Those in the know will rightly credit Alan Partridge with the title of this post, a suggested tagline for the doomed TV comeback of Norwich’s premier broadcaster, which he intended to come ‘live from the Blarney Stone’. To be honest, though, there’s a veritable Partridge-esque upsurge of ‘Oirish’ clichés in England today – you can’t pass a pub or a supermarket without being bombarded by images of shamrocks or leprechauns; were I Irish myself (and there’s probably a bit in me somewhere, belonging as I do to these islands’ mongrel breed) I think I’d be a tad annoyed; at what point did an Irish festival become one more marketing opportunity for the British retail sector ala Christmas, Easter and Halloween? Somehow, I can’t imagine the streets of Dublin on St George’s Day are crammed with stout yeoman clad in Union Jack waistcoats, yet the plotlines of English soap operas from Walford to Weatherfield will no doubt be marking St Patrick’s Day.
I’m not planning to jump on the emerald bandwagon today, but as it’s been a long week with a lot of posts, I figured it was the easiest/laziest option to issue a list. As an alternative to the glut of stereotypical tat decorating your local neighbourhood O’Neill’s, I thought I’d recite some Irish names that I’d rather figured on a day such as today than the aforementioned clichés. In the interests of harmony, I include both sides of the island, and to avoid any accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’, you might be relieved to hear I don’t particularly care for Guinness.
When it comes to the Arts, Ireland has produced an impressive roster of writers, playwrights, poets and musicians over the years. Many had their artistic fingers in more than one pie, though if we stick to dramatists for the moment, we could name the likes of Oliver Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who had a foot in both the eighteenth and nineteenth), Oscar Wilde in the nineteenth, and two cultural giants who crossed over into the twentieth – George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. Like his illustrious predecessors, a notable twentieth century name such as Samuel Beckett was a dramatist who didn’t reserve his entire oeuvre for the theatre. What is especially fascinating about so many Irish artists is how their artistry covers so many different fields, and Ireland has unleashed a remarkable number of genuine Renaissance Men.
That colossus of seventeenth and eighteenth century satire, Jonathan Swift, was a true polymath – still chiefly remembered by the wider public for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Swift was also an essayist, political pamphleteer and a poet. Beckett was also a poet, as well as a novelist; Yeats probably had ‘poet’ stamped on his passport, though he dabbled with drama as well; Joyce’s major artistic contribution was to the novel and short story, though he was also a poet; Wilde’s reputation was built on his plays, yet he produced the iconic novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the celebrated children’s stories published as ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, the poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and the lengthy letter, ‘De Profundis’.
Poetry seems particularly suited to the way Irish artists can paint pictures with words, with just a small few of the most celebrated poets being the obligatory WB Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Cecil Day-Lewis, and far too many others to mention. But there is a poetic rhythm to much of the prose that has illuminated Irish literature, and novelists have served to put Ireland on the literary map as much as its poets. I mean, where does one start? The aforementioned Swift, Laurence Stern, Bram Stoker, Liam O’Flaherty, CS Lewis (born in Belfast), Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle…the list often seems bloody endless, to be honest – so we’d best move on.
Music has always mattered either as an artistic pursuit or simple entertainment in Ireland, though if we put ‘traditional’ Irish music to one side and glance back over the last fifty years of popular music’s ascendancy, Irish names figure quite highly. The first true Irish rock band to make an impact were Belfast’s Them during the Beat Boom of the early 60s, and they were led, of course, by Van Morrison, whose subsequent solo career eclipsed anything he achieved with his original bandmates. Many Irish musicians struggled to emerge from the shadow of the ‘Show Bands’, but in the early 70s Rory Gallagher was certainly a top live draw on the rock circuit and a critically acclaimed recording artist, though in terms of Irish exports he was usurped by the mighty Thin Lizzy and their roguish romantic leader, the late great Phil Lynott.
While singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan was the mainstream face of Irish pop in the early-to-mid-70s, the Punk era certainly produced its fair share of significant bands, from The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers to the far bigger commercial monster that was The Boomtown Rats. The late 70s also saw the arrival of a band that would go onto become not just the most successful Irish rock band of all time, but one of rock’s greatest successes full stop, U2. And after U2 came The Pogues, Sinead O’Connor, Enya, My Bloody Valentine, The Divine Comedy and all those bloody boy-bands. But having skimmed across the surface of Irish music, let’s move on to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Ireland have won the Eurovision on seven separate occasions, beginning with Dana’s ode to ‘All Kinds of Everything’ in 1970 and including two triumphs for Johnny Logan and three successive victories in the 90s. The financial strain of staging the Eurovision in Ireland year-after-year inspired the classic episode of ‘Father Ted’ in which Ted and Dougall’s terrible entry is picked to represent the nation because there’s no way it can win. For many in the UK, ‘Father Ted’ is not just the greatest work of comedy genius (other than Dave Allen) that Ireland has ever produced, but it is up there with the best sitcoms of all time. Let’s not mention ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.
And what (I hear you ask) of actors and directors, of great inventors, of politicians and sportsmen and women? How can you not mention George Best or Alex Higgins? There, I just did. Well, I’ve only got so much space, after all – though I won’t go without honourable mention of two people you’ve never heard of called John and Noeleen Doyle; they were a couple who knocked about with my grandparents when I was a child, whose house I sometimes stopped at and whose children I sometimes played with; and because of them I still can’t hear an Ulster accent without slipping into a warm bath of aural nostalgia. Anyway, considering I’m an Englishman, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer volume of greats that have emanated from that little landmass, and long may it continue.
© The Editor