Friday, August 10, 2012

A Few Pointers On Writing about Ireland

Wow. There's been some pretty breathtaking ignorance about Ireland in this week's Olympic coverage.

First, we had the Telegraph claiming our (now) gold-medal winning boxer, Katie Taylor, as 'British.'

Then the Australian newspaper group Fairfax Media behaved with a Murdoch-y lack of journalistic decorum and made comments reinforcing the hard-drinking, aggressive Irish stereotype. The Irish Ambassador to Australia stepped in to sort that one out.

And then, because Australia clearly hadn't been mortified enough by their sportswriters screwing up, Russell Barwich decided the Irish were ridiculous for not competing as part of Team GB, likening it to Tasmania refusing to comete as part of Australia. The best bit is that as he said this, he admitted that he didn't understand Irish politcs - I admire his candor, but given that he had just said the most offensive thing you can say to an Irish person, clarifying that was wholly unnecessary.

Oh, and while I was Googling all this, I found out that the BBC's Daley Thompson said that a tattooist who made a spelling error must have been Irish, prompting me to yell things in my head. The corporation's response:

"Thompson’s comments about this were clearly meant as a joke, but we apologise if any offence was caused; it certainly wasn’t our intention."

was not an apology, because if you call 3.5 million people stupid, you don't get to use the word 'if' about offence caused. There was offence caused. Be grown-ups and own it and knock off the passive-aggressive crap.Calling it a joke - also not smart, because the person making the joke doesn't get to decide whether or not it was funny. That's the audience's priviledge, and I for one am exercising the hell out of it :)

Anyway, I could do two things in response to this. I could cry and eat cake, because racism is horrible, especially when half of it comes from a country from whom your grandparents had to buy back their own land during the Great Depression and the other half comes from a commonwealth state that should know rather a lot more than it does about what independence means and how complex it can be.

Or I could write a handy guide for people who want to write about Ireland, but find it hard to locate good informatio about our admittedly tiny and globally insignificant country. That sounds like more fun, apart from the cake, so I'm going to do that. Most of this will be pretty obvious to my readers, but there is some actual information in Point 1 that may be of use :)

1. This is the complicated bit - the island of Ireland has two countries in it. Ireland looks like a teddy bear. The teddy bear's head is Northern Ireland, 6 counties under the rule of Great Britain but with its own assembly, exactly like Scotland or Wales. That's the bit with a tragic history of sectarian violence, which it is admirably and constructively working to overcome. They built the Titanic and Belfast and produced lots of linen and they have the Giant's Causeway and the city of Derry and the giant lake that looks the teddy bears eye. The rest of the teddy bear is the Republic of Ireland, the bit I live in, made up of the 28 remaining counties, and it's a state completely independent of Great Britain. It's the bit that has Dublin, Guinness, the Rock of Cashel, Cork and the blue lakes of Killarney in it.

2. Calling Ireland part of the UK is about the most offensive thing you can possibly say. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but saying 'Ireland' is lumps the republic in there too, and we really hate that.

3. We don't find the stupid jokes funny. But everyone already knew that, I presume, because people don't like being called stupid, right? So it's a no-brainer.

Paradoxically, some Irish people will tell and enjoy Irish jokes but non-Irish people calling us stupid, or being surprised that we have universities - not cool. We have more Nobel Laureates for literature per head of population than any other country, so we can definitely read and write :p

4. We're actually not that aggressive. The Irish have a rep for getting drunk and getting into fights. This is because so many Irish people who moved abroad did it - but you're talking about a demographic that never saw two shops stuck together until they got to New York or Boston or London, and yeah, lots of them went a bit crazy. But Ireland is a very safe country (both the North and the Republic - in spite of the North's history of violence, tourists are pretty safe). We don't allow handguns. Our murder rates and other crime rates are low. And in spite of some pretty seriously nasty austerity measures, we haven't had any violent protests. We're far closer to the other stereotype - that of the complacent Irishman drawing on his pipe and saying 'Ah sure, it'll be graaand.' We could stand to be a bit more aggressive sometimes!

5. The drinking thing. OK, I may be on my high horse at the moment but the drinking thing is . . . kinda true. The Irish drink quite a bit, but more importantly, all of our drinking is public. We don't have a culture of drinking at home (although we're working on developing one to save some cash!) so our consumption is very visible. Also I live in the Irish capital and even here, it can be hard to find non-alcohol-related things to do after a certain time in the evening, and it's obviously worse in rural areas. By necessity, even non-drinkers may find their social life centring around the pub. This stereotype is the least offensive, and I think most Irish people are more bothered by the implications that we get drunk and hit people than statements that we get drunk.

6. We are a modern economy with cars, roads and factories. This may sound daft, but there are people who think we're still stuck in The Quiet Man and picking blight off the potatoes. Not so much. Some years ago, because of the massive boom in the pharmaceutical industry here, our chief export was not potatoes, whiskey and postcards of the Cliffs of Moher, but . . .  Viagra.

Rest assured, we totally saw the funny side of that :)

This post is largely for the kind of people who say things that are very offensive, which doesn't include any of my blog readers, all of whom can read and research things, and know that calling someone stupid is not very nice, ever. Unfortunately, none of these people will ever read it, but I certainly feel better!

Next week, I will continue my 'Pointers On Writing About Ireland' with the less obvious stuff that might *actually* be helpful for someone setting a book here, as opposed to me spleen-venting :) If anyone has any questions (whether you want to write about Ireland, or visit it, or just ask a question that's been bugging you), please pop them in the comments and I'll address them on Monday! There are no offensive questions, because questions indicate a desire to know things which I believe is universally a good thing :)

Happy weekend, everyone!


  1. Fascinating post, Ellen, about a fascinating country! And the one thing I didn't know is that Ireland isn't part of the UK. I thought the whole island was part of the UK. Irish politics aside, I don't even understand US politics let alone the ones in other countries.

    1. I'm glad this post helped to teach someone something, Karen :) The whole two-countries thing is actually quite confusing - it is not always made clear that only about 20% of Ireland remains under UK rule. The rest (my bit!) is a wholly independent country, no more linked to the UK than France or Spain.

      Of course, because they are our nearest neighbour, we're culturally very similar - we watch a lot of British TV, listen to a lot of British music. And a lot of our culture is popular in Britain. So it does get very confusing!

  2. I read your post with I am sure other Americans will. Keep in mind...the states are made up of hugely distinct personalities as well...we are criticized for being ignorant of those outside our nation...and well...that is for good reason.

    In my own town...Tampa, FL...there is a Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, Puerto Rican...Swede...German...get the picture...don't get me going with the Asian and South American influences. And step into a black community, and you'll feel on a different continent, as well.

    So we are lucky to know the folks of our own city.

    Please forgive us for being ignorant of the nuances, structures and habits of your country.

    We (Americans) can travel our entire lives within the US, and feel as though we have visited fifty nations. We aren't 'just' Americans, either.

    Tolerance is precious. That is intensely in our minds here...considering our recent, mindless, pathetic shootings.

    I've rambled. Thanks for listening.


    1. R, I completely agree. I also think that America's multicultural heritage is part of the reason why American broadcasters tend to be very well-informed and sensitive about cultural differences - it's because you guys have so much diversity ad are accustomed to handling it. I can't remember the last time I heard an American make a gaffe like the ones I mentioned.

      Everyone is always forgiven for not knowing things, especially about Ireland because we are tiny! I just wanted to put some information out there for people who were interested in knowing more, particularly because there was so much misinformation about us during the Olympic coverage.

      I do agree that America is effectively fifty countries, and within each one there is still enormous diversity. America is, after all, the original melting-pot and has welcomed so many migrants, so when people generalise about America, I feel they have a very good chance of being wrong! An American living in a university city on the eastern seaboard must have a totally different experience to someone living on a ranch in Montana, or in a small town in Ohio, or on a Native American reservation, or dodging the rain in Seattle.

      Thanks for the comment, it made for very interesting reading :)

  3. Anyone who apologizes along those lines... "I'm sorry if anyone was offended"... isn't really apologizing.

    It makes one want to smack a reporter, doesn't it?

    Ireland is a place I'd love to see for myself down the line. Spend a few weeks wandering from place to place.

    1. Completely - just a few little words makes such a difference. 'We are sorry that people were offended' has an entirely different meaning!

      If you ever make it over, let me know! You'd see a lot in a few weeks - we're very small!

  4. Big hoorah for Katie Taylor!! Am so loving these games!! Yes, I read about the silly and insensitive and stupid Daley Thompson remark. Glad he didn't figure in the Olympic opening ceremony!

    Take care

    1. We're so chuffed about Katie Taylor, Kitty - my office ground to a halt for her last fight and we were all glued to our computers, watching the streams! She's very popular and well-liked here and there are a lot of Irish flags to be seen at the moment!

      Daley Thompson also told Steve Redgrave (one of the most successful Olympians) that rowing wasn't as hard as athletics. He doesn't strike me as a very nice guy, I must admit! :)

  5. If anyone is ignorant it's a person who perpetuates bigoted stereotypes and calls it a joke. Mean-spirited is what it is, not funny.
    I'm also shocked that many people don't know there are two countries on the island. But maybe it's because I was always interested in my Irish roots that I'm well aware of what it cost to have a republic.
    Thanks for standing up against these cheap shots.

    1. I think that media coverage of Northern Ireland often refers to just 'Ireland' - I have had people ask me what it was like growing up with the IRA around, and my answer is always "I. . . didn't? It was on the same landmass but you may as well as a French girl how she felt growing up with ETA." Obviously we were very conscious of the violence because it was close to home, and a lot of folk in the Republic still kinda think the North should be ours again someday (but they don't want to be, so we're happy to leave them as they are!), but it didn't affect our daily lives at all.

      Add to that the amount of British people with Irish heritage and versa, and the amount of cross-cultural pollination, and I think it can be very confusing.

      I didn't know you had Irish roots! My maternal grandmother was an O'Brien from County Monaghan - although there are a lot of O'Brien's so we may not be long-lost cousins :)

  6. Good for you for setting the record straight, and I can certainly understand why you'd want to do it. Ignorance is annoying, but annoyance with a big mouth attached to it is darned near unbearable. Only thing you have here that completely surprised me is your chief import. Not sure what I would've guessed it to be, but it sure wouldn't have been viagra. Oh, and don't hate me, but "The Quiet Man" is one of my favorite movies.

    1. I know, we were pretty surprised when we heard too :) For years all of our chief exports were agricultural, but when they started to manufacture Viagra here, that took over for a time. I'm not sure what it is now - possibly manufactured pop acts :p

      I have never actually seen the Quiet Man so I will refrain from comment! I just mentioned it because it seems to be the impression that a lot of people have of Ireland :) No criticism of the film itself intended!

    2. It's actually one of my dad's favourite movies... but he's silly that way. I don't like the Duke, so I heckle to no end when he puts it on.

  7. But where are the lephrachans?

    Seriously, Ireland is on my wish list of countries to visit when I win the lotto or become a world famous author. I've seen some of the most beautiful scenery of Ireland, and I've heard such awesome things about the people.

    People need to take offense when someone takes pot-shots at them on public TV. How rude!


    1. They're all over the place :) Can hardly go for my morning chai latte without tripping over five of them!

      Ireland is a lovely country, but if you ever make it over - bring rain gear! It's very wet, and the last few summers have been wetter than the winters. . . so there is no way to avoid it, just dress for it and embrace it!

      I know - genuine mistakes are fair enough, but stereotyping and outright insults are just not OK!

  8. I think most people over here in the UK are a little confused over what country they live in, so it's perhaps not surprising that others get England mixed up with the UK etc. etc. I mean, "Team GB" makes no sense because our Olympic team is GB (England/Scotland/Wales) and Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man (so it's not even "Team UK"). As a Manx person, I get your annoyance! Strange how athletes from elsewhere in Britain become "English" when they do well...

    1. I know, Simon - I think there is a lot of genuine confusion in the UK and beyond about terms like UK, GB, England, etc.

      I bet you didn't know I owned a dictionary of Manx :)

      Oh yeah, the English don't just steal the cream of the Irish, they have a habit of doing it to other places too!

    2. A dictionary of Manx? Yindyssagh! I'm not going to complain about the English too much, though. I'm married to an English woman and we have two English daughters ...

    3. The dictionary was my dad's - he was something of a linguist when it came to languages of these islands! I inherited it when he passed away.

      I must admit I'm quite an Anglophile - I read mostly British authors, London is one of my favourite cities and I set my most recent novel in England. I just find the media's tendency towards notable-people-kleptomania quite amusing :)


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