A shoulder charge to the media's tragic image of emigration


Radio:As Gaelic football rivalries go, the fixture is not as renowned as Dublin versus Meath or Cork against Kerry. But the stakes were obviously high as the two clubs clashed, with spectators urging on their sides with a partisan vigour worthy of any simmering GAA enmity.

“C’mon, Stockholm!”

“That’s the way to do it, Malmö!”

This keenly contested meeting was the climactic moment of Documentary on One: A Silver Lining (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), which looked at a well-worn subject through a novel lens. The programme, presented and produced by Pat O’Mahony, aimed to overturn the negative perception of emigration by showing the extent to which expatriate GAA clubs have benefited from the exodus.

“If my hunch is correct,” said O’Mahony, “I’ll see the positive impact of our young people leaving first-hand.”

In truth it was a snapshot of a single case study, the Stockholm Gaels, rather than a global overview, but it was no less enjoyable for that. The club’s founder, Philip O’Connor, spoke of the practical difficulties of finding a pitch for his team – “We’ve got the same status as darts in this country” – but its significance went beyond sport. As well as giving O’Connor’s Swedish-born children a flavour of Irish culture, the Gaels provided “an instant social network” for recently arrived emigrants.

Though based in a foreign land, the club’s Hibernocentric emphasis at times seemed limiting. The members congregated around an Irish bar while their Malmö rivals – the former top dogs of Swedish GAA, who had been knocked off their perch by the Gaels – were made up of expatriates. But there were unexpected aspects to the tale. The Stockholm Gaels had a women’s team set up by Anna Ronngard, a formidable Swede who had started playing Gaelic while living alongside Irish expats in Shanghai, and who had continued her cultural cross-pollination on returning home: her side was a mix of natives and migrants.

The Irish men were, on balance, happy in their Scandinavian surroundings. The older hands, many of whom had Swedish partners, particularly valued the economic prosperity and social supports of their adopted home. For all the nostalgia evoked by the familiar routines of kick and catch, and the camaraderie of the team bus, O’Connor knew his life had moved on. “Really, what I miss is living in Dublin in 1996 and going out with my mates,” he said. “And that doesn’t exist any more.”

Within its tight frame, O’Mahony’s affectionate and elegiac documentary suggested that emigration is not necessarily the wrenching tragedy of popular media image. For some it might even be – whisper it – a lifestyle choice.

The global Irish experience also provided the subject matter for Home News (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), a new series exploring the role newspapers play in keeping far-flung communities connected. The show, presented by Brian O’Connell, who also writes for The Irish Times, had a timely premise in an age when the global reach of the internet is displacing print as the means of information and communication. That said, the first port of call on O’Connell’s worldwide tour of expatriate journals was somewhat eyebrow-raising, given that Belfast is in Ireland.

Far from suggesting that Belfast’s the Irish Paper served an emigrant community, however, O’Connell used the publication to illustrate how the old certainties of tribal identity were seemingly changing north of the Border. The Irish News, traditionally the newspaper of the northern nationalist population, had thrived in the digital age in part by appealing beyond its bailiwick: the former UDA commander Frankie Gallagher said the newspaper had given more coverage to the “loyalist story” than the traditionally unionist press.

At the same time the paper was still regarded with lingering suspicion by some republicans for its pro-SDLP editorial line during the Troubles. Danny Morrison characterised the paper’s “pro-British and anti-Sinn Féin” stance as “a drag on the development of the peace process”, though he generously added, without any apparent hint of irony, that he was “not holding them responsible for the conflict”.

Such conversations revealingly highlighted how some old sectarian fissures have gradually blurred even as tensions within each community remain. Whether the Irish News thus speaks to a “growing Northern Irish identity” was less clear. Eamon Phoenix, a columnist with the paper, noted that when many southerners looked north their view stopped at the Border, while most northern Catholics still saw themselves as part of the Irish nation, “whether the Irish nation wants it or not”.

Home News was thorough in execution, thought-provoking in tone and illuminating in content. And while its implicit view of the North as a foreign land may have chimed with Phoenix’s analysis, it provided a reminder that the inhabitants of the Republic are not the sole custodians of Irishness.

Moment of the week: Man behaving well

Neil Morrissey, the English actor best known for the laddish sitcom Men Behaving Badly, cut a more reflective and sympathetic figure when he talked to Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) about his upbringing in a children’s home, after his Irish parents’ inability to cope with their duties. Morrissey spoke with admirable honesty – he had been “quite feral” as a child – and without self-pity: “You’ll always feel like you’ve been ripped from your family, but you have to have a positive attitude.” But when Morrissey recalled how he and his late brother were separated from each other after a custody hearing, it brought a lump to the throat. “He was taken out of one door and I was taken out of another,” he said matter-of-factly.

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