Who is more famous than Jesus? It’s not Roy Keane
Measuring fame across thousands of years is an imprecise science. But someone’s had a go
Oscar winner: Wilde is ranked World’s No 1 Irishman. Photograph: Eric Luke
Who is the most famous Irish person who has ever lived? Or the most famous Irish person alive? We’ll come to an answer in a few paragraphs, because there is now a ranking, extrapolated from the results of an academic attempt to quantify the popularity of historical figures across 6,000 years.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab used a complex methodology, variables and mathematical formulae to rank historical fame (pantheon.media.mit.edu). It’s likely to be the one and only time you’ll find Roy Keane sandwiched between St Brendan and St Columba. Or any of them on the same list as the Eurovision Song Contest winner Niamh Kavanagh.
It was a week of less rigorously compiled lists, thanks to the annual St Patrick’s Day fillers that spilled across the world’s media, including the likes of:
“Hot Irish celebrities”. (They managed five.)
“20 famous Irish Mancunians”. (Number seven: Bonehead from Oasis.)
“11 famous Irish performers”. (Got to seven actual Irish before having to dip into “honorary Irish”.)
“Our 17 favourite Irish men”. (“Feast your eyes on some lunky hunks.” Lunky?)
Still, we learned something. Even if the lists dipped into a small pool of actors and musicians, on a global scale – or, in this context, being well known in the US or UK – celebrity tends to require genuine achievement.
In Ireland fame can follow merely attempting to achieve something, or falling short while doing it. Or simply being visible for a while. A few outings on The Voice will remain the fading calling card on pub-gig posters for years to come. Fourth place in a reality show in the UK is a ticket to The Saturday Night Show here.
Still, while fame is considered a destination in itself, to be reached by the shortest possible journey and achievable simply through the sharing of a bad photograph or an unintended video, it has remained somewhat unquantifiable. How do you measure true fame? Who is truly famous?
Media Lab’s Pantheon project – “Mapping Historical Cultural Production” – used the biographies in Wikipedia entries across 25 languages or more, plus Charles Murray’s 2003 book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800BC to 1950 . It put entries through a selection of historical and geographic variables, including the longevity of their reputations, to come up with each nation’s “cultural production”.
It then warned everyone to be aware of the limitations and dangers of using it as a definitive ranking. But, still, they really are such wonderful lists.
Most famous musician: Bob Marley.
Nobleman: Henry VIII.
Pirate: Francis Drake.
Pornographic actor: Jenna Jameson.
Comedian: Jerry Seinfeld.
Actor: Molière, the 17th-century French playwright. Followed by Johnny Depp.
And, typically, it ranked those who can be categorised only under “celebrity”. Paris Hilton is first. Buffalo Bill is fourth.
And so on, in a fascinating selection of categories that its creators would prefer we didn’t reduce to lists, because many are not statistically meaningful enough to distinguish between, say, Avril Lavigne as definitively the most famous Canadian, six places ahead of Leonard Cohen (himself a place below Pamela Anderson).
And yet it gives us a glance at Ireland’s contribution to the world, and how it is weighted – maybe predictably, but certainly reassuringly – towards writers.
Who might we consider the most famous Irish person on the planet? Oscar Wilde, it turns out, closely followed in turn by Joyce, Beckett, Shaw and Swift. And who is ranked as the most-discussed living Irish person? Enya. Followed by Pierce Brosnan. They represent the growth in musicians and actors in the cultural production of the 20th century – as do footballers, 10 of whom feature on the list.
The Pantheon rankings are stripped of context – Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen feature, but the casual observer would have no understanding of why – and it features several Irish scientists and philosophers whose notoriety is more selective but no less important. Besides, the aim of the Pantheon project is to use biographical figures to measure a country’s cultural output. Delightfully, Ireland does a good job of holding up to its reputation as a land of saints and scholars.
But the byproduct is a glimpse at the complex nature of fame and achievement not just in a modern context but across the millenniums – and proof that celebrity doesn’t have to amount to a hill of has-beens.