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John-Paul McCarthy: Rory a denizen of that no man's land

RORY McIlroy may not know it, but in his quandary about his future Olympic allegiance, he joins a noble lineage.

Should he hoist the green, white and gold while gazing up at the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio in 2016, or celebrate victory with a Union Jack?

Tough call for a citizen of the revamped Northern Ireland, a place whose title deeds explicitly "recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both."

For some reason last week, McIlroy's sojourn in a happy identity limbo reminded me of Niall Toibin, another denizen of that special Anglo-Irish no-man's land.

When I was a child, we would always drive to Ballyheigue in Kerry for the summer holidays, the small sandy village flanking the Atlantic swell where James Anthony Froude liked to hike and where Roger Casement came a cropper.

Just as we cleared Killarney and bore down hard on the road to Tralee -- home of the Aquadome and assorted pound shops -- my parents would always play a tape of Toibin's live shows.

To this day I'm transfixed by his poise and his timing, as well as by his insistence on the absolute antithesis between comedy and self-pity.

I see his stand-up act now as a series of meditations on the varieties of the emigrant experience. Toibin told stories about the 'Dagenham Yanks' from Blackpool in Cork city, hardened labourers who had to search abroad for the dignity denied them at home.

With that arch disdain of his for the merely sentimental, Toibin also told tales of poorer devils who did only marginally better across the channel, and ended up haunting William Hill's betting shops or drinking cans in Kilburn, the type of life beautifully rendered on TG4 last year in Colm Meaney's Kings of the Kilburn High Road.

Toibin's darker asides about the unthinking racism of the Cockney hard-chargers or the bitterness that often infected those who stayed home were always filtered, and thus controlled through personal experience.

RTE dumped him at the first tap-tap of the episcopal crozier in the Seventies and he fled to English television as a grateful orphan.

He wrote movingly about his indebtedness to Channel 4 and UTV in his memoir, Smile and Be a Villain, as well as his sense of having been betrayed by Montrose after years of quality work in Irish and English.

He had no problems finding his stride in England after 1977 because "for 20 years I have been semi-detached, a foot on either side of the Irish Sea".

Toibin played Slipper in The Irish RM alongside Peter Bowles as Major Yates.

Like Rory McIlroy, Toibin confessed to being a bit lost by the whole Anglo-Irish thing.

He found the Somerville and Ross books bittersweet and ambiguous, and said he always remembered one particular snippet of the dialogue years after hanging up his (filthy) cap as Slipper the hound-keeper.

The dialogue is an exchange between the major's wife Philippa and Slipper as they dance the night away at the Servants' Ball.

Slipper: "Didn't the major do very well, all the same, and him an Englishman?"

Philippa: "Maybe a bit too English, Mr O'Mahoney?"

Slipper: "No. There's nothing we dislike more than an Englishman pretending to be Irish. The English are the English and the Irish are the Irish, and they understand each other like the fox and the hound."

Philippa: "And which is the fox, Mr O'Mahoney, and which the hound?"

Slipper: "Ah now, Ma'am, sure if we knew that, we'd know everything."

This edgy exchange quarters contentedly with Toibin's tough-minded humanism.

Other people of that generation registered the complexity of the Anglo-Irish relationship in a more basic idiom.

One of the best emigrant memoirs from the Gaeltacht is Maidhc Dainin O Se's A Thig Na Tit Orm from 1987, an unadorned and powerful account of his journey from the semi-feudal scarcities of the Carrachan area of the Kerry Gaeltacht to Sears Roebuck in the Chicago of Adlai Stevenson and Saul Bellow.

O Se was grateful to London for a very simple reason; it provided him with regular wages and the price of his airplane ticket to America.

He recalled two immortal words of advice from his first few days in Woodgreen. Number one was "Tugtar Pat ar gach Eireannach" -- every Irishman is called Pat -- and number two; "Sex is the religion in this country, my boy."

He never looked back.

This kind of flux and easy mixing wasn't always the stuff of public celebration in Ireland though.

A large part of Patrick Pearse's slow-burning hysteria came from the fact that his father was English.

Brian Friel's influential play Translations saw cultural mixing as a euphemism for confrontation and violence.

And Friel's Field Day colleague, the poet Tom Paulin, used a book about the great British radical William Hazlitt to opine about "the complex self-disgust that can afflict those who exist on the interface between two cultural identities".

Friel and Paulin were tipping their hats here to the Palestinian academic Edward Said and his bleak attack on the "supine malleability" of those who identify with two homelands.

Toibin and O Se are mighty shields against that kind of paranoia. And now Rory McIlroy joins them as another happy example of Brecht's belief that "To be good while yet surviving/Split me like lightning into two people".

Sunday Independent