Thursday 21 March 2019

We think we're great, or do we?

Our national self-esteem goes up and down like a yo-yo, and it is not helped by the conviction that the whole world is watching us, obsessing about our behaviour, good or bad. Luckily, we're on an upswing at the moment and we think we're the bee's knees again - but how long will this newfound optimism last?

We did have to listen to people telling us that they were 'ashamed to be Irish' following every atrocity - London's Regents's Park following an IRA bomb blast, which killed seven people in 1982
We did have to listen to people telling us that they were 'ashamed to be Irish' following every atrocity - London's Regents's Park following an IRA bomb blast, which killed seven people in 1982
Politicians went big on austerity, not so much because they thought it would work, but because they seemed to think we deserved it - Finance Minister Brian Lenihan in September 2010
Colin Farrell arrives with singer Britney Spears for the premiere of the film 'The Recruit' in 2003
Taoiseach Charles Haughey greets President Mary Robinson at Croke Park before the Down/Meath clash in the 1991 All-Ireland Senior Football final
U2, circa 1990, when they really were the biggest rock band in the world
Our Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum seems to have convinced a sizable proportion of us that there really is nobody on this planet like the Irish for sheer wonderfulness - Leo Varadkar celebrates the passing of the referendum in Dublin Castle
Jack Charlton greets his fans
Didn't we get a tweet from Miley Cyrus? So perhaps this really is the most liberal and gay-friendly nation in the world - singer Miley Cyrus in her 'Wrecking ball' video
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

If Irish national self-esteem was a racehorse, it would have been subject to a Turf Club inquiry by now. The oscillations in form seem simply too severe to be genuine. Our feelings about ourselves as a nation mirror the mood swings produced by over-indulgence in the country's favourite stimulant. We go from, "This is great, I've never had so much fun, everyone is fantastic," to, "I'm never doing that again, I hate myself, what kind of creature behaves like this?" in short order, before deciding, after some mature reflection, that maybe we were right first time around.

It's a bit like the warning of the great English writer, and drinker, Kingsley Amis, to beware of what he called The Metaphysical Hangover. Forget the feelings of, "anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future . . . start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover," he advised. Sometimes it can seem that the Irish national conscience frequently suffers from a Metaphysical Hangover as we experience a collective profound sense of worthlessness about things which, perhaps, aren't such a big deal after all.

Mind you, the opposite point of view is worse again. The only thing worse than a national fit of shame and guilt is a national fit of exaggerated self-congratulation. Indeed, these can occur more frequently and last a lot longer. Such affirmations of our unique national fabulousness usually have two parts. The first is what Flann O'Brien used to call the, "only in Ireland," syndrome. The man who wrote his newspaper columns as Myles na gCopaleen knew us only too well, and included high up on his list of Great Irish Bores, was the person who will come out with the line, "only in Ireland," about almost any incident, no matter how common or uninteresting it is. Not much change there, then.

There is also, perhaps more damagingly, our conviction that everyone is watching us. This manifests itself in such statements as: "Sure, they all love the Irish," on the one side and: "We must be the laughing stock of Europe" on the other. It seems that most of the world's countries apparently spend so much time obsessing about the behaviour of the Irish that they have neither the time nor the inclination to ponder their own achievements or lament their shortcomings. There are probably even native tribes as yet undiscovered in the jungles of Papua New Guinea whose days are taken up wondering what the Irish are up to in this weather.

Our national Facebook status has gone from "crap" to "great" and back again a few times in my lifetime. Here's how we did it.

We are Crap

When I was a teenager, our national crapness was axiomatic; so much so, that when Gay Byrne suggested in the 1980s - light-heartedly I think, though who can tell - that we should hand the country back to the Queen of England and apologise for the damage, this bon mot was treated as the very latest thing in wisdom.

He was probably pushing it a bit. Those of us lucky enough to be living in parts of the country served by illegally pirated foreign TV signals may have noticed that life in the Queen's own bailiwick, between Boys from the Blackstuff, the Brixton riots, the miner's strike and Kajagoogoo, was not entirely without its grim aspects either.

Of course, it was made even grimmer by the IRA bombing campaign of the time. We were fortunate to escape this by and large, though we did suffer the consequence of having to listen to people telling us that they were "ashamed to be Irish" following every atrocity. Which was a bit unfair to people on this side of the Border at least, considering that Sinn Fein electoral support was so low at the time that even Renua wouldn't have claimed it as a moral victory.

The breast-beating was perhaps not always devoid of a self-important wish to muscle in on someone else's tragedy. I'm not a great believer in this concept of collective guilt myself. There was also the question of which countries we should feel ashamed in front of. The Germans? The Soviets? The English and Argentinians - who'd just spent a while blowing smithereens out of each other over a distant island inhabited largely by sheep? A couple of years later, some of the Balkan nations took to slaughtering each other in numbers, which made our own ethnic conflict look like very small stuff indeed.

But, what harm? In the 1980s, we liked to apologise for everything. Garret FitzGerald was a kind of national leader of this tendency, on one occasion explaining that the latest austerity budget would make countries who hadn't thought much of us once think we were now great altogether. Garret seemed to be forever apologising to an invisible Englishman who hovered somewhere over his shoulder.

The Pro-Life Campaign of 1983 did its best to cheer everyone up by saying if we passed their referendum to make abortion, which was illegal, even more illegal, we would become a beacon of saintliness in a godless and immoral world. Strangely enough, the success of the campaign didn't seem to lighten the general mood.

We're Great

There's a line in Pat McCabe's classic novel The Butcher Boy when its anti-hero Francie Brady declares that he's now become a member of the "Francie Brady Not A Bad Bastard Anymore Society". And that's what basically happened on a national level in the 1990s.

The Celtic Tiger had a lot to do with it, but perhaps the first hint that we were about to become rather pleased with ourselves occurred around the time that Jack Charlton's Irish soccer team was qualifying for major tournaments. This was indeed something to celebrate, but on reflection, our eagerness to describe ourselves as, "the best supporters in the world," was a slightly worrying development.

This largely came about because, like Garret FitzGerald and Gay Byrne before them, when our football supporters compared themselves to someone, it was to the English. And our rise to prominence coincided with a period when the English, like Lacoste-clad Visigoths, were engaged in laying waste to the town centres of Europe.

Hardly anyone else behaved like this, but we went on as though only Irish fans could be trusted to go to a football match without going into Clockwork Orange mode. And so the self-praise began, a little stream which would eventually become a mighty and fearful torrent.

The success of U2 also helped. Perhaps there even was a time when they really were "the biggest rock band in the world", as they were frequently described by the media on their home turf. But it was seriously rimming it to describe Dublin as "the rock music capital of the world", - a piece of boosterism, which like the existence of witches and the health-giving benefits of cigarettes, was once believed to be true by many otherwise sane people.

To really believe, you needed to make very large claims about the importance of Cactus World News, Les Enfants and Zerra One, claims which it is fair to say are perhaps not borne out by the subsequent tide of rock history.

Everywhere, there was evidence that to be Irish was to have won first place in the lottery of life. The economic recovery kicked off big-time, and the war in the North ended, which gave us the chance to wag the finger at every other conflict-torn nation in the world, no matter how serious their problems, and tell them they should take a leaf out of our book.

The fit of boasting that we embarked upon after electing Mary Robinson as President led to suspicions that many people here thought she was the world's first female head of state, even though, for example, Ceylon had elected one back in 1960, an actual prime minister with powers to do things other than cut the tape at community centres.

Seamus Heaney winning the Nobel Prize proved that we were better at anyone else at writing and, as Dara O'Briain pointed out, when Colin Farrell briefly went out with Britney Spears, you'd swear that we were all going out with her.

From being convinced that everyone was laughing at us, we now knew that everyone loved us. Even the bad stuff could be turned to our advantage. Young lads home from America told boring and untrue stories about how black people, those infallible judges of what was cool, really liked the Irish because we weren't complicit in their oppression at all. The black people in question had presumably missed the fact that because so many NYPD officers were of Irish extraction, the leading African-American poet of the 60s, Amiri Baraka, had written about "leaving them dead with tongues pulled out and sent back to Ireland".

We even managed to try and take the positives from the worst event in our history by celebrating the Famine. Do that kind of thing, and you know critical mass is being reached in terms of self-congratulation.

We were great now, and it was always going to be like this.

We're Crap Again

It shows just how confident we were then, that the event which really condemned to us a terrible downfall was actually greeted as just another Irish masterstroke when it happened. Seriously, the papers which came out just after the (shudder) bank guarantee took the view that this was a stroke of tactical genius on the part of Brian Lenihan which would make us (uh-oh) the envy of Europe.

But that wasn't how it turned out, and as the economy went down quicker than an intern in Bill Clinton's office, all our confidence drained away and we began to beat ourselves up with an enthusiasm which would have gladdened the heart of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch himself.

We were cross with the bankers, but mainly we seemed to blame ourselves. Politicians went big on austerity, not so much because they thought it would work, but because they seemed to think we deserved it after all that unaccustomed happiness and self-confidence. Michael Noonan even revived the old Garret FitzGerald line and told us to grin and bear the pain because the Germans would really respect us if we did.

People who hadn't committed any sin more terrible than buying houses with wages from jobs they had no idea would vanish because of the financial mistakes of those further up the ladder, started to bewail the fact that we'd "lost the run of ourselves". I can remember one poor lad telling an RTE presenter on the radio that he had "bought all kinds of luxuries". "What kind?" the presenter asked. "Like patio furniture." "Patio furniture isn't a luxury," replied the presenter, and even if that happens to be the most Celtic Tiger thing anyone ever said, he was right, too. That man could have kept buying patio furniture to his heart's content if the bankers hadn't screwed up his life.

But now we were back feeling guilty about everything. When the 'best supporters in the world' went to the 2012 European Championships, they were roundly criticised at home for having the poor taste to keep cheering for the team even when Ireland was losing. The good-natured band of fans were now criticised by a Labour Party TD for bringing a flag into a pub and for consensually licking the breast of a representative of the Croatian Tourist Board - acts which, back when we liked ourselves, would have passed without much adverse comment.

And just as we'd gone on too much about how great we were, we now became bores on the subject of our inherently corrupted nature. When racist comments started to be made about Irish immigrants in Australia, there was never any shortage of keyboard warriors to chime in with a, "It's true. We are awful. We are the worst". You couldn't move for claims that we have the world's most terrible drink problem, though the last WHO survey showed us at number 22 worldwide - not great, perhaps, but just another example of how we're rarely done exaggerating both our woes and wonders.

Meanwhile, there was a fashion for articles by young middle-class emigrants saying how they were never going to come back because Ireland had let them down, and displaying their immense sophistication by revealing that when they were abroad they never hung out with Irish people at all. Though really, these articles, perhaps, weren't all that different from the speeches of the winos who used to stagger out of North London tube stations and shout, "I'm never going back, I'm never going back. I never go to fuggen Mass".

Generation Emigration? Generation Flagellation. We couldn't just be crap, we had to be more crap than anyone else. It was like the whole country had gone out to one enormous 1980s night.

We're Great Again (I think)

And that's it. We're crap again and wallowing in it to our heart's content. Or (duh-duh-duh-duh) are we?

Because our Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum - which I'm very happy about, by the way - seems to have convinced a sizable proportion of us that there really is nobody on this planet like the Irish for sheer wonderfulness. Witness the constant repetition of the statement that we were the first country to bring in gay marriage by popular vote. This is true, but, like the stuff about hurling being the world's fastest field sport, doesn't mean a hell of a lot, because there aren't that many countries where such legislation is voted on by the public.

But I suppose we deserve a break. Flogging yourself non-stop, despite the Opus Dei position on the matter, probably isn't that much good for you. And this time the world really did seem to be watching us. Didn't we get a tweet from Miley Cyrus? So perhaps this really is the most liberal and gay-friendly nation in the world, a country-sized Castro, a rainy Mykonos.

Of course, it'll only take one unsuccessful abortion referendum, or the failure to even hold one by our timid politicians, to reduce many of those who celebrated outside Dublin Castle back to shame, guilt and the conviction that people everywhere, including Miley Cyrus, despise us for our backwardness.

Right now, let's enjoy it while it lasts. Because it won't last. Sure, if it did, we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves.

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