Ireland no longer needs self-pity or hyperbole to tell its story. Here is an account that returns to the Irish the right to be unremarkable Europeansby Fintan O'Toole / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
Writing in the Guardian on Oliver Stone’s new movie about Alexander the Great, Fiachra Gibbons described the difficulties of a Hollywood director trying to deal with a small nation’s sensitivities about its history. Faced with the competing claims of Greece and the Republic of Macedonia to Alexander’s legacy, “Stone’s… masterstroke has been to give Alexander and the men of the Macedonian phalanxes Irish accents, while the Greeks speak clipped English RP. Macedonians of all complexions are content with this, each convinced it favours their cause.” Epic history, apparently, speaks in an Irish accent. Or, to reduce it to an equation, hyperbole plus history equals Ireland.
Nothing is more common, especially to small nations, than the belief that their own tribe has forged a unique destiny from unique sufferings. There is nothing unusual or necessarily disreputable about the tendency of people in both parts of Ireland to exaggerate their own importance. What is unusual, though, is that much of the world tends to go along with the belief that Ireland’s history is unique both in its heroism and its awfulness. Because of the disproportionate scale of its diaspora in America and Britain, its privileged place in Anglo-American culture, and its somewhat anomalous position as a corner of old Europe still haunted by the unfinished business of the reformation, Ireland gets a lot of attention. When, in the television gangster drama The Sopranos, Tony’s nephew Christopher comes out of a coma, he tells the family that he has been briefly in hell. It is, it turns out, an Irish bar where it is always St Patrick’s day.
Even from an Irish perspective, it is easy to sympathise with Christopher’s infernal vision of a place that celebrates its own significance so insistently and demands attention so effectively. There is something deeply immoral, for example, about the degree of international importance accorded to the conflict in Northern Ireland, which took fewer than 4,000 lives over 30 years, in contrast to the developed world’s relative indifference to the conflict in the Congo region, which has taken a thousand times as many over ten years. Ireland has had its problems, but over the course of the 20th century the island was a relatively lucky place, free of concentration camps or gulags, famines or droughts, rape camps or killing fields.
Yet the ambivalent position of Ireland in the wider…