In a Word . . . begrudge

We indomitable Irish have a genius for bringing people down to size

We indomitable Irish have a genius for bringing people down to size. If Jesus Christ himself was to arrive among us and proclaim from the church altar in his Irish hometown that he had been sent by God to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, you can imagine the reaction.

“Isn’t his father Joe the carpenter? God help us.” “And his mother, sure they weren’t even married when she had him. Who does he think he is, Bono?”

Begrudgery, described as "a virulent combination of jealousy, spite and festering resentment", was, according to historian Joe Lee, "rampant" in 20th-century Ireland. Aren't we lucky it ended on January 1st, 2000? It did? Not!

James Joyce, who knew a thing or two about Irish begrudgery, once allocated the seven deadly sins among the European nations. The English sin was gluttony, the French – pride. Of us Irish he said our "deadly sin was envy".


Not to be outdone, his (almost) contemporary WB Yeats wrote of having deeply imbibed “the daily spite of this unmannerly town,/where who has served most is most defamed.” That was Dublin in 1919.

Another famous Dubliner George Bernard Shaw went further. He claimed that "if you put an Irishman on a spit you can always get another Irishman to baste him". No wonder that quintessential Englishman, Dr Samuel Johnson, could say, "The Irish are a fair people – they never speak well of one another."

And it’s not all down to the English and what they did to us. An entire section of the Brehon laws – there long before Norman forces arrived in 1169 – is devoted to penalties to be imposed for slander, verbal abuse, spells, curses and incantations.

That was before. Then when Ireland finally gained its independence 100 years ago, the begrudgery – certainly exacerbated by our colonial situation – still reigned supreme, as Joe Lee has pointed out.

This doughty aspiration to ensure that no one gets above an approved level of mediocrity remains, it seems, alive and well and probably resides somewhere near you.

You doubt me? Ask Bono. I've never met the guy but am bewildered at how, while he is celebrated abroad, he is simultaneously vilified at home.

It ain’t pretty.

Begrudge, from Middle English bigrucchen, for grumble about, find fault with, envy.