A televised escape from economic woe

A blend of Miss World and Mastermind, the Rose of Tralee’s appeal defies the snobbery of the Dublin 4 set.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

There was a time in Ireland when it was fashionable to be all snooty about the country’s history. This was in the Nineties and the early part of the Noughties, when Ireland became very rich and modern, and when the Dublin 4 smart-set (Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Hampstead-dwelling, Guardian-reading intelligentsia) looked on in disdain at the nation’s Catholic, impoverished and insular history. Ever since the global recession, which has hit Ireland very badly, the smart-set are not feeling so clever. The Celtic Tiger has got mange, and people don’t quite know how to deal with it.

I always think the Channel 4 series Father Ted the sharpest barometer of the mood of the self-satisfied Celtic Tiger. The show was ostensibly quite benign in the way it had a dig at the Church – and ironically regurgitated stereotypes of Irish people being half-wits, alcoholics and thieves – but its core message was that everything that was old about Ireland was rubbish. Incompetent priests, creepy nuns, censorship, corruption, misogyny, small-mindedness and knee-jerk anti-Protestantism: Father Ted, while being admittedly hilarious, was also an exercise in smug self-congratulation.

One episode of Father Ted featured a take on the Rose of Tralee festival. The Rose of Tralee, which takes place annually in County Kerry and is broadcast on RTE1, is a kind of blend of Miss World and Mastermind, in which female contestants are judged by their beauty and intelligence. Father Ted lampooned it subsequently in its own ‘Lovely Girls’ competition on Craggy Island – the intimation being that it was not entirely appropriate to have women paraded like cattle, and judged by weirdo, dysfunctional priests.

Yet the Rose of Tralee refuses to go away. In fact, it is becoming even more popular. This year, 705,000 watched it, compared to 540,000 in 1979. Viewing figures were up on 2008, garnering a 46 per cent market share compared to 42 per cent two years ago.

So why won’t it go away? I suppose that in times of recession, we all regress and seek escapism. When you are ill, for instance, you tend to seek infantile creature comforts in the form of 7-Up, crisps and Asterix or Tintin books. I think society at large also becomes retarded in times of misfortune or hardship.

The Rose of Tralee (RTE1, Monday and Tuesday) was of course as ridiculous as ever. Its central theme, as it has always been, was that of the Irish diaspora. We had Irish roses who live in Wales, Liverpool, Toronto, San Francisco, Sunderland, Dubai, India, Poland and Luxembourg. Berlin’s Irish rose gave a really atonal rendition of ‘The Wild Rover’ in German, while Australia’s did a mash-up of Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’. The Indian rose spoke about her Asian father from England.

The Rose of Tralee still works because it pleases everyone. For the Dublin 4 mafia it proves that Irishness is multicultural and is in constant dialogue with ‘the Other’ (the winner this week was the London Rose: the impeccably multi-racial Clare Kambamettu, who was born in Leeds.) For nationalists it shows that the Irish are the greatest and most good-looking people in the world and, like the Scots, invented everything. It is a nice form of escapism for people who want to get away from all the hideousness that is the Irish economy. And it also pleases perverts.

* * *

Talking of ‘the Other’, RTE2 had an excellent programme on Tuesday night called Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. It was about ethnically half- and quarter-Jews who served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, about how they survived, how they remained in the German army with the connivance of Nazis who knew of their background, how they dealt with their predicament, and why they felt little or no contrition in serving an anti-Semitic regime.

There’s a very long argument about whether ‘Jew’ is an ethnic or religious term, to which I won’t attempt to put forward an answer. Suffice to say that, as the historian Ian Kershaw has related, there were many Jews who tried pathetically to protest at Nazi round-ups in the 1930s by displaying their Iron Cross medals from the First World War. To the Nazis, you can’t be Jewish and German. Today, many Zionists would agree.

Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers was always going to be a sad programme replete with ambivalence. One interviewee, Arnold Spitz, received the Iron Cross on three occasions. He was proud to serve in the German army because he wanted to prove that Jews were brave. Spitz’s non-Jewish mother often told him that ‘Jews are cowards’, an assertion that he sought to refute. Jews have consistently been considered as intellectual and artistic but physically feeble, a stereotype which no amount of bellicosity on behalf of the Israeli state will ever diminish. Spitz spoke with pride about the number of Russians he shot dead. He later went on to become a Zionist politician in Israel, where many Russian Jews now live.

Another interviewee called Hans-Geert Falkenberg was Polish with a Jewish grandmother, yet his godmother was a leading Nazi. She was shocked to hear of the grandmother’s arrest in 1936, telling her godson: ‘I still believe the Jews are bad for Germany, but that has nothing to do with your grandmother.’

A Hungarian, Ephrahim Glaser, was recruited by the Germans because he ‘looked Aryan’ and was good at translating. Like many featured in this documentary, such as a German soldier called Werner Goldberg (that name should really have been a giveaway for the Nazis), he was recruited because he was an asset. As was dramatised by the films Schindler’s List (1993) and The Counterfeiters (2007), it is queer how ideology goes out of the window when pragmatism prevails.

Falkenberg stayed in the German army because he thought, as a part-Jew, that it was the safest place to be. He, and others in this documentary, felt their loyalty was to Germany and to its army – and not to Hitler and the Nazis.

Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers was a fine tale that reminds us that what is a ‘Jew’ is always complicated, as is, indeed, ethnicity and religious affiliation itself.

* * *

Writing as someone whose mother is Irish and who holds an Irish passport, I think I can safely say that the Irish remain the most introspective, self-satisfied and self-obsessed people I have come across. The bookshops here are festooned, as usual, with tomes reinterpreting Ireland’s history. The summer schools in the West Country are asking that perennially boring question of ‘what it means to be Irish these days’. Snore-o-rama.

Evidence of this came in the form of Tonight With Vincent Browne on TV3 (Tuesday) in which the politician Gary Murphy proudly boasted that ‘we don’t have a far-right party like most European countries’. Er, what about Sinn Fein, the party whose Kulturkampf owes as much to Richard Wagner and Thomas Mann as it does to Padraig Pearse and Eamonn de Valera?

And who did Murphy blame for the economic meltdown? The fecking Greeks of course. After all, as attested in an episode of Father Ted, they invented gayness.

Patrick West is a UK-based writer. He was formerly spiked’s TV and radio columnist. Read his blog here.

David Bowden is away.

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