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Column Our friendliness as a people hides the darker side of our national psyche

Irish people are renowned for their genuine friendliness and positivity, but we also have a predilection for intense self-criticism and cynicism that can hold us back, writes Chris Jackson.

WHEREVER YOU MAY have been, you are certain to have heard from foreigners recounting their visit to Ireland: “It was so rainy and it was hard to get around but the people were so nice and friendly.” The Irish have forever been known for our warmth and hospitality. Often at times, it’s the thing that foreigners enjoy and remember most, particularly on those flem-flecked November days when the rain seeps deep into the socks.

Such was confirmed this week as a Conde Nast survey of more than 40,000 people found three Irish cities to be amongst the twenty most friendly in the world. But what makes these cities, and the Irish as a whole, so friendly? And what does it say about us as a people?

In Kilkenny (9th), Dublin (13th) and Cork (20th), much like elsewhere in Ireland, local friendliness is perceived on account of many things, most of which are underpinned by a single denominator; our informality. What we say, how we say it, how we look and so on, particularly to strangers, tends to be free of the rigour and ritual you may find abroad. By us not standing on ceremony, foreigners not only feel welcomed and at ease, but even part of the local scene.

The accents and idioms of Ireland

Much of it comes down to accent. Now while I’ve always favoured the Kerry accent; with its soft silky tones (like warm butter spreading), the accents of Kilkenny, Dublin, and Cork each have their own merits. In Kilkenny there’s a cadence, slow and soft, that sounds easy. There’s a mellifluence to “How aya gon der bhoy” that can only but disarm. The Cork accent has a musicality to it, and while it’s fast, it doesn’t quite have the machine gun rapidity of a Belfast or Limerick accent, which can leave foreigners furtively flicking through dictionaries (particularly for the word ‘gowl’).

And in Dublin there’s an undeniable warmth and ease in accents across the city. A simple “awree buddy”, with its double inflection, has an inherent positivity to it, as if the speaker, even if a stranger, is a close friend. And jocular southsiders sound well on the ear when compared to their London equivalent, best exemplified in the teeth-grindingly bad reality series ‘Made in Chelsea’.

There are local idioms which recommend the Irish further still. Being called lad, love, buddy, pet, bhoy, or even horse, when delivered with a quick wink and a twist of the head is much more agreeable. Even terms meant to disparage can endear. Being called an eejit, langer or head-the-ball can, in certain circumstances, be as much in jest as it can be to insult.

The perception of a ‘smiling’ people is one that is born in reality. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 80 per cent of Irish experienced positive emotions on a daily basis, ranking us 15th in the world. That we can still smile and laugh through such uncertainty and upheaval speaks as much to our humour and general good nature as it does the versatile nature of our psyche – a psyche that still finds room for jokes and laughs even at a funeral.

The curse of self-criticism

But let us not forget that friendliness can often belie and betray a colder and disconcerting truth. We tend to be self-modest and self-critical (which underlies our friendliness), often too much so. Unfortunately much of this can be traced to our national identity. Our identity is formed by our history, and how we perceive it.

We’re inculcated with a sense of inferiority and humility, which has both benefits and drawbacks. On one side we are friendly, polite and receptive to others – and possess a dark, often macabre, sense of humour. On the flip side we can also be cynical, begrudging, and distrusting in our own ability.

As much as friendliness is reinforced in us, so is self-criticism. As a child in Kilkenny, as I know to be the case with many, if not most others, I was taught that humility was a virtue and that to be arrogant was a sure fire way to a friendless future.

But there are distinctions that must be made between humility and servility – and arrogance and confidence.

Chris Jackson (28) is a London-based freelance journalist, communications expert and former writer at The Socialist International. He also writes on issues foreign and domestic, serious and satirical, on his blog,

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