Monday 20 January 2020

Fiona O'Connell: 'Ireland: the poor mouth meets the secret millionaire'

Lay of the Land

'Because well-off country clans often act as if they are in an episode of The Secret Millionaire - unfortunately without the accompanying handouts at the finale for have-not neighbours' (stock photo)
'Because well-off country clans often act as if they are in an episode of The Secret Millionaire - unfortunately without the accompanying handouts at the finale for have-not neighbours' (stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

Any blow-in to an Irish country town soon learns that appearances can be a far from accurate reflection of the hierarchy in place beneath the supposedly egalitarian surface. For the snobbery and class consciousness that Frank O'Connor captured so brilliantly in short stories written almost 100 years ago has not disappeared - and most definitely is not confined to Cork. A pecking order of power and prestige is alive and well in rural Ireland, where a few families in every townland rule the roost.

Sometimes they have done so for generations, which explains why they have an inflated sense of their own importance. Especially as small communities have long memories. Even if wealth is recent or of dubious origin, they are big fish in relatively small provincial pools. Though woe betide anyone who calls them so.

Because well-off country clans often act as if they are in an episode of The Secret Millionaire - unfortunately without the accompanying handouts at the finale for have-not neighbours. In classic Irish style, they prefer to put on the poor mouth, making a show of being down-at-heel folk who have to count the pennies. When in reality they likely need an accountant to keep a handle on their vast tracts of land and loot.

Such cute hoor hypocrisy helps maintain the myth that Ireland doesn't have a class system, ironically even as it enables country kingpins to behave in a manner more reminiscent of medieval royalty. They are happy to perpetuate prejudice against descendants of big houses, who you also see about a country town, often chatting amiably with folk whose families once served them. Yet such blatantly posh folk are a benign minority, with cash-rich Catholics having far more clout.

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Some adapt a stage-Irish persona of sly and savage contempt, oversimplifying complex issues to conveniently dodge awkward questions about what goes on in their own sizeable back yards. For these rural rich kids often display a high-handed disregard for the consequences of their actions for the wider community, letting historical buildings fall into disrepair or adding to their fortune by selling off beauty spots as sites for McMansions or sprawling housing estates. Others lease land to unscrupulous farmers who destroy acres of pristine biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Maybe it's because of our history that rural Ireland is rife with this greedy gombeenism that sees fat country cats play the pleb, showing contempt for intelligent discourse and indulging in an insidious form of inverted snobbery that scorns learning. Or maybe playing down the power of education to elevate the poor is just a cynical ruse to ensure they remain rural top dog.

Certainly, taking pride in ignorance is a shameful insult to this former land of saints and scholars. And given their children usually attend the most expensive schools in Ireland, a bit rich.

Sunday Independent

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