News Analysis

Sunday 31 August 2014

Plastic Paddies

Published 29/10/2005 | 00:11

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This week a Chicago politician changed his name to O'Brien in a bid to win the Irish vote. Ian O'Doherty reports on the Celtic wannabes

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The Windy City is renowned for the hot air blown by its politicians but this week even it has been rocked by the news that one of its most prominent lawyers secretly changed his name to Patrick O'Brien in an effort to win the Irish vote in an upcoming election.

Fred Rhine declared that only those with an Irish name - as opposed to the German origins of his nomenclature - could hope to win a seat on the judiciary in Chicago.

The issue has become a hot topic in Chicago legal circles where the "Irishisation" of names with fake fadas has seen judges elected for decades.

When asked why he didn't simply change his name to the same sounding "Ryan", he replied: "We had the former governor George Ryan on trial for various misdeeds, then we had Jack Ryan who had to drop out of the last senate race because of a sex scandal, then we had Jim Ryan who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002. Ryan no longer works."

Of course Rhine/O'Brien is only one of a long list of people who have attempted to assume an Irish mantle.

But it's not easy to be Irish. Robin Williams famously described the Irish accent as "the hardest in the world to do". "Of course, I do it perfectly," he said.

Which is more than can be said for Tom Cruise, whose brogue in Far And Away was once voted the worst Irish accent of all time. Certainly the memorable line: "You're a corker, Shannon. What a corker you are!" was enough to elicit howls of laughter from Irish audiences. Cruise maintained that while his accent was "hokey, it was accurate for the time".

Other Hollywood A-List stars have been equally guilty of mangling our vernacular. Brad Pitt has done so not once but twice, although at least the second time, as One Punch Mickey in Snatch, he was meant to be incomprehensible.

In The Devil's Own, however, it seemed he felt Rory Devaney's accent was less important than making puppy-dog eyes and being a brooding Paddy.

But perhaps the most egregious example of a dud Irish accent comes from a most unusual source - an Irishman.

I'm referring, of course, to Pierce Brosnan and his garbled Irish intonation in the emetically sentimental Evelyn, the 2000 story of a man trying to fight against the system in 1950s Ireland. You have to admit though, anything sounds better than his native Navan accent.

But it's not just the silver screen which has seen bizarre approximations of Irishness.

Failed US presidential candidate John Kerry was always assumed to be of Irish descent, if for no other reason than his name was Kerry.

When it emerged, in fact, that his roots were Austro-Hungarian Jewish, he angrily denied that he had ever made such claims for Hiberno-orientation.

Unfortunately for him, a quick perusal of his Senate record revealed that he had previously said: "As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them."

Actually, as it happened, his family name came when his father picked it from a map of Ireland when they moved to Boston.

But the resentment John Kerry pretended to feel at English oppression was writ large in the infamous case of Sean MacStiofain, former IRA chief-of-staff.

Mac Stiofain's Republican credentials are impeccable, having first come to notice when he painted "Roger Casement Died For Ireland" on the walls of Pentonville prison during his youth.

He was, however, born John Stevens in London's East End and adopted Republicanism as a cause because he did not get on with his English father.

Being Irish has never hurt in the literary world, and Patrick O'Brian, author of the acclaimed Master and Commander series, remains perhaps the most fascinating example of someone who has adopted Irishness for their own ends.

Up until his death in 2000 in Dublin, Patrick O'Brian was one of Ireland's most famous writers, and was even awarded an Honorary Doctorate for Service to Irish Letters by Trinity College, where he also worked.

There was only one problem - Patrick O'Brian was actually born Richard Patrick Russ in England, in 1914.

It's believed that he changed his name in 1945 to avoid any association with his father's native Germany.

Another famous Irish man of letters and founder of The Gate, Michael MacLiammoir was actually born Michael Willmore in England. A genuine Hibernophile, he wrote his three autobiographical books in Irish and then translated them into English.

This cultural confusion has cropped up more than once in the sporting world, with one of the earliest examples being the decision to allow Australian-born out-half Brian Smith play for Ireland.

Foreign-born children of Irish descent have represented Ireland with distinction many times, of course.

But the Smith appointment, which infuriated many Irish rugby fans, was clouded by the fact that he had already won six caps for his native Australia, one of them when he played against Ireland.

Perhaps the most famous case of a true Plastic Paddy comes in the shape of Tony Cascarino.

After a rocky start with the Irish fans, Cockney big Cas was taken to their hearts at a time when an Irish accent was a rarity in Jack Charlton's teams.

First brought into the squad by Eoin Hand while still a Third Division player, Cascarino later claimed that the FAI required nothing but his word to get him a passport and that he knew he wasn't eligible to play, although he waited until he retired before making the announcement - in his autobiography.

Hand was later to comment: "He has devalued the FAI and he has devalued his own career and for what? For the sake of a few bob?"

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