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The Garth Brooks Bullshit Defines Modern Ireland

We care so much about a country singer because we're scared of the future.
11.7.14

Garth Brooks playing at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration in 2009 (Photo via)

In January, Garth Brooks – country music legend or idiotic hat-wearing slob, depending on who you ask – waddled into Dublin's Croke Park and announced he was making a comeback. Brooks, who ostensibly retired from recording and touring in the year 2000, made known his plans to play two shows at the 80,000-capacity venue, the Irish capital's Gaelic games stadium.

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Why he chose Ireland to begin his comeback – having sold 135 million records worldwide – I wasn’t sure, but my home country responded eagerly, selling out the shows in record time, followed by a third, fourth and fifth. In all, GB managed to flog 400,000 tickets – roughly 10 percent of the country’s population and almost the number of Irish people who are currently unemployed. Yeehaw!

This was a big event in Ireland. Some – apparently those who'd never heard of the internet – camped out for days to procure tickets, then kicked off when they found they'd sold out. In some areas, the police had to be called and the phone-ins were choked with complaints from people who'd wound up empty-handed.

It was strange: though Brooks was semi-popular everywhere, no one quite knew the extent to which he was popular here.

Queues for Garth Brooks tickets in Dungannon, County Tyrone

To understand it, we probably need to return to the 90s. Ireland was a country in transition back then, stuck between the economic desolation of the 80s and the Celtic Tiger years of the 00s. Having grasped one too many kids, the Church was relinquishing its grasp, and for the first time the outside world felt like something to be embraced rather than run away from.

Country music was kinda the perfect soundtrack to this. It was close enough to our own tradition of folk, farming and drinking that we felt comfortable singing it, but also far enough away that it felt new and adventurous. And not just singing – back then, every housewife in the country suddenly became weirdly wet for line dancing. And, at least in the eyes of their partners, Irish men took on the romanticism of the Old West – denim shirts, Wrangler jeans and big belt buckles became the norm. In the UK, parents were smoking weed to Britpop and taking their daughters to see the Spice Girls; here, they were leaving their daughters at home and commandeering local community centres to practise Boot Scootin' Boogies, Electric Slides and Cotton-Eyed Joes.

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Indeed, it was absolutely mental – a time in our history, which, up until January, no one dared mention. So when Brooks announced his comeback, many people resented the reminder: spitting bile on Twitter, Facebook and beneath the many articles reporting it, questioning how people here could still like music so backwards and rural.

As if it needed confirmation, a breakdown of where the tickets had sold revealed that most Brooks fans were – in the eyes of Dubliners – “from the country”, i.e. from anywhere but Dublin. Most of the bile also seemed to be coming from Dubliners. This drew a clear battle line: Brooks fans were yokels, they complained, and that so many of them were going in July was embarrassing to a country which – I felt – had much more to be embarrassed about than liking a fat guy in a cowboy hat.

Cut to last week; Dublin, so culturally opposed to Brooks, awaits its money. It’s estimated that the concerts will generate €250 million (£200 million). Hotels are booked out, pubs are overstocked and the guys selling bootleg Stetsons can barely move with all the extra gear they’ve ordered in.

One problem, though: Croke Park, the stadium the concerts are taking place in, is situated in a built-up area, and residents are rightly miffed at the prospect of 400,000 people walking past their doors. They object to the concerts’ licence and, because they already had an agreement with Croke Park for a maximum of three gigs per year, the council upholds it, cancelling two of the five shows.

The Irish public reacting to the news that Garth Brooks had cancelled all five of his gigs.

Ireland explodes again. Each movement by Brooks, the concerts’ promoter Peter Aiken and Dublin City Council is reported in exacting detail by every newspaper, website and television programme. Despite the country being in a huge recession, despite massive levels of unemployment and emigration, the cancellations are even tabled in our House and our Senate, and talked about in-depth by our political leaders. The White House is contacted. Asked for help, they manage to keep a straight face while saying, “This is an issue we'll leave to Mr Brooks and the City of Dublin to resolve.”

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Brooks reacts by threatening to cancel all five: “To choose which shows to do and which shows not to do would be like asking to choose one child over another.” Aiken, on the hook for millions, flies to the US to try and convince him to do just three. Meanwhile, lawyers work hard at resurrecting all five.

Sensing victory, the bile takes on a celebratory glow. Last weekend here in Dublin one could barely move without someone making a joke. Everyone agreed on one thing, though: regardless of what you thought about the music, the situation was an absolute shambles, something that stood out even in our long love affair with shambolic behaviour.

Then, on Tuesday, word came through: an agreement for the five gigs hadn’t been reached, so Brooks stayed true to his word and pulled out altogether. His comeback – which will now take place elsewhere – would have to wait. Or it wouldn’t. It’s Thursday as I write this, and with politicians proposing actual emergency legislation to overturn the council’s decision, and with residents seeming to have a change of heart – undoubtedly out of guilt – things could change any second.

Either way, it’s definitely sad that Ireland cares so much about this. Have things really gotten so bad that we must ignore the recession, unemployment and emigration to instead go nuts over a few concerts? Are we really so sick of seeing no hope of a turnaround, and watching our government be complicit in our downfall, that we’re willing to get so upset about this?

Brooks receiving the "Grammy on the Hill" award (Photo via)

Sad, too, is how the bile unleashed at Brooks fans hints at Dublin’s insecurity, that with it becoming more like a mini London – its old-world charm getting pushed out by Facebook, Google and an endless cavalcade of chain stores – we’re left clinging to elitism to justify spending €1,200 (£995) a month on a damp one-bedroom flat. We yearn to feel special – berating Brooks fans creates in us the impression that, no matter how bad things are deep down, at least we’re not as bad as them.

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In all, the Garth Brooks saga is indicative of Ireland’s split psyche. His urban haters and rural admirers represent two opposing viewpoints, one as faulty as the other.

There are those who're happy to embrace the memories that the singer conjures up – the innocence of the 90s and of the past in general, the good times, the drinking and the, “Sure, what harm?” attitude. Then there are those who would rather rip up the last few centuries of Irish history, forget they’ve come from the same dubious stock and start all over again.

Obviously, the key to a harmonious Ireland lies in the middle – yet here, tolerance is easier said than done. Ideologically, people lock horns in Ireland like a Sunday League Ukraine – young, urban modernisers pick apart old-Ireland diehards with the illusion of changing where they, themselves, have come from. But it won’t happen. People and cultures get pushed off to the side, but never all the way.

And so Ireland finds itself locked in continuing stasis, caught between a past it can’t let go of and a future it’s too busy bickering about to create. Garth Brooks will not be our Euromaidan – line-dancing grannies and South William Street hipsters won’t be spilling each other’s guts in the street any time soon – yet we must accept that Garth Brooks fans, and people like them, are as much a part of this country as anyone else.

We have more in common with these people than we might think. After all, in 2014, why would anyone give a solitary fuck about Garth Brooks unless they're drastically ill?

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@0jnolan

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