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Kevin Myers: What great talent would the world lose today if Ireland were washed away without trace?

One of the central problems of 'Irishness' is the disorder created by the bipolarity of overweening conceit and pathological self-loathing. The result is not some happy medium, but violent mood swings of the emotional compass that make plotting a prudent national course virtually impossible.

Of course, the two extremes are different expressions of the same condition. The T-shirt boast -- "There's two sorts of people in this world: the Irish, and those who want to be Irish" -- reveals not merely poor grammar, but a desperate insecurity. You see the same phenomenon in vox pops on television, when people begin their replies with: "I'm Irish, and as an Irishman/woman . . ."

When the ego becomes subordinate to the greater tribe, and when a person thinks of themselves primarily as part of an aggregate rather than as an individual, then the first blow has been struck against their own self-confidence. For then, their self-esteem is always dependent on the conduct of others -- and one thing is certain when this is the case. You will always be disappointed, for your own self-esteem cannot escape undamaged from the misconduct of others, especially if they suffer from the same bipolar disorder that causes you to depend upon them in the first place.

For personal misconduct is almost inevitable in a society that is so given to self-loathing, simply because self-loathers constantly re-supply themselves with justification for the way they feel. Hence, the accursed Irish vice of being late is one of the most chronic symptoms of the bipolarity. On the one hand, it is a sign of overweening conceit, to keep others waiting; on the other, it shows utter disdain for one's own self-respect.

No one who is habitually late is truly proud. Conceited, no doubt; proud, impossible. For real pride is the quiet and respectful self-confidence amongst the strong; it is not tardy, nor is it the witless pot-boy bragging of petty nationalism, classically embodied in the Wolfe Tones' song 'You'll Never Beat the Irish'.

Sorry: who in the name of God wants to -- apart, that is, from the Irish themselves?

What we need is to create a careful language that eschews the extravagance of bipolarity. And we can start by abandoning the g-word in connection with the Irish people. The President used it once again in her Christmas address. "We have men and women of great ability across the arts, humanities, sciences, technologies, sports and development aid sectors, whose genius enhances Irish life and Ireland's international reputation."

This is simply wrong. The Irish are no more possessed of a genius than the Sicilians or the Maltese or the Lithuanians or the Zulus. Though, funnily enough, historically, the term "genius" is strangely apposite to the key problem I've been talking about here. For "genius" used to represent either of the bipolar forces that a person was believed to be subject to. One force was a genius for evil; the other was a genius for good -- hence the related word, "genie". However, over time, the term came to represent the quintessence of an extremely rare and overwhelming talent.

We should hold on to that meaning, because it is precious. Genius exists when its owners leave an imperishable mark upon the cultural world they inhabit. Bach, Shakespeare, Einstein, Mozart, Puccini, Vivaldi, Michelangelo, Darwin, von Braun, Daimler, Kipling and Edison were geniuses. From Ireland, Holland, Parsons, Yeats and Joyce could be classified as geniuses. But I'd be reluctant to declare any Irish person alive today to be in that league. What great talent would the world lose today if Ireland were washed away without trace?

The forfeiture of which particular feature of Irish life would cause people to start awake in San Diego and Shanghai, their eyes brimming with tears at the irredeemable loss to civilisation? The truth is that almost no Irish person alive today is going to be remembered even in Ireland in a hundred years' time, never mind in Peking or Rio or Bombay.

We are a very small community in the Anglophone world. The contributions for which we are known are usually for contributions to other people's cultures. U2's music is merely a talented but ephemeral variation on an American artform. Seamus Heaney largely falls within the classical traditions of English poetry. Neil Jordan's artistic voice is essentially that of Hollywood. That's it: minor and submissive tributaries to far larger streams.

If we get a real sense of proportion about ourselves, then there's no reason either for excessive self-loathing or overweening conceit: instead, we can settle for a modest appreciation of some modest talent which dwells on a wet island off the European mainland.

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Most people in the world have never heard of Ireland, and many of those who have are unsure of the difference between us and Scotland, or whether we are part of Britain. We are neither blessed with a unique genius, nor with a unique depravity. However, we are afflicted with an unusual, and -- especially for foreign ambassadors here -- an irritating tendency to exaggerate our own importance. In reality, what Portlaoise is to Ireland, we are to Europe: and what Bohola is to Berlin, we are to the world.

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