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Column: ‘We Irish are defined by a lack of empathy’

The national begrudgery that was once a joke has become a sneering reality in the recession, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

I DON’T REMEMBER what it was that sparked my national pride; for as long as I can remember I’ve been cheerfully smug about being Irish. I do recall being very, very small, and watching an Ireland vs England match on TV with my oldies, and announcing that I was going to cheer for England because they had decided to cheer for Ireland.

“You can’t do that,” I was told. “You’re Irish. You can’t cheer for England.”

This puzzled me; it was obviously before we learned the 800-years chant at school (if there’s one thing that will very quickly make you a nationalist, it’s Ireland’s tragic history). But this is the only time I can remember not being sure and proud of my nationality. It’s drummed into you at a very young age to be proud of what you are, and what you are is Irish, and it’s the greatest of boons and privileges.

When you saw American tourists in our streets, you knew they had come over to solidify a connection, so delighted they were to have traced at least one ancestral spring back to the ould sod. When you considered a holiday, you were confident you’d be welcomed whatever the destination, so loved was the Irish stereotype, so friendly we were perceived to be. When you thought about emigrating, following the weather or the adventure, you knew that your education and skills would have prospective employers slavering over you. Foreign beauties adored your accent. Unrelated party animals longed to share a Guinness with you. Diplomats and fat cats couldn’t wait to sink their talons into your banks. This, the general consensus as to how the rest of the world viewed their cheeky, cheery Irish cousins. Perhaps some of us still think this; I don’t know. I certainly don’t, not since I wiped my vision clear of our romantic rolling mists and syringed the ballads out of my ears.

Lost your job? It’s your fault

Being Irish is a huge part of who I am. My nationality has shaped me, my way of looking at the world, my likes and dislikes, my wit; one’s cultural background is the bedrock on which balances one’s individuality. I would never deny being Irish. We have such a high opinion of ourselves, romanticised by our ballads, sung low in sorrow for the noble dead or the Irish diaspora. And we’re so, so witty, with our indigenous back-answers and t-shirt slogans and slang. I based my pride on nothing more solid than that.

I’ve become aware of our collective failings as I’ve grown older. Collective is the key word here; individual Irish are as delightful or as hopeless as any other class of person. We take all too beautifully to Mob Rule, though, don’t we? Once we have validation in numbers, we’re a nightmare.

The self-imposed label is that we’re a nation of begrudgers. This hypothesis is wheeled out by celebrity after businessman after sports personality: the Irish don’t like to see one of their own elevated. Rise your head above the parapet and you’re likely to have it knocked off by the sheer force of those beneath you, hauling on your ankles, till your chin slams onto the brickwork and slices your lower jaw into the air like a boomerang. They’ll decapitate you so you don’t get ahead of yourself.

In general begrudgery is a trait treated as a joke, something twee and old-fashioned, something characteristic of ould wans in bingo cults, something we’re all headed for. Lamented, but inevitable and accepted. But now that we’re in economic recession, and now that the mistakes made by government and business have become apparent in the day-to-day struggles of those who got caught in the landslide, I’m noticing a bit more than the petty begrudgery we jokingly agree defines us. Something nastier, not confined to fuddy-duddies or the common-or-garden whingers jealous of the success of others. We have come to be defined by a lack of empathy for our fellow countrymen and women.

Sifting through their rubbish

Lost your job? It’s your own fault. Struggling to raise your children after losing said job? Your own fault for having children. Had to sell your car and are now confined to the local vicinity when hunting to replace the lost job? Pity about you. Why’d you buy a car if you couldn’t afford to run it?

This lack of empathy is down to a heavy-handed smugness rather than mass sociopathic tendencies. We cannot cluck sympathetically at the misfortune of others because we don’t seem to believe in misfortune. If our neighbour is going through a black time, we sift through their rubbish until we can find a reason, however flimsy, to place the blame on them. It’s almost a defence mechanism, as if throwing light on the misfortune of others may cause that misfortune to seep into our own lives, if we don’t hurry to reason why it couldn’t ever possibly.

Well, yes, people who bought houses at the height of the boom have only themselves to blame because they clearly bought houses bigger than they needed. They should have bought a three-bed terraced, like I did. And who did they think they were, going off on that honeymoon to Antigua? I went on honeymoon to Edinburgh and I had just a good a time. And what were they thinking, enrolling their children in ballet classes? Mine scratch in the dirt outside and they get just as much enjoyment from that.

Far from semi-ds and foreign holidays and extra-curricular activities they were reared.

People made mistakes. People bought houses they now cannot afford because they didn’t see the property crash coming, or thought that their job was secure. People made mistakes and some of them are paying for it horribly. What cost a bit of empathy? What internal harm does it do the begrudger to say: yes, that sucks, I hope you can pick yourself up and carry on?

‘Onemandownship’

I hear comments every day from people who seem angry that other citizens have dared to fall on hard times. People who, after watching footage of the homeless man in Dublin who jumped into the Liffey to save his pet rabbit after a passing thug threw it over the bridge, sneered that the emergency services had better things to be doing than looking after the welfare of one wet junkie. People who complain about benefit frauds, as if we are terrorised by roaming gangs of able-bodied villains clothed entirely in sewn-together rent receipts and hats made out of medical cards. People who think the unemployed should be forced into internships to learn how to make tea for those lucky enough to still have jobs. People who believe the downtrodden should be made suffer because… they’re suffering already?

I’m not exempt. I’ve done it myself – tried to validate bad luck by being petty and sneering about those who used to have plenty but have now been recalled to my own level, the working class, the struggling martyrs. Why did I act such a way? Personally, because of my own insecurities. In a social sense, because the Irish love a whinge, and give weight to suffering, rather than achievement. Onedownmanship, you could call it.

“Lost your job? I lost my job, half my left leg, a fiver, and my virginity to a madman, and you don’t hear me complaining about it.”

It is as if we can only prove our personal resilience by belittling the problems of others.

I’m not suggesting that this is unique to Ireland, but despite what my five-year-old self thought possible, I can’t actually speak for any other nationality. And I wonder why, if we love Ireland so much, if we’re so proud of being Irish, can’t we support our struggling countrymen? Where the hell is the solidarity? Why are we, the proud patriots, the rebels, the poets, so keen to turn on each other?

A few people, on hearing news of protest in other EU countries, have said to me, “That’ll be Ireland, soon. We’re close to it. We’ll rise up and make our voices heard.”

We won’t, though. To do so you would need a sense of community and a strong belief in shared disadvantage. And in Ireland we’re too busy distancing ourselves from the fallen to create that.

And that’s why I’m asking myself: is it wrong that I lament the Ireland I was taught to be proud of? Is it wrong because that Ireland never was?

Abridged from a piece first published on lisamcinerney.com. Lisa McInerney is an award-winning Irish blogger who writes for The Anti Room and Culch.ie as well as on her own website.

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Lisa McInerney

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