Taylor success triggers bout of below-the-belt stereotyping


WE LEARNED a lot about what the world thought of us this week.

It all began rather gorgeously. Katie Taylor, greatest living Irishwoman, and Natasha Jonas, Liverpudlian cousin of Coleen Rooney, may have hammered nine colours of manure out of one another, but Monday’s bout was remarkable for the obvious warmth that existed between the two camps.

At the close, Taylor demonstrated her immaculate manners by hugging her opponent and shaking hands with Jonas’s corner people. The enthusiastic response from the BBC’s commentators suggested the British like us almost as much as we like ourselves.

The tone soured a little on Tuesday morning. Much has been made of an article in the Age, a Melbourne-based newspaper, that included the phrase: “For centuries, Guinness and whiskey have sent the Irish off their heads.” The piece also, rather confusingly, confirmed that – a compliment, one assumes – Taylor was not “surrounded by people who’d prefer a punch to a potato”. Following representations from the Irish Ambassador, the Age offered a convincingly effusive apology.

That article was, however, somewhat less offensive than a piece that appeared the same day in USA Today. Written by one Jon Saraceno, the report on Taylor’s first victory was a small masterpiece of vulgar stereotyping and galloping inaccuracy. “Back home on the emerald-green isle, pints of Guinness flowed freely, perhaps enough to replenish the Irish Sea. The ‘punters’ inside betting parlors wagered pounds as if they were bits of candy,” Saraceno raved from his seat in Paddy McHooligan’s Shamrock Tavern.

After misidentifying the Irish currency, the journalist went on to speak of “Bray county” and describe the Irish nation as “prideful” and “scuffling”. (I speculate here myself, but I am fairly sure he also mistook The Fields of Athenry for the national anthem.) USA Today initially acknowledged only the factual errors. But, in response to questions from this newspaper, eventually apologised for any offence given.

It’s a tricky one, this. It is probably safe to assume that both the Age and USA Today felt we would be flattered by their light-hearted caricatures. After all, many Australians (not all, not most, just many; I am trying hard to mind my own language) still seem happy to be depicted as carefree, well-lubricated larrikins.

Americans of Irish descent are responsible for a great deal of the standard tropes of Paddywhackery. Domestic critics have always had a slightly uneasy relationship with John Ford’s The Quiet Man. One can, without too much intellectual wriggling, argue that Ford’s version of Ireland is no more romanticised than his depiction of the American west. By giving Ford a free pass – and by singing along to boozier Pogues numbers – we do, however, invite the likes of Saraceno to deduce that we enjoy being caricatured as crafty, gambling dipsomaniacs.

One imagines the poor Australian writer and the unfortunate American scribbler looking sadly back at us with sorrowful eyes. “But we’re on your side!”

A day later, Telegraphgate broke. In its daily digest of Olympic highlights, the unofficial organ of the Conservative party asked: “Can anyone defeat Britain’s Katie Taylor?” Twitter quaked with volcanic fury. By lunchtime, the newspaper had issued its own apology and clarified that: “She is Irish, of course.”

Is it safe to assume that Daily Telegraph journalists know the Republic is a separate country and that the busy compiler was simply confused about Taylor’s nationality? Probably. But the next – and surely most outrageous – controversy did cause one to question such comforting suppositions.

Stand up, Russell Barwick. You win the hotly contested award for ignoramus of the week. Hide your eyes, Australia. We’re back on your patch.

Speaking on Pardon the Interruption, an ESPN television show, Barwick wondered aloud – not in his head, while drunk – why Irish sportspersons did not compete for Great Britain in the Olympics.

“It’s a whole Irish joke, the whole thing. It just makes no sense,” he said before going on to engage in logic so poisonously unstable it could comfortably occupy space in a creationist tract. “It’s not like Tasmanians say they don’t want to represent Australia. You’re all part of the one mix master,” he continued.

More than a few commentators expressed amusement that an Australian – subject of a country that still has Queen Elizabeth as its head of state – seemed to believe that a nation that left the Commonwealth several lifetimes ago was still part of the United Kingdom. After a digital deluge, Barwick closed his Twitter account.

The lesson of all this is a drab and sober one. The exhaustingly charming Katie Taylor may have captured the attention of the world’s media, but most people beyond these shores know virtually nothing about us. It’s nothing personal. The average Australian could probably tell you less about the considerably more populous Kazakhstan. Few Americans know much about Uganda.

Still, it does lodge in the craw somewhat. Oh, I think I’ll let off steam with a pint and a fight.

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