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Begorrah Keoghan, Kerrygold Murphy and our friend Siobhan: Micksploitation has gone mainstream again

Donald Clarke: Nobody likes a postcolonial moaner, but it’s odd that casually ridiculing the Irish can be regarded as only the most minor social misdemeanour

Me espresso: Barry Keoghan and Sabrina Carpenter at the Met Gala on Monday. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/MG24/Getty/Met/Vogue

Two months ago I urged the nation to get over itself. The subject was whining about the harmless Lyndsay Lohan vehicle Irish Wish. At the same time, we were going through the usual indecent yearning for the British to claim one of our Oscar-nominated actors for Albion. Get over yourselves. Put away the overused Stephen Rea meme. Nobody likes a postcolonial moaner.

So why am I now again complaining about foreign representations of Irishness? Well, so many American news sources make it so hard not to. You need three examples to generate a why-oh-why column. That’s the law. The first emerged in no less exalted a place than the New Yorker magazine just a few days after a certain Corkman won his Oscar. “Cillian Murphy’s bedtime routine”, by Wendi Aarons and Johanna Gohmann, played greatest hits from the stage-Irish songbook. “Make gentle but furious love to the ghost of Molly Malone,” the fictionalised Murphy urged himself. “Polish ... cheekbones with separate sticks of Kerrygold butter,” he continued. There was mention of “potatoes” and “faeries”. Too many probably overreacted. We should get over ourselves. But it was definitely strange.

A week or so ago, the XformallyTwitter account for Merriam-Webster dictionaries took its own dive into edgelordism. “What word has the biggest disconnect between spelling and pronunciation? Asking for our friend, Siobhan,” they posted. Following a day or two of it being pointed out there was no disconnect between Irish-language phonetics and how “Siobhan” is pronounced, the site took the offending message down. Were we overreacting? Over ourselves is where we should get? Maybe, but was strange.

Even those of us who have made a religion of getting over it were flummoxed by the Vulture website’s commentary on Barry Keoghan arriving at the Met Gala in New York. Look away now if you haven’t yet taken your beta blockers. Beneath a photograph of the Dubliner dressed in Burberry Victoriana, the cultural organ – a section of the distinguished New York Magazine – ventriloquised on social media: “Hello little lassie, couldja point me in da direction of me missus? She’s got a grand ‘me espresso’ at home that i better be drinkin’.”


Some gloss may be necessary. A friend, using the same language barristers employ when speaking to judges who haven’t yet encountered the Rolling Stones, told me that “me espresso” is a repeated refrain in a hit by Keoghan’s girlfriend Sabrina Carpenter. He was not able to explain why Vulture’s begorrah version of Keoghan would, in the spirit of a comedy Scotsman, refer to the imagined audience as a “lassie”. The rest was the usual patronising Lucky Charms gibberish.

Here’s the thing. Even if you fail to over-react, even if you have got over everything, you would surely still wonder why so many Americans remain so relaxed about this class of mid-level racist stereotyping. Yes, the “days since the Brits were at it” meme is enormously amusing, but, though common enough until the 1990s or so, this class of Paddywhackery has now largely vanished from respectable organs in the United Kingdom. One simply can’t imagine the New Yorker piece running in the similarly highbrow London Review of Books. The Guardian wouldn’t consider the Micksploitation in that Vulture post. If the BBC attempted the insulting Irish stereotypes seen relatively recently on Saturday Night Live it would (quite rightly) trigger a national scandal.

You’ll remember, from just a year ago, the representation of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson – played by two of the SNL cast – as incomprehensible drunks. There was the Saoirse Ronan skit that had something to do with dogs overrunning the airports. Worst of all was an atrocious “Irish Dating Show” from 2018 whose main joke was that we have sex with our cousins. Try that on Gavin & Stacey.

One argument has it that the stereotyping originates with descendants of Irish immigrants. The comedy leprechauns, the dyed-green rivers and the “Irish car bomb” cocktails often come with the approval of communities who might elsewhere be the ones objecting. Whereas the United States has become properly sensitive about all other racially offensive portrayals – I dare not even suggest a community about whom nobody would dare make incest jokes – poking fun at the Irish is still the most minor of social misdemeanours.

Maybe the casualness stems from a belief that it no longer counts as “punching down” to ridicule the Irish in the US. How the Irish Became White, the title of controversial 1995 book by Noel Ignatiev, perhaps gets at that distinction. It would, indeed, be wrong to equate the stereotyping listed above with the more inescapable racism aimed at people of colour. But, while getting over ourselves, we are allowed to again observe that all this is very, very strange.