An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Mar 19, 2009, 00:00

IMMEDIATELY after the Simpsons’ “love-letter to Ireland” the other night, Sky One developed the theme with a grimly fascinating programme called Make Me Irish. Presented by the cockney actor and comedian Shane Richie, its basic thesis was that the inhabitants of this island were the most popular people on earth, bar none, and that anyone in his right mind would want to be one of us.

Richie had just such an ambition. And although his parents were Irish (so that if he proved conspicuously good at anything we would have claimed him anyway, without the need for a formal application), the documentary followed his visit to the ancestral homeland and his painstaking attempts to talk, sing, dance, and hurl his way into our affections.

The striking thing about the programme was that nobody he spoke to here disagreed with his premise that everybody everywhere loved us. Maybe a few interviewees did express doubt on this point and, because this didn’t fit the theme, their contributions were cut. But those who appeared, most of whom seemed otherwise in full command of their faculties, were in complete agreement with him on the issue.

Indeed, with the generosity of the privileged, they were only too happy to help with the other part of his project: giving him tips on his attempts (mostly doomed, it has to be said) to pass himself off as one of us.

I suppose it’s only to be expected that, in the country of the Céad Míle Fáilte, we should have a great welcome (or two) for ourselves. But was there ever a nation so convinced of its universal popularity as we are? And anyway, whatever happened to the virtue of false modesty? Do Irish mothers not teach it to their children any more?

This would be a bad week to advance the counter-proposal that we’re not nearly as liked as we think we are. Even as the Simpsons were writing us love-letters, America’s other first family were, as usual, allowing us the run of the White House. Meanwhile, if the reports from Brussels to Buenos Aires are be believed, people the world over were dancing in the streets out of sheer gratitude for our existence.

But apart from British imperialists, there must be other pockets of anti-Irishness in the world by now. German taxpayers, for example, resentful at the prospect of having to bail us out again, after us screwing them for years with low corporation tax rates. Eurocrats too, at least as they await the Lisbon re-run. And Ryanair customers. Surely there are millions of them out there at this stage, who hold Michael O’Leary against us personally?

IN THE circumstances, it was almost refreshing yesterday to hear the former Ireland rugby coach Warren Gatland claim that his Wales team would be really motivated for this weekend’s grand slam decider because “of all the teams in the Six Nations [the Welsh players] dislike the Irish most”.

I couldn’t help feeling a surge of pride at the news that our little nation had earned such respect. If only Robert Emmet were alive to hear it, I thought. And yet the suspicion lingered that Mr Gatland was not telling the truth. Although it’s very nice of them to pretend otherwise, I seriously doubt if the Welsh really dislike us more than they do their large neighbours to the east – the ones who, to paraphrase Phil Bennett, stole their coal, their holiday homes, their women, etc.

Maybe things have changed since 1988, when we drove through Holyhead en route to the European Championships in Germany with the local customs officers urging us, if we did nothing else in the tournament, to please-please-for-God’s-sake beat England. But in my experience the sporting relationship between Ireland and Wales has never been anything other than friendly.

I’m reminded of another illustration from the same decade – this time on the terraces of Lansdowne Road during a rugby match. I don’t recall much about the game itself. What I do remember was the half-time conversation between a Welsh supporter and an Irish one who were standing alongside me. It was a very civilised exchange, centring on their respective native languages and how extraordinarily unalike they were for linguistic cousins.

Back then, the terraces at sold-out games were so tightly packed that some fans could not face going to the toilet to recycle the beer they had drunk beforehand. Instead, they would occasionally attempt the difficult feat of trying to relieve themselves through the aperture of an empty beer can – a spectacle that, no matter how tightly packed the crowd was, would usually guarantee the opening of a wide circle around the can holder.

But this Welsh fan was so relaxed among the Irish support that he dispensed with the can and attempted the technically even more difficult feat of urinating straight on to the ground, at a perpendicular angle, while carrying on a conversation. He was so relaxed, in fact, that I noticed his (failed) attempt only when the Irish supporter in front of him turned around to examine the back of his suddenly-wet trouser leg, and then looked at the Welshman with slowly dawning horror.

“Sorry, pal,” said the Welshman, with an air that communicated both genuine contrition, and at the same time a suggestion that this was the sort of thing that occasionally happened between friends, and it should not prevent anybody enjoying the second half. Sure enough, the game resumed without incident. I don’t remember who won.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com