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Normal People - abnormal in all the right ways

And Marianne even sounds like an actual Irish person, writes Declan Lynch


Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) in Normal People

Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) in Normal People

Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) in Normal People

In our minds, we Irish have always been some kind of superpower - not in the sense of a country which can blow up the world by pressing a button, but in terms of our cultural influence.

Most notably the greatness of our artists has given us this idea that we are unlike other nations, that we are ultimately better than them - though paradoxically we are always worried about what they think of us.

Last week in Normal People, I felt that we had made the final step on that long road to our international destiny.

No, it wasn't the fact that the BBC was showing a TV adaptation of an enormously successful Irish novel - showing it before RTE showed it indeed.

No, it wasn't the fact that this TV adaptation is full of Irish talent of all kinds, on both sides of the camera, and in all the other places where our talented people are to be found.

No, it wasn't even the fact that we take it for granted now that we can relax and watch an Irish TV drama, as we have relaxed and watched TV dramas of all kinds, which are not Irish.

No, the true mark of our power in the game these days is that Daisy Edgar-Jones, playing Marianne, had a perfectly normal Irish accent - quite well-spoken, it must be said, but the main thing is that whenever she was speaking, she sounded like she was supposed to sound. Like an Irish person.

But Daisy-Edgar-Jones is not Irish. She is English, born in Islington it seems, a Londoner. And yet there she was, talking away like an Irish person. Apparently one of her parents is from Northern Ireland, but that doesn't matter. When Daisy Edgar-Jones is talking in her own voice, she sounds like an English person, because that after all is what she is.

Now I know you're thinking that she's an actor, and they're always putting on other accents, so it's no big deal - well, there were many other actors before Daisy who were always putting on other accents, with one exception: the Irish accent.

I mean, they might make an effort, but not enough of an effort to do it right. There was one magnificent exception: Anjelica Huston in the film adaptation of Joyce's The Dead was flawless in her rendition of the voice of a Galway woman. But it was Joyce, after all, and her father, the great John Huston, was directing it, which gave a hint as to why she was so good.

Huston had also become an Irish citizen and the family had lived in Galway, so while Anjelica was technically a 'foreigner', she didn't need any language coaches or the like to keep her sounding right.

Yes, her performance was legendary, but because she was in many ways Irish herself, I don't think we can count it as a legitimate contender in this crucial battleground - because it is crucial that an actor will now actually go to all this trouble, that most actors never bothered going to before.

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Nor did Irish directors or producers seem to have the power to force them to talk properly; it mattered only that an international audience got some version of an Irish accent which they wrongly assumed was the real one. Indeed there were times when you'd wonder if our accent was somehow uniquely difficult for even the most skilled impersonators, because the only other interpretation is that they just couldn't be arsed.

Now that's all over; now they come to us, hoping against hope that they're able to sound like one of us, that they will be acceptable to our ears.

And there is one more truly exceptional thing about Normal People: in the male lead character of Connell, Sally Rooney has created that rarest of all things: a good man.

I think it was Colm Toibin who, when asked to analyse the work of Roddy Doyle, pointed out that in Jimmy Rabbitte, we have a most exceptional character in Irish literature: a good father.

Connell in Normal People, from what I could gather from the first two episodes anyway, is a good man of the rarest kind.

Not only is he an outstanding Gaelic footballer, he is a thoroughly decent chap: he reads good books but not so that he can brag about it; he notes the horrible behaviour of his schoolmates without being overly judgmental; he is capable of empathy and intimacy.

No doubt there are men in Ireland and beyond who might be able to tick one or two of those boxes, but Connell really has the full set, nailed down. He's laying down a marker for all Irish men - and for the whole world.

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