I felt really sorry for Bono recently. Yes, that Bono with the tax and the shite talk. It was St Patrick's Day and the US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi read out a poem at a Friends of Ireland event in Washington DC. She said the piece had been sent to her by Bono before delivering it solemnly to a politely listening group. Before long it hit the internet and Ireland was sent into convulsions of rage and shame. The rhyming seemed so glib, the very suggestion that it was poetry was enough to call for a tribunal. How could Bono, the big clown, think a verse like this could rival Yeats or Boland?
"And they struggle for us to be free, from the psycho in this human family, Ireland's sorrow and pain is now the Ukraine, and St Patrick's name now Zelenskiy."
The mirth was so much that Bono had to clarify, via U2’s official Twitter account, that the poem was in fact a set of three limericks, and he has a tradition of sending limericks to Pelosi every year for the St Patrick’s Day lunch. He said the lines weren’t intended to be funny and that the band stands with Ukraine and its leader. Crucially, he said the poem wasn’t intended for public consumption, “but since it’s out, here it is”, and he shared the text in the tweet.
I felt for him. There he was polishing his diamond TV remote or whatever and he’s mortified on the world stage against his will.
Feeling sorry for him came easy for me because I love U2 and I love Bono. I love them with the loyalty of someone whose first album on their first Walkman was The Joshua Tree, and who begged, borrowed and stole 30 years later to get a ticket to the Joshua Tree homecoming tour in Croke Park in 2017.
The big lemon on the stage for the Zooropa tour in 1996 was peak notions and they were nationally observed to have lost the run of themselves
I know it’s not particularly cool to love U2 and I know Bono has his clangers, but I also believe that with their backs against the wall the people of Ireland would die for The Edge and the lads. People love to hate U2. They love to hate Bono. They love to bring up “the tax” and the shite talk and the time that U2 album appeared on their iPhones with no warning. An invasion! An assault on the senses! An… oh wait, is that the opening chords of With or Without You? Back in a minute, I need to hold a pint and sway and cry.
Ireland’s love/hate relationship with U2, and particularly Bono, was always on the cards. We first turned in the mid-90s when he started wearing the colourdy glasses and the band started experimenting more. The big lemon on the stage for the Zooropa tour in 1996 was peak notions and they were nationally observed to have “lost the run of themselves”.
Ireland has a fond tradition of turning on people when they are perceived to be doing too well. Thinking you’re a “big man” or “full of yourself” or speaking with an accent or wearing sunglasses inside will do you absolutely no favours in the eyes of the Irish public and Bono is accused of doing all three, and then some.
Crucially though, Irish people hate being accused of begrudgery even more than they hate people wearing sunglasses indoors. It’s not that we begrudge Bono, you see? It is that he is “a pox”, to quote the lyrical “Bono is a Pox” graffiti that pops up around Dublin city from time to time.
The sunglasses, it turns out, have been a medical necessity. Bono revealed in 2014 that he has suffered from glaucoma for decades and the glasses help keep the symptoms at bay. But the tax issues are not so easily forgotten or accepted. U2 fully admit that their businesses are structured so they pay tax in “sensible” amounts, and that includes moving some of their income abroad. Bono is often called a hypocrite in calling for governments to be better at giving aid, while he moves his money around in a way that suits him financially. It’s an easy stick to beat him with and there’s a sense that Ireland gave U2 their success and now we’re being betrayed by our most famous sons who are taking the money elsewhere.
I think sometimes about what will happen when Bono dies, given that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner slagging one of our greatest cultural creations. Do I think the ill will towards him will fade away? Yes. Do I think those who’ve claimed to truly hate him will revise their claim and instead say he was only good for those iconic early U2 hits, while wiping a tear from their eye? Yes. Will there be a million tax jokes? Yes. Will Italian U2 fans swarm Dublin crying and wearing winter coats and scarves in July? Without doubt. Will we all hold pints and sway and cry “and you give yourself away, and you give, and you give”? Absolutely. One love.