Tuesday 29 June 2010

Watching England Lose

This little post came to mind in response to a piece by Roddy Doyle in the New Yorker. Doyle wrote that he was going to bet for England but when he went to the bookies he couldn't bring himself to back the old enemy..

Doyle's remarks ring true: here in Dublin I could hear my neighbours cheer each time Germany scored. Typically punters in Irish pubs shake the rafters when someone, anyone, scores against England. These are usually the same people, like Mr. Doyle, who support English soccer clubs! Nothing illustrates our relationship with England better than the soccer paradox.

We built our argument for independence on the twin beliefs that a) we are not English, and b) they, the English, were responsible for all the wrongs of our history and our current state of misery. For this much blood was spilled (and great national myths were necessary to justify each separate horror). None of this, of course, makes us Irish unique. We made our myths, our wars, and our nation. Our trouble with the English, however, is that while we broke the political ties, we failed to break the cultural ones.

We failed to rehabilitate our national language and we remained under their cultural and (for most of the 20th century) economic shadow. Language is important. Nothing facilitates the cultural dominance of a great power over a small one more than a shared language. In terms of forging an independent culture (though I stress, not in any other way), it was to our misfortune that the power which stepped into the role of global empire after Britain was also English speaking. This cemented the position of the English language in Ireland (as elsewhere) thereby preserving a direct channel for English cultural produce into Ireland. All of this was happening at a time when communication, television, and later the internet was connecting Irish homes into the English cultural scene.

During our (ill-fated) economic boom of the 90s and naughties, Irish town and city cetres grew more and more like those in England. This is more to do with capital flow than culture, but it merely set in concrete what was happneing in parallel in cultural terms. In Ireland we consume vast quantities of British celeb culture; far from being force-fed British media, the fact is, English titles sell here because we Irish are prepared to pay to read about Victoria Beckham or Elton John.

We even follow the British Royalty, another topic which bubbles the paradox to the surface. Despite following the tribulations and foibles of prince Harry with great interest, there is something of a minor backlash on Irish airwaves at the announcement that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is going to visit Ireland next year - the first visit by a British Monarch since Irish Independence.

In Ireland we are happy to adore and support anything English as long as it has no national symbolism attached. This is surely a sign that despite our political independence, our success at building a functioning nation, and our increasing confidence as a member of the European Union, an ache of self doubt lingers in the heart of our project to creating a unique national identity, one that need not be defined by what it is not: English.


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