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Cowen not to blame for our bad image

IN the aftermath of Leno-Cowen-gate, a lot has been made in the media about the Irish image abroad, and how it has been tarnished by the Taoiseach's antics.

I think that now more than ever, with Irish people once again heading off to foreign shores in search of a new life, the country needs to have a good think about our national identity, and in which light we wish people from other parts of the world to view us.

It is reported that 70,000 Irish people have emigrated in the past year, and there appears to be no let-up in sight. There is a tendency to wave these people off, to wish them the best and from then on (bar Facebook or the odd email) it's a case of out of sight and out of mind. Nobody ever imagines to tell these people that as carriers of a passport issued by the Irish State, there is an onus on them to make the effort to behave themselves.

We have this automatic assumption that these emigrants are going to fly the flag with dignity and be model ambassadors wherever they go. We have this mantra that 'everyone loves the Irish'. I'm going to be honest here. I think that the mantra should read: 'Everyone tolerates the Irish.'

And even this is not always the case. Take the American state of California: Irish Central, an Irish magazine in the States ran the following report last month: 'Irish students unwelcome in California towns'. William Sanchez, property manager of the Breakpointe apartment complex in Isla Vista, stated: "Housing Irish students is the worst experience ever. Last Tuesday night there was a couple of grand worth of damage done. Some Irish students were throwing microwaves into a swimming pool. It's been going on for years."

A spokesman for the Santa Barbara sheriff's office stated: "Many of the arrests of young Irish people relate to vandalism, fighting and public drunkenness." He continued to relate a story which I'm fairly sure would be in the run-of-the-mill category. He said they had a situation last week where three young Irish males were arrested after kicking in the door of an apartment. One of those men was caught wearing only a pair of briefs, and all of them were drunk.

A few years ago, I wrote an article condemning Irish stag parties in Poland. I stated only what I had witnessed myself, namely an Irish guy urinating in a city-centre fountain in broad daylight, and another burning Polish money, in front of a bemused barman, to light a cigarette. At the time, a man from west Cork felt compelled to write a letter to the paper, accusing me of spreading propaganda and, in the most cliched of ways, compared me to Goebbels. Well, the only thing I can say is that I only wrote what I saw and if people are truly worried about the Irish reputation abroad, Brian Cowen is the last person we should be worried about. I live abroad for most of the year, and wasn't remotely embarrassed by the stories about the Taoiseach, because, in my mind, these stories are nobody's business but our own. What does make me cringe, however, is being in bar in Warsaw on a Saturday night, seeing some eejit on a stag or a dirty weekend, acting like a belligerent jackass, disrespecting everyone and basically bringing shame on our country, in front of startled locals. Forget about Jay Leno, these are the in-your-face demonstrations of ignorance that really give us a bad name.

Most of the time, people living in one country have at best a vague idea of what is going on in another. For the most part, the stories that do come through are generally embellished or completely misunderstood by the local media, so what you get is a form of hearsay which would be best described as Chinese whispers.

The real impression of a country comes from us who are out on the front line, providing people in other countries with concrete evidence of what we are really like.

I am not tarring everyone with the same brush. The people I am talking about are usually in a small but highly vocal minority. The vast majority of Irish people who travel abroad know how to behave and realise what their responsibilities are.

I was married in Warsaw last week. A contingent of family and friends came over from Cork for the weekend. They partied, they drank hard and they had a ball, but they conducted themselves in a manner becoming of our nation. Everywhere I've been this week, my Polish friends and the staff of the bars and restaurants we visited have told me how impressive their conduct was and how their return would be welcomed at any time. But as every Irish person living abroad knows, it would only have taken one to make a mess of it.

If we are truly worried about our image abroad, we need to re-evaluate our mindset. The politicians of Ireland, Brian Cowen included, have a lot to answer for, but the charge of embarrassing us on the international stage is not one for which I'm willing to let them carry the can. There are a quite a few of us who are well able to cover that side of things all by ourselves.

Sunday Independent