Irish Roots: Tom Cruise’s Glorious Otherness

Irish roots: intolerance and hospitality


Thirty years ago, I travelled in India for a while. Among my most vivid memories is something that happened in the middle of the indescribable chaos of a railway ticket office.

A small boy aged about 10, filthy and dressed in rags, started staring at me through the crowd. When I began to stare back, he didn't drop his gaze, didn’t change his utterly blank expression.

Shivers started to run down the back of my neck. It felt as if he didn’t recognize me as a fellow human being, as if the very notion of common humanity didn’t exist for him.

At the other end of the Indian social scale, a journey on an air-conditioned sleeper provided a less eerie version of the same experience. The middle-class Indians sharing their compartment with a couple of rancid, heat-stunned Irish blithely ignored us.

There was no question of hostility, just absolute indifference. It took a while, but eventually I came to see that what was happening in both cases was true tolerance, unreserved acceptance of difference, without any need to make it familiar, or even welcome.

Ireland certainly inhabits the other end of the spectrum. We’re not nearly as intolerant as some anti-racism campaigners would have us believe, but accepting otherness is not something we do easily.

Watch Irish people meeting for the first time abroad and you’ll see long, tortuous explorations of how precisely they have to be connected. Absence of connection is not an option. Our brand of tolerance to foreigners is similar, the kind of hospitality that invites the outsider to become one of us.

And the most extreme version of this goes: “Now you just make yourself comfortable there, while I get the genealogist to fit you into the family.”

Personally, I would prefer just to be able to tolerate Tom Cruise, in all his glorious otherness.

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