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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: Yes, Ireland is special but fewer care than we think

We’ve done well for a small island nation, writes Mark Boyle from Japan, but we shouldn’t overstate our sense of exceptionalism: it doesn’t serve us well abroad.

Mark Boyle

“YOU’LL NEVER BEAT the Irish” sang the full-throated fans in Poland as they watched the Boys in Green getting soundly thrashed by three obviously superior teams. The euphoria and tear-blinking pride in these words distracts one from the fact that we have been beaten many times, are currently being beaten by economics and assuredly will be beaten again. But that’s not a comment on us: it’s the truth for any and all nations.

Exceptionalism is the belief that whereas others may fall within the same bell curve of virtues and failings that everybody else does, you are different, you are the exception and the Irish are divils for it.

This tendency to some degree is a normal human trait so is nothing to feel too guilty about. A majority of people believe themselves to be of above average intelligence even if you point out how statistically unlikely it might be. In effect this translates to everybody saying to themselves “there sure are a lot of stupid people in the world. I’m glad I’m not one of them.” Statistically speaking, some of us have to be below average so that others may be above.

But the Irish have always known ourselves to be special. We are a small, resource-shy island that historically had the misfortune of being placed between the cold wall of the Atlantic and the stifling abuse of another, larger country, ambitious and aggressive enough to be at one point the most successful colonial power in the world. Yet here we sit in relative prosperity and self-appointed authority, engaging in the adventure of nationhood like our erstwhile oppressors.

We punch above our weight economically with the fourth highest GDP per head in the Eurozone. We have a history of excellence with four Nobel prizes for literature and scientific pioneers like Robert Boyle and Nicholas Callan who made some of the greatest discoveries in sciences’ history. On our emigrant backs were populated both the nations of Australia and America, not to mention the great industrial cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. In short, we’ve done pretty well.

“We draw on the achievements of every Irish person in our history, from Katie Taylor to Fionn MacCumhaill”

All nations go through times of change and transition. Germany as it is now known was only conceived of in the late 1800s and fledgling nations like Kosovo and Southern Sudan even now are shakily trying to secure recognition for the very idea of their country.

Perhaps it is the fact that we are an island nation and our borders have the undeniable permanence of the sea that has made it easier for us to look back at previous inhabitants and absorb their victories as our own. For if they lived on this island, we can say confidently they were Irish. Such
certainty gives us a long memory and allows us to draw upon the achievements of every Irish person in our history, from Katie Taylor to Fionn MacCumhaill.

But who else knows about them or us?

When I first came to Japan as a teacher in 2010 I thought a good way to introduce Ireland would be by showing off our more internationally renowned sons and daughters. Head and shoulders photographs of Liam Neeson, Bono, Oscar Wilde, Roy Keane and Mary Robinson were run off on the school printer and I decided to test them out on my co-workers.

“Here are some pictures of famous Irish people,” I announced.

“Oh are they [blank face]? Mmm… [nods] very nice.”

There have only been three occasions that someone came up to me, interested that I was Irish as opposed to just foreign. Once was when they saw on the national news the grim humiliation of the troika coming to Dublin.

Another was when a colleague wanted to talk to me about the Icelandic volcano as he assumed (as many do here) that Ireland and Iceland were the same thing. “Is your mother alright?” he asked gravely.

Finally one of my sixth-class students called me over a few days ago and as he is a bit of a chancer I expected the worst. Perhaps an inappropriate comment about me or my girlfriend was on the cards but surprisingly he shouted “Ireland! Soccer!”

“Yes!” I thought, “they finally understand where I’m from. Not Iceland, England or America. Ireland!”

“Mark-sensei, Robbie Keane is unskilled.”

“Um. Thanks.”

“I had gotten ahead of myself in how I saw Ireland compared to the rest of the world”

This was not what I expected when I came out, my assumption being that the Irish were as internationally de rigeur as we are always led to believe. Perhaps it is a bit much to expect my students to know who Mary Robinson is; after all who among us can name the Japanese Prime Minister?

I had gotten ahead of myself in how I saw Ireland compared to the rest of the world.

More recently glimpses of this could be seen as countless financial and European commentators were pressed in the media on the question of what would be the outcome if Ireland voted No in the referendum, would it derail the Eurozone nations’ attempts to consolidate fiscal policy across the Eurozone states? Time and again it was pointed out Europe had no intention of waiting for such a minor player in Europe.

One could argue that there was a measure of it driving John Delaney to ask FIFA for a 33-nation world cup in 2010, although to be fair, the flailing foolishness of heartbreak also played its part.

As well as we have done in the past, if we allow our geographical isolation and historical awareness to compound our natural tendency towards exceptionalism, it may only embarrass us internationally at a time when we can ill-afford it.

All countries think they’re different and perhaps Ireland has a better claim than most, but in any claim it would behove us to remember how small we really are.

That would be very small indeed.

Mark Boyle is currently working with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching programme, teaching English in rural Japan.

Update, 9.45am: A reader emailed to ask that it be noted that not only have Irish people won four Nobel Prizes for Literature, but also two for Peace and one for Physics.

Read: How Japanese people interact with their state is the inverse of the Irish>

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