"Irishness" has different meanings—not just abroad, but here in Ireland. Abroad, the clichés are unavoidable—maybe Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge character summed it up best with "leprechauns, shamrocks, Guinness, horses running through council estates, toothless simpletons."
For an older lot reared during simpler times, that isn't a million miles away. Indeed, their Ireland is one of traditional music, pints of stout, and romanticizing the IRA. For the upper classes, however, it's more a vision, one built around blonde hair dye and new cars, sugary coffees in posh hotels and fake-smile Christmases with annual visits to church.
But for the rest of us—mostly working class—our Irishness comes mainly from the pub, memories of old football matches and wink-and-nod embraces of St. Patrick's Day. It comes, most vividly, from feeling underrepresented.
Here in Ireland, our cultural sphere consists mainly of disconnected arseholes. Our political sphere, the same. If someone gets elected who represents the working class, they're immediately made to look like crackpots, like Luke "Ming" Flanagan—nicknamed by the media because his beard looks like that of Ming the Merciless—who stands for such wacky things as opposing austerity and legalizing marijuana. And if someone working class is allowed to exist culturally, they immediately become cult heroes, like football analyst Eamon Dunphy. Such is our clamor for realness.
Internationally, it's similar. Though seemingly very nice men, I wonder if Graham Norton or Chris O'Dowd would be so successful if they didn't vamp up their begob-and-begorrah Irishness to the level foreigners expect.
In Conor McGregor, however, and the resurgent Colin Farrell—most recently in True Detective season two and The Lobster—there are finally people on the international stage who, to the Irish working class, represent the Ireland we live in.
Firstly, their reputations as tasteless speak to something in our character. Having endured enough unemployment to essentially not give a shit, we as a people have trouble taking things too seriously, so when McGregor wears one of his chimney-sweep suits, or when he called everyone out at the UFC Go Big press conference before Glasgow-kissing Jose Aldo, what Irishman can say that he—or a large portion of his mates—hasn't done the same stuff? We've been squaring up outside nightclubs for years; we've been turning up to communions, confirmations, and weddings in ridiculous outfits since we were born.
And when Farrell states, "Holy fuck, man. Breakfast, lunch, and fuckin' dinner right here, and I'm not even fuckin' jokin'," during his sex tape while giving oral sex, what Irishman can say that he hasn't expressed similar poetry at such moments? We're brought up to essentially fear sex, so actually having it can be joyous—indeed, like three meals at once.
But past their rough exteriors, their insides are also recognizably Irish, full of the old-school values so popular here. Watch Farrell as he discusses the sex tape with the mortification of a boy just caught wanking. Truly, it's both sides of the Irish male Catholic spectrum; and for a man famed for his womanizing, as well as being an actor paid to look cool, it's quite sweet how he melts under the spotlight of his past indiscretions.
Reared in Castleknock, a semi-decent suburb of Dublin, he can't quite claim the same working-man credentials as McGregor—who grew up in Crumlin and then Lucan, both a fair bit rougher—but having come of age when class lines weren't so starkly drawn, he has all the manner of your mate who sits in a camping chair at Electric Picnic with a slab of Budweiser, hassling passersby for weed.
Now sober, his obsessions are yoga, juicing, and his kids. He speaks of his sons in almost every interview and seems like a great dad. It's this love of family that he shares with McGregor.
Having been with his girlfriend Dee for eight years—since he was 19—McGregor's also spoken about clearing off all his family's debts and how securing their future is his primary motivation for fighting. Once a plumber's mate—"making the tea," as he describes it—this comes from the not un-Irish experience of having very little. He's also at pains to credit his coach, John Kavanagh, for all his success. So though the perception is he'll criticize anyone, it's just not true—he's fiercely loyal to those who he feels have helped him.
McGregor's free of body and speech. Listen to him speak—I mean, really listen—and beneath the shit talk you'll understand he's about dreaming big and working hard to achieve it. He's also about not shortchanging that dream, or himself, by not continuing to push. He had no right to achieve what he has, but he has and he knows it.
My relationship with Ireland is strained. Feelings of resentment stem from having grown up in the same environment McGregor did and not thinking I could be anything other than my dad, who worked his whole life painting houses for almost nothing.
We go to school here and are taught to say prayers we don't believe in, along with a language we never speak, and if we don't buy into that, wanting more than society has carved for us, we're told "No" by our parents and teachers. Then, if we do break out, elevating ourselves in class if only intermittently, we feel obliged to hide part of ourselves.
For years I've had the piss taken out of me because of my accent and where I'm from, and have consequently tried to hide it. Am I proud? No. But you still wouldn't hear me speak as I should unless I'm pissed.
This inferiority complex is a huge problem in the Irish working class. If we do become successful, we're taught that it's in spite of who we are, not because of it. We've developed Stockholm Syndrome, having convinced ourselves that the restrictions placed on us by the upper classes are, in fact, necessary.
But things are changing. Go to any martial arts gym in the country, or Dublin's 3Arena, where UFC Fight Night 76 took place last month, and experience young people more involved than in any movement—cultural, political, or sporting—I can name. These young men and women are the same ones who were thrown on the recessionary scrapheap; who, despite the government's claims of economic growth, still live with unemployment and a probable need to emigrate. With the children of the upper classes already on their fourth startup, us working class have turned out exactly like our fathers, kicking and screaming for every bit of income like it's the 1980s all over again, the promises of the Celtic Tiger now mounted and stuffed on an anonymous banker's wall.
But in McGregor and Farrell we now have heroes who've not only overcome the obstacles we face—who naturally inspire us—but who've actually become successful not in spite of who they are, but, in large part, because of it; because in their relatively uniform worlds, UFC and Hollywood, they appear unique.
They appear unique because of their Irishness, and by being so brazen they're teaching us not to be so cowed. They're teaching me that, rather than hide from who I am, I should embrace it.
There's resistance here, of course. Both McGregor and Farrell are looked down on by the upper classes because of those rough exteriors, and though there isn't a country where the phrase "human cockfighting" hasn't been uttered in relation to MMA, here in Ireland it feels particularly venomous. Obviously, these people have little understanding of what MMA is, only that its representative, McGregor, doesn't look or sound like them; only that those who filled the 3Arena two weeks ago aren't in the mould of their sons or daughters, or their privately-schooled Rugby World Cup heroes.
Believing that anything that serves a positive role in the community—which gives many hope at a time when little else does—is distasteful, is indicative of an elitist society, one where the upper classes don't believe the youth of Crumlin and Lucan deserve their own heroes, where we should be grateful for what we're given and shut up.
But the age of shutting up is over, and because of heroes like McGregor and Farrell, we're hopefully being dragged towards a country where success won't be so strictly determined by class, but rather by the qualities we've always had, but which largely go unnoticed: hard work and talent.
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