Culchies love Garth, but urban snobs have 'friends in low places' of their own
Garth Brooks fever has surely now been officially upgraded from "interesting moment" to "bizarre phenomenon". Over 400,000 tickets and five sold-out concerts make it this year's main 'cultural' event. So why are the critics so pompous about it?
"How dare these morons watch a bland pop-country singer whose heyday was two decades ago?!" Who cares, really – it's just entertainment, there's no need to cry about it. You couldn't pay me to see the guy, but however people choose to spend their time and money, leave them at it.
What's really interesting about Garth-mania is how it highlights an urban-rural rift. Tickets were overwhelmingly sold in the provinces; we saw folks queue for days in small towns, while people in Dublin, Cork and Limerick remained mostly immune to his pastoral charm.
I would have assumed that this sociocultural Great Divide, part-mythical and mostly real, would have largely dissolved in the last 20 years. The internet has made the world such a tiny place. Everyone is connected; everything is accessible, to anyone, anywhere, all the time. Gadgets work the same in Donegal as in Darndale.
Yet, country and city remain fundamentally different in some ways. This isn't to say one is better than the other, but they are different. Having lived in cities for almost half my life, I believe this to be true.
It's not about stereotypes: toothless culchies wearing belts of twine versus slum rats in tracksuits stealing hubcaps, or what-have-you. Stereotypes, by definition, draw in broad brushstrokes, ignoring nuances.
But there's a grain of truth to caricatures, and Garth-mania proves it: country people prefer country music. Not all of us, but more than our urban cousins.
Rural Irish are also more likely to be culturally and politically nationalist, and to still go to Mass (whether they actually have faith or not). These aren't lazy assumptions, they're statistically proven. On the flipside, us culchies are also more likely to have a college degree, work in the professions, and spend time abroad. We're not all backward rednecks.
There are also more subtle divergences, difficult to put into words. There's a phrase, "good country people"; the urban equivalent, I guess, would be "salt of the earth". And they don't mean precisely the same thing; they're similar, but not identical.
For me, the greatest distinction between urbi et orbi is Anglicisation. Large parts of our cities are virtually indistinguishable from Britain, unashamedly so. Indeed these people would take it as a badge of honour, looking down on culchies with their quaint indigenous pastimes, freely admitting they have more in common with England than provincial Ireland.
What does nationality mean if all your cultural touchstones are 'other', usually British, and you're actively hostile to all elements of Irishness? I've seen, for instance, Irish urbanites join "anti-ginger" Facebook groups – anti-Irish prejudice by another name.
Their worldview can be summarised as "British good, Irish bad. Man United good, hurling bad. The Beatles good, Irish trad bad. BBC good, RTE bad." (I've heard RTE described as "Bog 1 and Bog 2", firmly placing the national broadcaster in the culchie camp.)
There are two ironies in all this. One is that half our urbanites are the children of culchies anyway.
The second is that the Garth Brooks story has become an excuse to bash culchies for their lack of sophistication. But even if every rural person loved country music – which we don't – it's not like most city-dwellers are particularly sophisticated themselves.
I doubt the average Dub or Corkonian plays viola, visits the Guggenheim or reads Moliere for pleasure. Their tastes are as lumpen as any line-dancing hillbilly, only in a different form: R'n'B, the Premier League, whatever. Not quite the upper reaches of cultural refinement.
And despite the cliche of wide-eyed rustic naïfs gaping in amazement as they disembark in the big smoke, city people are often hilariously clueless about rural Ireland. Dubs are particularly bad.
One I knew, in his early 30s, had never been to Kerry – or any part of Munster – and on finally making the trip, spoke of it with all the nervous excitement of a Victorian adventurer boarding a ship for Siam. Another actually thought that "the country" smelled of slurry. (He didn't know the word slurry, I might add.) The entire island, he believed, beyond the M50 and outside major cities, smelled of a farmyard.
Which proves that you don't need to have cowshit on your boots, or like Garth Brooks, to be a real redneck.