We’re all Irish now

The real O'Neill on St Patrick's Day: 'What is happening on 17 March: a multiethnic karaoke night?'

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘St Who’s Day?’

So asks the latest poster for Guinness (the Irish drink herein known as ‘the black stuff’), currently doing the rounds in British, Irish and I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Irish pubs in the UK.

The poster shows a Swedish man (well with blonde hair and a deep tan I’m guessing he’s not from Cork) and a Jew (ringlet sideburns might be all the rage in Jerusalem but they’re not often seen around the fields of Athenrye) enjoying a drink together and ‘giving praise’ on 17 March. St Who’s Day indeed.

Even weirder is the Guinness TV ad, featuring a Chinese Elvis, a Jewish folk singer and a black rapper, all belting out their own (equally valid) interpretations of homesick Irish ballad Danny Boy – before again inviting us to ‘give praise’ on 17 March. What is happening on 17 March: a multiethnic karaoke night?

Last, and by all means least, are those ads on London Underground for O’Neill’s, the chain of pubs that is about as Irish as Starbucks. The ad shows a blurred pub scene, in which you can just make out an Asian woman and some city suits playing cards, enjoying a quiet drink and ‘giving thanks’ on 17 March.

A quiet drink? Cards? On St Who’s Day? That’s so unrealistic it makes Guinness’s black/Jewish/Chinese sing-song look like a scene straight out of Angela’s Ashes.

But hold on one potato-peeling moment. Where are all the Irish people? Where are the red-haired Bridgets and black-haired Micks crying into their white froth? Where are the young Irish lads spewing their way through Kilburn, Cricklewood and Neasden? Where are the defeated Irish mothers with their fire-reddened shins raising a glass to the greatest saint in the whole of heaven?

Don’t be an eejit. This isn’t your traditional St Patrick’s Day, a day for Irish people to get all misty-eyed about all things Irish. This is St Who’s Day, a day for everybody to ‘go Irish’ and give it some praise, thanks and welly down the local pub.

Haven’t you heard? We’re all Irish now.

There was a time when only those born in Ireland could lay claim to being Irish. Now some are born Irish, some achieve Irishness and the rest of us have Irishness thrust upon us. Thanks, but no thanks. I may have spent the best part of my life trying to convince people that I’m a real Irishman (pure Paddy) and not just a second-generation wannabe (plastic Paddy) – but the new Irishness is a total feckin cod that I want no part of.

Think about some of the omadhauns who have ‘become Irish’ in recent years:

– On St Patrick’s Day in 1995, then US president Bill Clinton told a green-tie dinner party in Washington that he was ‘feeling more Irish every day’.

– In 1997 actress and former Woody Allen stooge Mia Farrow moved to Roscommon with her adopted kids, and declared that she was moving towards Irishness (though most of the locals would rather she had moved towards something else – according to some reports, many wondered if she was some kind of communist or lesbian).

– In 2000 the Afro-Celt Sound System, a London-based collection of black people and Londoners, released their latest album – all about ‘feeling’ the Irish rhythm and getting down with their funky Paddy selves.

Forget the ‘fighting Irish’ (real Irish folk who let their fists do the talking). Today we have the ‘feeling Irish’ (fake Irish folk who let their arses do the talking).

But that’s the point. Irishness is no longer a nationality, an accident of birth tied up with national aspirations and pride. It is a state of mind, a feeling, an attitude that can be worn like a shamrock on a lapel. The Irish might once have been the blacks of Europe – now being Irish is the new black, not only of Europe, but of Australia, America and even Africa (where the 385million pints of Guinness drank per year are creeping up on Ireland’s 400million). Guinness’s multiethnic Micks (as opposed to mix) capture the Irishness-as-attitude perfectly.

But it wasn’t always so easy to ‘become Irish’ – and this I know from bitter experience.

In 1989, I was 15 and proud. I may have been London-born and London-bred, but as far I was concerned I was about as Irish as you could get. I was an O’Neill (‘son of Niall, first king of Ireland’). My parents had been forced out of Ireland by poverty. I was a Pogues fan and had the t-shirt to prove it. I had once had Irish language lessons – though all I could remember was pogue mahone (‘kiss my arse’). And I could almost get through a whole pint of the black stuff without spewing.

Was I accepted by the Irish community? Was I bog roll. I was denounced as a ‘plastic Paddy’, and accused of suffering from ‘Dermot-itis’: a severe personality disorder that makes your average Joe wish he was a Dermot. (Famous sufferers of Dermot-itis include Daniel Day-Lewis – posh actor who thought a turn as Christy Brown made him Irish; Shane MacGowan – educated at Westminster, despite appearances; and Dermot O’Leary – young British TV presenter who bangs on about the joys of Kilburn. Even Dermots can be afflicted with Dermot-itis.)

Now there is a world epidemic of Dermot-itis – ‘plastic Paddies’ and ‘brittle Bridgets’ are everywhere. And I could finally ‘become Irish’ just by going to the right pub, striking the right pose, having the right attitude, just ‘feeling it’ like Bill Clinton does – or I could just put a tick in the ethnic box ‘Irish’, which will be included in this year’s UK census for the first time. But I think I’ll pass. If it was sad pretending to be Irish when I was a teenager it would be even sadder now.

Besides, this new Irishness isn’t worth the green ink it’s written in.

There was something faintly rebellious about being Irish in the past. Irish people were loud, confident, could drink Brits under the table, didn’t take any gip, stood up to their oppressors. In 1989, framed Irish prisoners were being freed from prison in the UK, the Pogues were storming the charts, and even a shaven-headed Sinead O’Connor was getting up transatlantic noses by slamming the ‘evil’ UK government and hanging out with rappers Niggers With Attitude in America. It might have been an exclusive set, defined by where you were born, but Irish was a gang my second-generation mates and I were desperate to be in.

Now I can think of nothing sadder than wanting to be the new stereotypical Irish person. Irishness means being a shiny happy former victim of British wrongs that everyone (from Chinese Elvis Presleys to oppressed Jewish folk singers) can sympathise with and join for a few jars. Forget the Pogues, the new Irishness is personified by pop band Westlife – bland, inoffensive, polite, middle-aged, chubby, lame, boring….

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s enough to make me finally admit after all these years that I am, in fact, British. Just don’t tell my dad.

So I might enjoy a few pints of the black stuff this St Who’s Day, but I think I’ll give Irishness a miss. When ‘being Irish’ is nothing more than a cheap coat you slip into whenever it suits your mood, it’s time to paraphrase that real Irishman WB Yeats:

‘Let them take it, For there’s more dignity in walking naked.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

St Patrick’s Day, USA, by David Nolan

Ireland cancels St Patrick’s Day, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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