Saturday 16 February 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Taking offence has become a national sport and the more trivial the complaint the better'

Hold The Back Page

Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

In John Cooney's great biography of John Charles McQuaid he reveals how the one-time Archbishop of Dublin became obsessed with the notion that the private parts of women could be detected in underwear ads published by The Irish Press. So outraged was McQuaid that he regularly used a magnifying glass to take a closer look and make sure he was right.

Archbishop McQuaid may be gone but his spirit lives on. Our society is still plagued by people eagerly searching for evidence of things, no matter how minute, which offend their own over-active sense of moral propriety.

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Witness what happened last weekend when Guinness stuck up a billboard declaring, 'You Don't Pick A Side. Your Grandparents Have Done That Already', to mark the beginning of the Six Nations. This is a fairly unremarkable take on the old 'You don't choose your club. You inherit it,' line which has done the rounds in various forms for a long time.

Yet the Immigrant Council of Ireland, and sundry other busybodies, decided to take offence. The ICI complained that the ad "doesn't celebrate the strength of the Irish team (or wider society) or the huge benefit our diversity brings". Guinness reacted by taking down the billboards and apologising, "if the billboard caused any offence or confusion," an act so craven as to remove any possibility of sympathy for them.

Back in the days when the likes of McQuaid ruled the roost another Holy Joe, Oliver Flanagan TD, kicked up a rumpus in the Dáil about the inclusion on the school syllabus of a short story called 'The Trout' by Seán Ó Faoláin which he felt was not about someone catching a fish at all but about S-E-X, something he once insisted had been introduced into Ireland by RTé.

Minister for Education Donogh O'Malley had no time for this nonsense and observed that Flanagan's objections had far more to do with the Laois politician's warped way of looking at the world than the actual content of the story. You could say the same about the Irish Immigrant Council.

For one thing, as the Declan Rice saga shows, it's factually correct to say that grandparents can pick a country for you. And for another it's entirely uncontroversial to note that many people following a side are continuing a proud family tradition. It can be one of the best things about supporting a team.

The specific grounds of the ICI objection are very odd. They complained that the billboard "doesn't celebrate the strength of the Irish team." But it wasn't about the team, it was about the supporters. And as for the idea that it should have mentioned "the huge benefit our diversity brings," what on earth has that sentiment, noble though it is, got to do with a rugby match?

I agree with the IIC about the benefits of diversity but that doesn't mean tributes to it should be compulsory at every major sporting event. Implying that it should is a classic example of overplaying your hand. No doubt Guinness are working on some entirely insincere salute to the joys of multi-cultural Ireland as we speak. Just to show they've learned their lesson.

There was a time when I believed interventions like the one of last week were made in good faith by people genuinely concerned about racism, sexism and the like. But offence is taken so frequently now and on such fallacious grounds that it's clear something else is going on. This is all just a game, where the more trivial the nature of your complaint the better because that shows how much you care.

In the end such campaigns are often simply an attempt by people with too much time on their hands to make themselves feel better by forcing others to grovel. The attacks on Derek Daly and Liam Neeson are cases in point. No-one with any sense should help amplify these things. The whole 'Twitter is going crazy about XYZ' isn't a real story at all.

In the novelist Christopher Isherwood's autobiography, he tells a story about travelling on a ship to the US with his friend WH Auden.

"One morning when they were walking on the deck, Christopher heard himself say: 'You know, it just doesn't mean anything to me any more - the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-fascist struggle. I suppose they're okay but there's something wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.' To which Wystan answered: 'Neither can I."

I know how they felt.

The Last Word: Amond puts the icing on Carlow’s cake

What a week for Carlow. On Sunday, the county's hurlers continued their progress with a totally unexpected draw against Galway thanks to the nerveless conversion of a difficult last-gasp free by Marty Kavanagh. Meanwhile, the footballers' draw away to Westmeath the previous night sees them sit atop Division 3 after two rounds.

On Tuesday night, it was Pádraig Amond's chance to shine, Carlow's greatest sporting export scoring a superb goal as a shock 2-0 win over Middlesbrough set Newport County up with a home FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City.

The former Sligo Rovers striker has been instrumental in the run which puts the Welsh team in the last 16 for the first time in 70 years. Since moving to English football eight years ago, the 30-year-old has played for Accrington Stanley, Morecambe, Grimsby Town and Hartlepool United and been top scorer for all of them, as he currently is for Newport. He, like his home county, well deserves this current spell in the limelight.

* * * * *

Are Mayo going to save the football championship again this year? That's what they did in 2017 when their elongated run through the qualifiers to within an ace of the All-Ireland title was the story of the summer. It papered over the cracks of a competition whose flaws were all too obvious last year in the absence of a Mayo challenge.

The signs are promising. Hammering Tyrone in Omagh last week, Mayo looked stronger than they've ever been at this time of the year. That's important because in the last few seasons a sleepy league campaign foretold sloppy Connacht Championship performances against Galway which propelled Mayo into the qualifiers. It might have made for compelling viewing, but was hardly the optimum route for an ageing side.

James Horan looks like he's doing things a different way. Mayo's two goals last Sunday were encouraging microcosms of the team's performance, the first resulting from the combination of evergreen veterans Andy Moran and Keith Higgins, the second coming from Fionn McDonagh, the type of outstanding prospect the county hadn't brought through in the previous couple of years.

* * * * *

A chill is surely running down the backs of Irish racing fans after the news of an equine flu outbreak in England which has seen the cancellation of racing. With Cheltenham just five weeks away, it's hard to resist memories of 2001 when the Festival didn't take place because of a foot and mouth outbreak.

An equine flu outbreak in Australia 12 years ago caused the suspension of racing there for almost five months, but at the moment it appears that the British Horseracing Authority's prompt action may have staved off the danger. The flu was detected in three horses trained by Donald McCain and horses from all stables which recently competed alongside McCain's are being tested for the disease. Fingers crossed.

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