Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Sham-rocks, Plastic Paddies and Bar Brawls: Challenging the Populist Status Quo

Ireland is a country tagged as the home of the craic, the blarney and roguish poets, and while even the most ardent Irishman would entertain the idea of wearing a leprechaun hat on Saint Patrick’s Day, the Emerald Isle is more intricate and learned than the stereotyped Celtic partyland of popular culture. Nor does the true Ireland conform to the darker side of its typecasting, as a shadowy land of drunks, violent men in balaclavas, and a culture based upon the currency of potatoes, sheep and oppressive religious figures.
In order to understand the real Ireland, the student must first appreciate the roots behind the labelling and acknowledge the factual elements within, before proceeding to unravel the complexities surrounding Irish culture and history. Only then will the disseminated pieces allow for a proper reconstruction.
But there is hindrance, and not only from the outside.
In the northeast corner of the island, 30 years of Troubles have cast Northern Ireland as an unstable hellhole of political dogma and hard social division. Suspicion and tension is still recorded on both sides of the debate, while an overwhelming number unaffiliated parties resolutely focus on the isolated disparity. And this exists regardless of the fact that things have greatly improved since the dark days of the 1970s and 80s. What remains is a tragic lack of a single voice, where sporadic terrorist attacks putrefy within the void.
By contrast, the prevailing consciousness outside the island is one of misapprehension manifested in slurs and an approach that some argue flirts with racism in an all too acceptable fashion. 'Paddy' has become a name synonymous with idiotic buffoonery, the ancient symbolism of the shamrock desecrated, and the history of the island projected through the veil of conquest.
And it is neither localised nor restricted to everyday social banter.
In February 2010, the journalist and then Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, Douglas Murray, posted a reactionary, and some argued anti-Irish opinion piece, in The Daily Telegraph blog that prompted readers to post derogatory jokes in response.
Across the Atlantic, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg came under criticism for his alcohol-centred treatment of Saint Patrick's Day, while in July 2011, London's Deputy Mayor for Equalities, Richard Barnes, queried, 'are they like most Irish builders, saying that it’s going to be ‘roughly that’', when discussing the cost of redesigning Euston Station.
In 2006, The Irish Times criticised the prison newspaper, Inside Times, for printing a series of anti-Irish jokes in two consecutive editions, before ignoring complaints and following suit on a third.
The most damning example were the views printed in the Guardian by Julie Burchill, who linked the Irish to fascism and child abuse, commenting on, 'almost compulsory child molestation by the national church, total discrimination against women who wish to be priests, aiding and abetting Herr Hitler in his hour of need and outlawing abortion and divorce.'
This is not to say that the Irish are unable to laugh at themselves, but the humour popularised by Father Ted and Give My Head Peace must be properly understood; it is dark comedy that exists to as an intelligent response to detractors and so must be treated with care.
In light of this climate, it is time to challenge the misconceptions.
Broken down into its basic, but by no means comprehensive, components, modern Ireland can be presented in three distinct, but closely related personalities; the independent and progressive Eurozone of the Republic; the closely guarded but highly colourful North forever uncertain of its prescribed Westminster governance; and the shared history of scholarly prowess, accomplished artistry and globally celebrated hospitality. To an outside mind, therefore, Ireland is a complex affair and one which understandably lends itself to the simplifying process of caricature. The result, once the balances are struck, is a land of joviality, undermined by internal dispute, and due to its restrained global presence, one that can be affectionately patronised.
And herein lies the problem; the uneasy relationship behind Ireland the Industry and Ireland the Island.
Ireland the Industry is the cartoon of Ireland, embodied as the palatable, plastic Paddy with his slow-poured Guinness, wooden pipe and flat cap. He is a jolly figure, whose friendliness is interpreted as idiocy, and his regional-focus as charmingly backward. Such is the force of this prescription that Ireland has been reduced to making an industry out of the caricature, a desperate measure for a desperate situation. But this must not be interpreted as acceptance, for the pragmatist is not unfamiliar with the realist.
Ireland the Island is the proud, but brow-beaten, alter-ego of Ireland the Industry. It realises the issues that have cloaked its counterpart, and constantly battles with the problems involved. It understands that it cannot change the populist perspective of Ireland, but rather wishes to inform outsiders, and invites them to experience the real Ireland. The vibrant revival of the Irish language and celebration of Irish music, dance and arts in all forms should be acknowledged as they are things that, in theory, should be championed across the four provinces. This camp also celebrates positive treatments of the island, pointing to events such as the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011; the fine historical and social commentary on the island; and the increasing efforts to effectively console the north, rebuilding relations between the nations through a celebration of cultural assets they hold as part of a common heritage as people of this island.
This article does not wish to advocate external censorship or excessive political correctness, but to consider whether the concept of plastic paddies and bar brawls is as true a reflection on Ireland as painting any other nationality by their prescribed stereotype. Instead, consider this an invitation for inhabitants of the island and outsiders alike to reconsider Ireland without the lazy cloak of prejudice, and to form a sustainable and fair impression of Ireland that future generations can be proud of.

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