We are world masters of The Slag – but Niall Horan fans don’t get it

The Irish experts at expressing themselves through ironic aggression rather than sincere affection

What’s your problem? You’re squinting at this column like a goose looking into a bottle. Can I explain the longer words to you? Ha, ha! Only slagging.

Writing in this place a week ago, I argued that online fandom was set to bring the universe to an apocalyptic end (or something less hyperbolic). The timing was both unfortunate and immaculate. Last weekend, we witnessed one of the most hilarious manifestations of fan idiocy in recent years. Thankfully, nobody got hurt in the crossfire.

The trigger was an amusing segment on RTÉ Does Comic Relief. Niall Horan, Westmeath’s contribution to One Direction, appeared via video-link for a special edition of The Den’s Talent on The Telly. A minute or so into his rendition of Black and White, Dustin, the famously bellicose turkey, cut the video and began slinging insults in Horan’s direction. “We wanted Harry Styles! You’re only getting a minute-and-a-half!” he gobbled. “I didn’t realise people from Mullingar had teeth!”

It was a delicious nip of cask-strength Dustin: the suggestion that they really wanted the (marginally) more famous band member, the jackeen dig at midlands dentistry. It’s safe to assume that Horan, who would have grown up on Dustin, was laughing along with the rest of the country. We are the world masters of The Slag. Even our poultry have black belts in the art.

Outrage

Horan’s overseas fans really, really didn’t get it. Within minutes of the video landing online, Twitter was awash with outrage. “This was so disgusting. He is so kind and generous and they decide to do this?!?” someone said. The word “disrespectful” was everywhere. “They literally interrupt him while he’s singing to compare him to another singer, he was f**king disrespectful,” someone else said.

As is often the case with such fandom breakdowns, it was the comparison with another act that really caught in the craw. “why would you even cut off an artist singing to say you want another singer???” yet another person said (what is it with online discourse and unnecessary use of the word “even”?).

Then they decided to mobilise. One fan dug deep and identified the grizzled host. “his name is ray d’arcy – do what you want with that information,” she wrote. The phrase “you are playing with the wrong fandom” crept up again and again. Like all the other “wrong fandoms” they were set to go nuclear and, well, say lots of rude stuff beneath Ray’s most recent tweets. Eventually, Niall Updates, an LA-based fan account with half a million followers, announced a formal break in diplomatic relations. “How dare you guys take the opportunity to make fun of him when he didn’t have to accept to perform for your show,” they wrote to D’Arcy and RTÉ. “I will no longer support you!”

This could only have been funnier if Dustin had then appeared at a podium to offer a lachrymose apology in the style of Tiger Woods (or stood at a five-bar gate with turkey wife and turkey children like a Tory MP caught with his hand in the poontang jar).

Obviously he would never do that, because the whole thing was pre-recorded and Horan – who always comes across as a decent fellow – was merrily in on the joke. It was a practical demonstration of our continuing devotion to slagging as a sublimated expression of affection. We Irish are often a bit smug about our world-beating wit and unequalled talent for creative communication. There was a lot of that in domestic defences of Dustin last week. It is, nonetheless, indisputable that few other nations take quite such delight in denigrating those they love the most.

Proxy slagger

I recall staying with a lecturer friend in Paris some 30 years ago. On the drive back from Gare de Nord to Passage de la Trinité, a young Italian man, student to my friend, listened aghast as we tore strips off one another. Later, when I was elsewhere, the Italian tentatively said: “But I thought you said you liked each other.” It had never occurred to us that it might have seemed otherwise.

Nobody surpasses Dustin as proxy slagger for the nation. So much post-Christian repression hangs around the Irish psyche that we still feel more comfortable expressing ourselves through ironic aggression than sincere affection. The turkey’s extraordinary attack on Zig and Zag in 2015 did more to ground those puppets in our affections than any formal celebration could achieve. “It’s all about the Queen. You ran off to England!” he yelled at Zag (apparently Zig was “too thick to know what was going on”). “Where are your corgis? Do you walk the Queen’s corgis? Do you?”

That’s the way to do it. Horan is still a young man. But he surely already knows that, in the absence of an honours system, a tongue-lashing on State TV from the The Abuser in Chief counts as the greatest imaginable tribute. He can now wear the Order of the Turkey at all formal functions.

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