Brendan O'Neill: Inspirational McGregor shaking up the downtrodden Irish psyche
Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30
Time magazine hailed Angela Merkel as its Person of the Year. Queen Elizabeth II is conferring honours on the usual assortment of luvvies, politicos and no doubt utterly deserving charity workers who have impressed Her Maj over the past year.
But my Person of the Year, my hero of the past 12 tumultuous months, is not from the world of politics or art or philanthropy. He's from Crumlin.
He doesn't do charity; he punches people in the face.
And far from being a luvvie - all PC and eco-friendly - he's a brash inhabiter of sharp suits who boasts about being rich, owns eight cars, and loves nothing more than cutting people down to size with some very South Dublin fighting talk.
Yes, it's Conor McGregor. The champion mixed martial artist. The Muhammad Ali of cage fighting. The man famous for flooring one of his opponents - the Brazilian Jose Aldo - in an eye-swivelling 13 seconds.
McGregor has made my Irish heart bloat with pride.
In fact, he's resuscitated my Irish pride following a decade in which being Irish had become a bit of a drag, being all about self-flagellation rather than self-confidence, and raking over the dark past rather than fighting for a better future.
McGregor has single-handedly breathed life back into the flailing figure of the Fighting Irish: the Irishman who's self-motored, self-willed, shaping his own destiny rather than allowing himself to be shaped by the ups and downs and horrors of his nation's history.
There are many reasons to admire McGregor. First, of course, his sporting achievements. Having started off scrapping in cages in Dublin in the late 2000s, McGregor ascended up the ranks of the unforgiving sport of mixed martial arts to become the first-ever Irish UFC champ.
UFC - the Ultimate Fighting Championship - is the largest mixed martial arts league in the world. It has 10 weight divisions. McGregor became the featherweight champ on December 12 when, in Las Vegas, in the shortest title fight in UFC history, he pummelled Aldo with essentially one punch.
Then there's McGregor's patter. His poetic putdowns bring to mind Ali, but with a South Dub edge.
In the run-up to his September 2014 fight with Dustin Poirier, who's from Louisiana, McGregor said of his opponent: "He's a quiet, little hillbilly from the back arse of nowhere. His cousin is probably named Cletus."
Ahead of his first-ever fight in the US, wearing one of his trademark immaculate suits, looking like a rich hipster, McGregor told a hack: "There's two things I really like to do, and that's whoop ass and look good. I'm doing one of them right now and on Saturday night I'm doing the other."
He's become famous for goading pretty much everyone in the UFC - not for nothing is "Notorious" his middle name. A video of him hilariously trash-talking fighters from every weight division at a big UFC press conference has been watched by millions.
But he's far from an emotionless brute. Asked if he hated his opponents, he movingly said: "How could I hate someone who has the same dreams as me?"
One of his comments, made in a typically fiery pre-fight interview, should be blown up into a motivational poster and stuck on every Irish kid's bedroom wall: "There is no opponent… You're against yourself."
That's the McGregor message: beat your own limits, overcome your self-doubt. It's the philosophy behind his bravado, the fuel to his flying fists and feet.
And this cuts to the real reason Ireland should cherish McGregor: he's not only making UFC fighters shake with fear - he's shaking up the Irish psyche.
For years now, Ireland has been pretty down about itself. A nation once known for fighting, for its strength of character, for the pluck of the Irish as much as the luck of the Irish, has suffered a bit of a national nervous breakdown.
We've taken to beating ourselves up over the bad things that happened in the past. We've obsessed over the Famine; over the abuse meted out by Church figures; over the horrors of Ireland's old schools and laundries and other institutions.
Where Ireland once gave the world the cocky Brendan Behan and the mocking Flann O'Brien, more recently it's become the world capital of the misery memoir, producing book after book containing awful life stories.
Look, those darker parts of Ireland's past most certainly should be studied, and understood.
But the problem is that they've been allowed to devour the older Irish traits of rebellion and intellectual daring, and to become so pervasive that they've nurtured a palpable sense of national, historical shame.
Too much of Ireland's intellectual class in particular now view the Irish people as mere products of history, the sad, battered end results of all the foul misdeeds of the past hundred years, rather than as potential makers of history.
And as we head into 2016, the 100th anniversary of the moment when the Irish made history in the most dramatic fashion possible, changing not only the course of this nation but also of the British Empire, surely it's time to rediscover a view of the Irish as determiners of their destiny rather than as mere helpless ripples of past nasty events?
No, Conor McGregor is not Padraic Pearse. He won't liberate Ireland anew.
But his desire to fight - against his own niggling internal voice of doubt as much as against another UFC scrapper - is inspiring in an era when the idea of the Fighting Irish is in a very bad way.
Pretty much everything McGregor stands for grates against the new moral orthodoxies of Dublin 4 opinion-formers.
Far from feeling nationally embarrassed, he drapes himself in the tricolour when he wins a fight and arrogantly strides his cage.
Far from buying into the post-crash cult of eco-meekness - be happy with your lot! - he revels in being a poor boy done good, so good he can indulge his love of fast, flashy cars.
And far from seeing himself as a creature to which things happen, he insists that he's the architect of his life, his future, his fortunes.
And if he suffers a setback? A knock?
He doesn't write a misery memoir; he fights on. "Defeat is the secret ingredient to success," he says.
So let us cheer this son of Ireland - of an older, more confident Ireland, when we fought rather than felt sorry for ourselves.