Brendan O'Connor: 'Yank hate' will never play well with the Irish
Mild embarrassment is a small price to pay for the huge benefits gained from our special relationship with America.
Published 23/06/2013 | 04:00
IT WAS in many ways a typically Irish week. We spent the first half of it losing the head, and the second half of it beating ourselves up for losing the head. We threw ourselves at a married woman, a yank, and then decided to berate ourselves for making fools of ourselves.
I say "we". In fact most of us were a bit more measured than that. It was in fact official Ireland that got its knickers in a twist. It was certain elements of the media mainly that got involved in the slobbering, and it was the media again, and a few stray lefties, who conducted the hangover afterwards.
Most of us were admittedly pleasantly mildly diverted by the Obamas coming to Ireland, and specifically by Michelle and the girls coming South. It's easy to look back on it now all these days later, with cynicism, but didn't you find yourself slightly interested in what they had to eat in Matt The Threshers? I even vaguely thought I might go there sometime. As I recall she had oysters followed by prawns in chilli and garlic with a salad and sourdough toast. The kids shared a jumbo prawn salad and then one had shepherd's pie. And the other fish and chips. Makes you hungry just thinking about it.
And then Riverdance. I must be one of the few people in the world who hasn't sat through Riverdance at this stage and I'm none the worse for it, but they seemed to enjoy it, and it is, it seems, the designated show of official Ireland.
Glendalough and the midges and the boredom of the children provided a bit of diversion for the rest of us on a lazy sunny day, and then, having seen the designated show of official Ireland, the Obamas met the designated showman of official Ireland and his kids. Everyone seems to have had fish and chips on this occasion, and the girls seem to have got to meet some kids their own age, which was nice. Judging by the photos, one of Bono's lads looks like he inherited the earnest side and the other one looks, in the best possible way, like he could be livley, so there was something for everyone.
And we enjoyed it all, but we didn't slobber actually. Most of us kept it all in perspective. But some of the media got a bit carried away. And in fairness, Clare Daly must have felt that she was only saying what everyone was thinking when she urged a bit of calm about the situation. And initially, she kind of had us. We had felt slightly embarrassed at some of the raptures gone into over pages of newsprint. We had slightly cringed when the head of the Visitor Centre at Glendalough talked about melting when Michelle looked at him and took his hand in her, according to him, large hand.
"It's good to be home," had been slightly cringey too.
So Clare could have been on to a winner if she had poked a bit of fun about the whole thing and then moved on. We enjoy laughing about when the press and the dignitaries get carried away. But Clare politicised it too much for most people. It was not just the harshness of some of the language she used, it was the fact that she tried to use the opportunity of this mild embarrassment to unleash a wave of anti-Americanism. And that never has and never will play well with the Irish.
We like America in this country. And we like Americans. And we like the special relationship we have with them. And it is a special relationship. While you could sneer and claim the Obamas just trot around the world giving the same old localised version of their Blarney wherever they go, there is no doubt that it is different in Ireland. Of course people like Harry Browne – who appeared on Prime Time in the designated official discussion about whether we had gone too far in our welcome – are right when they point out that the Obamas coming to Ireland, and even the Obama girls coming down here, is all strategic and political, not just a friendly holiday.
But that needn't take all the good out of it. Whatever the Obamas have to gain out of their association with Ireland, you'd have to admit, as much as it hurts our self-image as the centre of the universe, that we get much more out of the connection. We have always got more out of relationship with America than they get out of us. So even if we are being cynically used for photo ops, we get much more out of the photo ops than they do.
Even if everybody is using each other in this equation, we can use with the best of them. And there is no doubt that the whole thing was a great ad for Irish tourism. Now again, Harry Browne would argue that tourism is not a good thing for this country, and that it reinforces unequal relationships and leads to exploitation, but those of us without the security of a job in academia tend to recognise that tourism is a huge industry in this country that employs a lot of people and keeps a lot of local shops, restaurants and hotels going, truly indigenous commerce that employs local people in their own communities all over Ireland.
If you look at it all more generally, America has been a great political ally to this country. The tenuous peace we all take for granted now was brought over the line by Bill Clinton. And while our tax regime is realistically the main draw for the big American corporations that choose to base their European operations here, there is no doubt that the friendship and goodwill that has long been fostered on an official level, by the kind of rubbish that went on last week, helps to cement business ties too.
There is also something crucial that people can tend to forget when sneering at Barack Obama. He is black. So is his wife and so are his children. And for him to become the President of the United States and the most powerful man in the Western World is an extraordinary achievement. It is easy to take for granted now how much the world changed when Obama became President. It is easy to forget now how much he struggled to achieve this. It is easy to forget just how much of an outsider he is. He is the ultimate outsider. And it is tempting, when we see him now at the heart of the establishment, feted by official Ireland and officialdom from all over the world, to think that he is not really black, that he does not share the struggles of other black people in America.
Of course Barack Obama had opportunities and privileges that most black Americans don't have. But nonetheless he broke through the ultimate glass ceiling. He has achieved what the Left would profess to wish for all black people. He has beaten every prejudice and in a funny way, almost to his own cost, he has made America, and us, almost too colourblind. Especially when it comes to him. He has enabled people to insinuate that in reality, this is not a black president, because Obama is not black enough, not really black. It's a bit like Margaret Thatcher, who it was said was a woman who only got to power by acting like a man, and so did not really qualify as a breakthrough for women.
As much as we might cringe slightly at the "good to be home" bits, the Obamas are well placed to talk to kids in this county about struggle and about breaking out of ghettos, and confounding expectations.
So yes, some sections of the media and officialdom lost their heads last week. But most of us didn't. But that doesn't mean either that we are ready to indulge now in an orgy of beating ourselves up for in some way "prostituting" ourselves. We may not have been as ecstatic as some about the Obamas' visit but neither does it mean that this is a good opportunity for the Left to beat up on America. Neither reaction – the fawning, nor the self-hate and yank hate that followed it – actually represented how most of us felt.