Thursday 21 February 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Stop putting boot into Saoirse's Irish brogue'

Accusing the Hollywood A-lister of being fake because of how she speaks totally misses the point, writes Donal Lynch

Saoirse Ronan at the Golden Globes
Saoirse Ronan at the Golden Globes
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

What is it about Saoirse Ronan? She should make us, as a nation, beyond proud. Last week alone she is being discussed as a possible Oscar contender for Mary Queen of Scots and there are rumours of her hosting the event itself.

She is a genuine once- in-a-generation talent, the first bona fide Irish female film star since Maureen O'Hara and possibly the most gifted young actress since Jodie Foster.

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She's a personable, quick- witted chat show guest. She's managed that rare thing in Hollywood of traversing the treacherous path from child actress to grown-up star. She even forced Americans to learn to pronounce what to them is a fairly esoteric Irish name. Despite her huge success, she hasn't become looks obsessed or attempted to tweak herself surgically.

She should already be a national treasure. And yet, somehow, she seems to rub many Irish people up the wrong way.

Much of this centres on her accent, which seems oddly performative, almost as though she is a person playing someone from Dublin rather than being what she is - a girl from Co Carlow.

Something about the self conscious down-to-earthness of her chat show shtick and her constantly expressed desire to be 'normal' sticks in the craw. It's as though in striving so very hard to be the thing we value above all else - authentic - she seems something less than completely real.

Every time she appears on The Late Late Show there is a deluge of online criticism, most of it centring on the way she speaks. She's referred to herself as "Saoirse from the block" but somehow a lot of us don't buy that. One Irish journalist labelled her 'preposterous' on Twitter. There is a Reddit thread entitled 'where in f***ing hell did Saoirse Ronan get this accent?'

And yet maybe this is all a bit unfair. For one thing, Saoirse was born in New York and moved to Co Carlow when she was a toddler, before moving to Dublin as a teenager. Her parents are both from the capital, with her mother, Monica, coming from Cabra. Footage of her talking when she was 12 and 13 shows she had the same accent then as she does now.

So she can hardly be accused of faking anything and she has a bit of a pass to have a Dublin accent.

But, even if she didn't, perhaps wanting an actress to be 'real' seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what they do.

They professionally assume different identities, they tap into emotions in themselves and others, they channel characters written by someone else.

Stephen Fry once wrote an essay entitled As Mad As An Actress in which he discussed the peculiarly mercurial nature of female thespians. They are creatives. They perform for a living. Expecting them to additionally have some notional salt-of-the-earth realness might be a little bit thick on our parts.

We think of someone who acquires an accent as having notions of some sort - but, in fact, studies show that those inclined to pick up accents easily do so because of a desire to show empathy... exactly the kind of quality an elite actress might need for her work.

Saoirse belongs to a generation of young Irish people who have, with much greater frequency than those who came before them, ditched their regional accents in favour of more urban enunciations. They do this for a variety of reasons: to fit in, to seem sophisticated and because they were raised on a televisual diet of Friends.

In the year Saoirse was born - 1994 - the late, great Nuala O'Faolain wrote of the "colour" of Irish country accents dying among the young. A quarter of a century later, it's hardly surprising that an international star like Saoirse has a mongrel pronunciation.

Most of us have an older relative, who, despite decades in Australia or New York, sound as though they never left the town they came from. This is commented on admiringly, as a source of pride, as though that person never forgot their roots. And yet how could they forget, when most of them lived their lives among other Irish people in exile.

Saoirse's incredible success meant any emigrant experiences she has had could never have taken place in such Gaelic ghettos. She worked primarily with British and American actors and possibly lived a good portion of her youth away from the 'corrective' effects of Irish playground slagging.

In America she would, because of her youth, talent, and nationality, been something of a curiosity, her accent and unusual name constantly commented on. Other famous Irish people in America have gone one of two ways - they have left their original accents behind, as Derry girl Roma Downey or Co Clare-born uber-agent Hylda Queally did; or else they have made their brogue their calling card, as Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson did.

Saoirse has taken the latter approach but, unlike those two other acting greats, she has been constantly lambasted for it.

She has come up in an era when we expect ever greater degrees of accessibility from even the biggest stars. Endless chat show appearances are part of the job description for the modern A-lister and they must demonstrate how down-to-earth they are by playing along with the japes of the likes of Graham Norton or James Corden.

Saoirse is great at this part of the job - witness her brilliant contributions to Saturday Night Live for instance - but her ubiquity also invites an almost unprecedented level of scrutiny about her mannerisms and behaviour.

Add in a big dash of good old-fashioned Irish begrudgery and you have the strangely ambivalent attitude that we show towards her.

But that's probably on us, not on her. The pattern here has been that we love her for the reflected glory that she brings upon the country, but heap criticism upon her for the perceived changes in the way she talks and presents herself.

She said in an interview last week that she wants to spend more time here and work on more Irish productions. Perhaps with a little more time here she'll learn to speak in an accent everyone finds acceptable.

Or maybe something even better could happen: her critics could learn to accept that, despite her success, like most young people, she is still working out her identity and her way of presenting herself.

And she doesn't deserve the stick she gets for it.

Sunday Independent

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