News Analysis

Thursday 28 August 2014

Rough take on Ireland's 40 shades of homogeneity

Colum Kenny

Published 28/05/2006 | 00:11

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THE Rough Guide to Ireland is really quite smooth. Compared to what we ourselves say about our towns, it is quite polite. Complaints about the latest edition of that book are a reminder of the old quip, that the Irish are happy to laugh at themselves so long as the English don't join in.

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Rough Guide author Geoff Wallis found himself under fire last week, in no fewer than 14 Irish interviews. But Wallis told me that he has spent "an incredible amount of time" in Ireland, and his co-author Paul Gray used to live here. If they really do not like places, he said, they just ignore them.

However, by making some general comments about Ireland, Wallis and Gray have seriously offended the fond self-image of Europe's Celtic Tiger. They claim that we are racist and sexist, when everyone knows that Ireland is a multicultural, feminist paradise in which citizens embrace sexual diversity.

If you think that what the authors wrote about Tramore was bad, just wait and read what they have to say about how Irish people treat women, gays and blacks.

But first to Tramore, Co Waterford. Not long ago, it was being criticised locally because of sanitary waste and other dirt strewn along its strand. Many Irish tourists would never dream of spending a night in the place. According to the Rough Guide, "the town is surrounded by ghastly housing developments and the strand itself is marred by adjacent amusement arcades, caravan parks and fast-food outlets".

Throughout Ireland, the natural beauty of locations is spoiled by a mixture of greed, bad architecture and insensitive housing. Sooner or later, tourists begin to notice.

But, in fact, the Rough Guide pulls its punches. It strains to find something nice to say even about Tramore: "Far more attractive out of season [and] worth visiting for the regular horse racing, while the rejuvenated gardens at nearby Tramore House will entice anyone keen on blooms." There is also "the excellent Coast restaurant".

And while the Rough Guide authors write that Co Carlow has "almost negligible appeal", they do not fail to admire the under-appreciated district of St Mullins.

No, it is not Irish places but Irish men for whom the authors of the Rough Guide reserve their true wrath. They write, "Much of the country remains distinctly untouched by even the slightest move towards sexual equality and, both North and in the Republic, this often reveals itself in the form of outlandish sexist behaviour, ranging from the amusing to the sometimes absolutely intolerable."

For gawd's sake. Have they never heard of the Equality Authority or President Mary McAleese or Geraldine Kennedy, editor of the Irish Times ? Their unpalatable criticism was clearly so ludicrous that not even the Irish Times could bring itself to repeat it when reporting on the Rough Guide last week.

But it did report that the authors had called Irish people "homogenous". What a horrible thing to say about such a cool, cutting-edge multicultural society.

However, co-author Wallis flatly contested the accuracy of the Irish Times report when he was interviewed by RTE's Rachel English on Five Seven Live. He pointed out that the word he used was actually "homogeneous". Good lord. What is the Irish Times coming to when it leaves out that vital second "e"?

Rachel English sounded stumped. Not surprisingly. For dictionaries allow that the words "homogenous" and "homogeneous" can mean the same thing. So Rachel promptly asked Wallis to explain the difference.

He struggled gamely. These Brits are made of true grit, probably because their society is so liberal and open-minded compared to ours.

"Well," says Geoff, "homogenous means from the same descent, whereas homogeneous is more broadly about the same attitudes, same position, same stance. Basically, I am saying that Ireland remains a relatively conservative country in terms of its outlook."

Relatively conservative? Come off it, Geoff. You actually accuse Irish landladies of not wanting gays in their beds. Perish the thought. The Rough Guide says that Irish people "have even less tolerant attitudes towards gays and lesbians than towards immigrants, and the gay community in Ireland keeps a low profile, the only scene largely concentrated on the nightlife of Belfast and Dublin".

It adds, "Though private same-sex activity is legal across Ireland, public displays of affection will produce either goggle-eyes or threats of some form or another, and many small-town and rural B&Bs will look askance at a pair of men or women wanting to share a bed for the night."

Damn right they will, Geoff. More seriously, as he told me last week, he had in mind certain brutal physical attacks on gays in Derry and elsewhere.

Now, the English calling other Europeans racist may sound a bit like the pot calling the kettle white. But that has not deterred the Rough Guide from determining that, "The Republic and Northern Ireland remain among Europe's most backward places when it comes to racism, seemingly untouched by developments in more tolerant societies."

There is racism in Ireland, but what objective evidence is there that it is worse here than in Wales or France, for example? Wallis claims that statistics show a higher incidence of rascist attacks in Ireland than in many other European states. He says editions of the Rough Guides for many other countries also draw attention to racism there, and that he has received letters from people who experienced it here.

The Rough Guide has a few things to say about the Irish media. It finds the Irish Times "sometimes tinged by old-fashioned Ascendancy attitudes", a criticism that failed to make it into the Irish Times report on the book.

And RTE's Rachel English failed to mention that RTE's second television channel is "swamped by imported tat". The Sunday Independent, is simply omitted from a Rough Guide list of Irish Sunday titles. This was just an error, says Wallis.

Overall, the Rough Guide paints a very favourable picture of Ireland. There are odd oversights and mistakes, with (for example) Limerick being described as being on Ireland's west coast, and at least one restaurant highly recommended that closed long ago.

As a resident of Bray, I paid particular attention to the Rough Guide entry for Wicklow. On RTE, Geoff Wallis mentioned Bray as a place to avoid. But he confessed last week that he himself had only passed through Bray and "resiled from" his criticism, adding that the book's entry was written by someone else.

And, in fact, the Rough Guide itself praises Bray's "attractive sand and shingle beach - dramatically set against the knobbly promontory of Bray Head". It notes that "the enterprising town lays on a diverse roster of festivals to broaden its appeal, including the three-day Bray Jazz Festival in early May".

Instead of slamming the authors of the Rough Guide for speaking their minds, we might take this opportunity to reflect on how we can make our country more pleasant for both ourselves and for our visitors - and our society more tolerant of diversity.

But it can be hard to take the rough with the smooth. Not everyone has the wisdom of Scotland's Robbie Burns, who wrote, "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us/ To see oursel's as others see us!/ It wad frae monie a blunder free us,/ And foolish notion."

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