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Anne Harris: Is it time for Ireland to give Bono a break?

Bono and the Edge’s performance in Kyiv took courage, humility – and intelligence

Grogan's pub in Dublin is one of the last bastions of the philosopher drinkers. Within its hallowed, whiskied walls, people tell it like it is. A couple of years ago, the Guardian newspaper sent a journalist to ask its denizens what they thought of Bono.

Not much, apparently. For the world’s most famous Irish man, scarcely a good word.

Surely if anything were to change his countrymen's jaundiced view it would be Bono's and the Edge's concert in the underground station in Kyiv nine days ago?

If the response to the announcement a few days later of the publication in November of Bono’s memoir, Surrender, is any indication, little has changed.

Why do the Irish love to hate Bono? Cut him no slack?

Over a decade ago, Bono and the Edge wrote the songs for a Broadway musical about Spiderman called Turn Off the Dark. Glen Berger wrote the story. Musicals are money-gobblers – this was a five-year monster, its travails, hirings, firings, injured performers, insulted egos daily reported in the press. Berger later wrote a book, Song of Spiderman, about it. Only Bono and the Edge emerged with integrity.

“They were child-like in the best sense of the word. They had an enthusiasm for creating stuff, despite the unimaginable stress,” he said. “They could just hang out in Eze. But they get up in the morning.”

A short pre-publicity animation for Surrender, provides surprising insights into Bono; perhaps into our antipathy too. In a few short minutes three things become clear: his penchant for conflict zones, his Protestantism and how punk revealed his path.

In it, the motherless teenager contemplates his life. Not very academic (he spends a lot of time thinking about girls), he fancies being a war correspondent, going into dangerous situations – alas, that requires more school. In fact he excels at only one thing: mimicry. He can do a killer Ian Paisley. “No surrender,” he thunders in his bedroom.

Anglican church

Mimicking Ian Paisley was hardly unusual in Dublin in the 1970s. But Bono is the child of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. Probably in some “adaptation” of the cruel Ne Temere decree (children of mixed marriages were be brought up as Catholics), it was intended he would be Catholic, his brother Protestant. Both, however, attended the Anglican church with their mother who died when he was 14.

His teenage frame of rebellion reference is a Protestant one

His teenage frame of rebellion reference is a Protestant one: he fills the void left by his mother with the raging mantra of a northern Presbyterian.

That his identity is still, consciously or unconsciously, bound up with this can be seen in the title of his memoir – Paisley subverted – Surrender.

As a template for creating an “outsider” or artist, the tensions of Ne Temere could hardly be bettered. The Edge, also a Protestant, puts it pithily, “Being Protestant . . . in an ostensibly Catholic country . . . there were times when I really did feel like a bit of a freak.”

Over the following 40 years, Bono was keen to reconcile the two traditions – Protestant and Catholic. Standing with John Hume and David Trimble, icons of the Belfast Agreement, wasn’t just symbolic. But it became a modus operandi – seeking out world leaders, especially those who had transcended conflict.

The politician’s pragmatism he developed for his campaigns against poverty and Aids, inevitably fed the perception of Bono as a power groupie.

Ironically Bono’s trajectory as an artist and a philanthropist mirrors Bob Geldof’s. Yet despite his uxoriousness, Geldof retains his epic bad boy image, while Bono is damned for piety and weapon-status goody-goodness.

Work ethic

His love of America – another rich seam for his detractors – is clearly also coloured by his Protestantism. He loves the Dream, that work ethic creates success, and the constitution. “America is a song to me. I caught the melody early when my life needed saving,” he said accepting the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding last month. America, he says “isn’t about right and left, it’s about right and wrong.” Alas for Bono, Ireland is often about right and left. And the left doesn’t like America.

The politician's pragmatism he developed for campaigns against poverty and Aids inevitably fed the perception of Bono as a power groupie

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, devoid of ideological snobbery, called on artists to stand with Ukraine. Bono and the Edge answered. It took courage. It took humility – Bono didn’t attempt to articulate the horror. And it took intelligence: he spared us all the false analogies between Ireland and Ukraine, beloved of commentators, particularly about famine. As if the potato blight of the 1840s was a deliberate plan to exterminate the Irish, the way Stalin deliberately engineered famine in Ukraine as part of his collectivist mania.

And yet that concert in Kyiv was ultimately all about famine. Geldof, in last Saturday’s Irish Times, explicated a seamless robe from Live Aid in Wembley in 1985 to Ukraine today. And Bono and the Edge have been with Geldof every inch of the way

“What people cannot see and what the media is barely reporting,” Geldof said, “is the amplifying effects of this war on 800 million people who go hungry to bed every night.” Each year Ukraine supplied food for about 400 million people across the world. “But war brings hunger. And now that food is off the table.”

Ending the war is essential to alleviating world famine. Bono gets that but gets little credit for going into its jaws.

Must a prophet be without honour in his own country? Time for the philosopher drinkers to revise?