have you heard someone say "They love the Irish" (with an added "... and they hate the English" for good measure) when talking about people in foreign lands? We seem to feel the collective need for everyone to love us. I remember meeting an American girl, who was half Vietnamese, in Belgium about seven years ago and being stunned when she told me she didn't like Ireland at all! Do you remember how personally the nation seemed to take the lack of Oscar nominations for Michael Collins? Or how we were stunned that someone could believe an Irish Olympian might be a drug cheat? Or how there were nearly street protests when Eastenders introduced a fictional family from Kildare that were a bunch of knackers? Also, more recently, how we seem to forget that other football teams don't actually stand to one side to allow the Boys in Green saunter to another major tournament and prove, once more, that we're the Best Fans in the World (C).

The truth is that without America's Irish heritage (in particular) ,and the fact we speak English, our existence would barely register on the global stage. We would be as anonymous as Benin or Guinea or Tajikistan (each of which have populations roughly double ours). The other truth is that nobody would give a damn about our nasty, grubby little conflict and its never-ending peace process, when there are far worse, and more-ignored, examples of inter-tribal murder in many corners of the world.

If our (few) successful musicians didn't sing in English, our (few) successful actors didn't act in English language shows and our (few) successful literary people didn't write in English then there would be no Grammys, no Oscars and no Booker prizes. There would be no room for our conceit and, perhaps, a very different national character. And maybe we would get on with our Slavic levels of alcohol consumption without resorting to playing the fool to live up to our international stereotype for others' amusement.

Speaking of stereotypes, the guy in the company looking after our training is a muslim - a Texan about my age who is the son of Pakistani immigrants. Apropos of nothing, he was telling us this lunchtime that he's on the verge of completing flight training and getting his pilot's licence...
Lenny: "And will you have any issues with getting your licence?"
Ali: "No, once I've completed the hours and the training, that's it."
Lenny: "Awww... no issues with the police then?"
Ali: "No, why...?"
Lenny: "It's just... awww... ..."
...and then it dawns on me what the muttonhead is getting at. An awkward silence ensues before I wade in and say "he's looking for a pilot to fly him in some drugs from Mexico" (hey, it was the best I could do in a pressure situation). I don't really think he got away with it. So, today, Lenny has hacked me off by implying to our host that all muslim pilots are a threat to America's national security.
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