Ambivalence towards Rory McIlroy proves partition is alive and unwell
The mixed feelings our greatest sporting talent engenders are a rejoinder to patriotic Gaeldom’s difficulty with acknowledging the impact of partition
Rory McIlroy: He’s Irish: maybe not cartoon green, but still Irish. Acknowledging that represents a challenge to one-size-fits-all identity shackles, the same sort of shackles which inherently contain the assumption that if McIlroy came from Wicklow Hollywood rather than Down Holywood he would be grasped more to the national bosom. Photograph: Darren Carroll/Getty Images
The fallout from this island’s mostly squalid history can be depressingly obvious in the comparatively trivial as much as the desperately important. And while golf might be very trivial indeed, too many people around the world care too much about the game for it to be irrelevant. So it’s sad such a level of ambivalence towards Rory McIlroy continues to exist at home while the rest of the planet is straight-forwardly in thrall to golf’s greatest player.
Pointing that out invites “tut-tutting” but you don’t have to veer too far off the “happy-clappy” motorway here to encounter “yeah, but” roadblocks obstructing uncomplicated pride at a unique talent originating from the same dull wet rock as the rest of us.
The “yeah” always revolves around acknowledgement of McIlroy’s skill. The “but” gets to be a lot more pick ‘n’ mix, shovelled into an already bulging bag of chippy prejudices about supposed Irishness, and often usually bolstered by a muscularity of expression that comes with online anonymity.
Bald truth used to come out with drink in Ireland: now it is drier, and can be much more spitefully calculated.
Unadulterated worship is hardly a duty, yet quite why perhaps the most high-profile sporting talent Ireland has ever produced should provoke such mixed emotions is a tricky question.
Only those determinedly lubricating the right-on rails though can pretend any answer doesn’t involve addressing how perceptions of McIlroy “down here” are filtered through the prism of him being from “up there”.
Impact of partitionIn fact these perceptions of McIlroy are a living, breathing rejoinder to patriotic Gaeldom’s difficulty with acknowledging the impact of partition, an impact blindingly obvious to everyone not pedalling an agenda, but something many clearly still struggle to come to terms with.
Caricatures on either side of the Border continue to be as crude as they are ingrained. It’s a regrettable reality that for many southern ears “northy” accents come accompanied with baggage quantities that get Ryanair calculators whirring happily.
When McIlroy famously proclaimed he felt more British than Irish in initial speculation over his Olympic ambitions, he managed to simultaneously confirm and confound age-old prejudices, ultimately leaving many unsure at just how to box him.
A pal in the tech world remembers a search-engine surge in use of the words “Mcllroy” and “religion” at that time: as if it were shocking that a bright middle-class Northern Ireland Catholic growing up in relative normality, and instinctively bucking tired tribal instincts, might actually profess himself more comfortable with what’s familiar than with what’s not.
Patriots of the pub variety appear unable to get their heads around the idea of young people not automatically settling into age-old identity boxes, remaining suspicious of McIlroy’s subsequent decision to declare for Ireland, seeing expediency instead of the blatant reality of a young man publicly wrestling with complicated identity questions of a kind that have defeated those much older and wiser for centuries, and doing so in an environment primed for hair-trigger indignation whatever he does.
But it seems McIlroy’s particularly unhappy fate is that those lazy prejudices get topped off with other perceptions, none of which might impinge too much on the happier consequences of fame and fortune, but which still contribute towards a skewed portrayal of an individual trying to live his life in a world where headlines are always just a digital click away.
Oliver Callan’s take on the pompous and powerful can be devastatingly accurate and carries the priceless virtue of creative courage. His “McIlroy” though is off, the petulant, opportunist, anthem-juggling “McIlroy”, obediently marching to the corporate tune and blithely turning his back on the great golfing public: like so much, if one wants to see that, one can, but from the admittedly cheap seats far from centre-stage, it doesn’t look accurate.
LikeableMcIlroy actually comes across as an eminently likeable, decent 25-year-old guy whose insane gift for accurately hitting a small ball with a big stick has propelled him towards vast rewards while also making every step he takes, and every word he utters, apparently fair game for judgment. The potential mind-melting impact of that on any young person is obvious to anyone. Everyone’s reality is different, but none is perfect.
McIlroy has all the money in the world but not the freedom to buy a burger without somebody pointing a camera phone at him. He has impossible fame that can open the most private doors while simultaneously capable of shutting down the most mundane public behaviour.
Never lonely, he has a pick of company, notably of the buxom kind, but can never be entirely sure if they’re not piggy-backing their own profile on top of his.
It’s a very yin-yang kind of deal that hardly invites overwhelming sympathy but is still a challenge and hardly justifies some of the extreme mean-spiritedness McIlroy attracts.
On top of that there’s the incidental bit about continuing to compete in a game that perhaps only a handful of people in history have ever played as well. That he manages to do so in combination with a natural modesty is a balancing act worth applauding any 25-year-old for, be they from Detroit, Darwin or Delhi.
Except he’s from Down, which, yes, means he’s Irish: maybe not cartoon green, but still Irish. Acknowledging that represents a challenge to one-size-fits-all identity shackles, the same sort of shackles which inherently contain the assumption that if McIlroy came from Wicklow Hollywood rather than Down Holywood he would be grasped more to the national bosom.
And while ambivalence towards McIlroy might be sad, that’s a sort of partition that’s just pitiful.