From Obama Plaza to Meghan Markle Mall: why we love to claim celebrities as Irish
I suppose that I have to like her now?
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, is one of the most photographed and speculated about women in the world, but I have to confess that - beyond the family sideshow and the odd good dress - I find her rather uninteresting. Not the fact of her, oh no; a mixed-race American divorcee striding the halls of Buckingham Palace is a fascinating development in the contemporary chapter of the British monarchy. But the woman herself… She's, well, meh. (No offence your grace, but making random judgements about people I've never met is essential to the Pop Life cause.)
This week, however, came the news that will no doubt force me to rethink my stance: Meghan has Irish roots. She's Irish? Sure, 'tis no surprise. Didn't she marry a redhead? Grand girl altogether. There was a McMarkle in my class in school, or maybe it was an O'Markle…
Meghan's Irish roots were traced by genealogical research company Eneclann, which discovered the marriage certificate of her great-great-great grandparents. It reveals that, on January 23, 1860, Thomas Bird and Mary McCague were married in the Church of Ireland parish in Donnybrook. Thomas was a private in the British Army, based at Beggars Bush Barracks, while Mary is thought to have been a Catholic originally from Belfast. Six months after their marriage, Thomas's regiment was transferred to Malta and the couple left to begin a new life, which would eventually take the family line to Canada and the States.
If we conveniently sweep to one side her Dutch, English and African American heritage, this document allows us to call the duchess one of our own. And there's nothing that we, as a nation, like more than bringing a long-lost son or daughter back into the fold. For years we've been laying claim to the great and the good, from Hollywood stars to political heavyweights - and even a real heavyweight in the form of Muhammad Ali, whose ancestors hailed from Clare. (Indeed, by times, ancestry was the only thing that allowed us to field a decent national soccer team.)
Why do we do this? Why do we want everyone to have a link to Ireland? Is it for fame-by-association, or to remind the world that we're important - and we're everywhere - or simply because of the cultural peculiarity that makes us yearn to establish a connection to those around us? Why are we not satisfied with the many prominent people who were actually born here and live here?
Why is it okay for us to loudly proclaim that American-born Tom Cruise is Irish, but be incensed when American-born Saoirse Ronan is identified as British (see the furore over her recent Harper's Bazaar cover). It's as though we view celebrities as Pokemon - Ireland's gotta catch 'em all.
The boldest stretch we've ever made in this genealogy game was in proclaiming Barack Obama as Irish. More than a few of us sniggered when the announcement was initially made, but we soon changed our tune when political necessity saw the then-US President enthusiastically embrace his Celtic heritage and put Moneygall on the global map.
Now, Obama's lasting legacy in Offaly is the Barack Obama Plaza - a petrol station and rest stop off the M7. There was more sniggering when it was unveiled, but having visited the plaza myself, I can attest to it being a fine institution where you can get a sambo with a side of chips for a price that would shock most Dubs. And you can have your photo taken with a cardboard cut-out of Barack and Michelle for free.
Which begs the question: what are we going to build to celebrate Meghan's Irish heritage? Alas, the places she visited with new husband Harry last July - Croke Park, Trinity College, Government Buildings - all have well established identities. Instead, my vote would be to turn the old Clerys site on Dublin's O'Connell Street into the Meghan Markle Mall. In this age of political strife, what better way to celebrate the intertwined histories of Britain, Ireland and America than by buying one of our Suits suits or replica tiaras (we'll let you have the emeralds), or by stopping at our café for a Clarence House cuppa. Photos with our Meghan and Harry cardboard cut-out will cost €5 - we may have a new gra for the Duchess, but we still have a Brexit to prepare for.