Why does everyone want to be Irish?
From Angela's Ashes to Who Do You Think You Are?, the Emerald Isle is still a reliable source of self-pity.
Okay, let’s get the obvious joke out of the way: who does Chris Moyles think he is? A fat, annoying radio presenter and a very annoying person? Nope. He’s Irish. And as every Englishman, American or Australian knows, you can excuse your loud, shouty, unfunny, drunken behaviour by protesting that you’re Irish. Miraculously the aforementioned adjectives become ‘boisterous’, ‘exuberant’, ‘deliciously ironic’ and ‘ebullient’.
Chris Moyles is the latest candidate in BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? (1) series, in which various celebrities trace their family stories and what tragedies their ancestors went through. Moyles, we discovered, had a great-grandmother who grew up in the slums of Dublin, while a great-grandfather was an Irish nationalist who fought and died for the British Army in the First World War.
He was aghast at the latter discovery: that a Home Ruler could fight for the British Army. But the Irish have been fighting for the British Army for years. Thirty per cent of the British Army in 1830 were Irish, and many IRA men served in the British forces: Provisional IRA founder Seán Mac Stíofáin had been a member of the Royal Air Force as a young man, while the late Martin Meehan, an IRA leader in Belfast’s Ardoyne area, had a grandfather who fought for the British on the Somme.
It was apposite that the latest episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was aired in the same week that Frank McCourt died. He was the doyen of miserablist Irish memoirs that are simply self-indulgent. The global recession may have hit Ireland the hardest, so they say. But the Irish love it. Go to Ireland and read the Irish Times or the reports from the Dáil and they go on and on and on (with apologies to Mrs Doyle) about them being the ‘hardest hit in the world’, and that ‘everyone is looking upon us as an example of the failures of global capitalism’.
Well, the fact is, that no one is. Nobody cares what’s happening in Ireland. We only care what’s going on in America, the country that’s the source of all our joys and sorrows. Ireland is self-obsessed. And Irishness attracts self-obsessed people.
Ireland is a kind of mental repository for melancholy, a place upon which we can all apply our fantasies, woes and laments. This is why John Ford’s films did so well – John Wayne is always an Irish-named character, lost in the wilderness, making his own destiny. Ditto for Marty McFly in Back To The Future, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack Dawson in Titanic, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) from Dirty Harry, or Sam Malone (Ted Danson) from Cheers. They’re all slightly mental, in a particularly Irish kind of way, but they are the sort of guys that guys want to be.
This is why everyone wants to find their Irish roots. It’s because it makes them appear attractive and yet vulnerable. Colin Farrell is the epitome of this these days. He looks about 12 and he always plays gangsters – but he has a childlike lonely side in every character he plays.
But at least Colin Farrell is actually Irish. Unlike Chris Moyles, who is just playing up his Irish past. But the whole conceit of Who Do You Think You Are? is all wrong. There was a story recently revealing that Conservative leader David Cameron was a descendant of Moses. Well, who isn’t, assuming Moses actually existed? Most people in Britain have an ancestor who came over in 1066.
Who Do You Think You Are? ignores genetics and culture. We are all in-bred and we choose who we want to be related to. Ancestor worship varies on the era, and ours is an era of self-pity.
Moyles did come across as weirdly sincere in Who Do You Think You Are? But there’s still a bit of me that suspects that had he found an ancestor who died in Auschwitz, he would have chosen him instead of his Irish relations.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.
(1) Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC iPlayer