More than one in six Irish-born people over the age of fifteen people now live abroad, the highest proportion of any country in the OECD. This metric is a testament to generations of economic stagnancy. Despite De Valera’s famous promise that “No longer shall our children, like our cattle, be brought up for export,” no policymaker has managed to sustainably contain the exodus. Of course mass emigration preceded the founding of the state and a century and a half of outflow has led to large pools of diaspora across the English speaking world.
None of these groups is more unified in shared tradition or more insistent on their ethnic continuity than Irish-Americans. It is a result of the particular social and political forces that shaped America that most US citizens self-identify on two different planes of nationality. Due to the extermination of the native population, and the explicit foundation of the country on certain Enlightenment ideals, American citizenship is not so much a question of belonging to a particular ethno-nationalist group than it is of subscribing to certain ideas. This leaves a gap as far as ethnic identity is concerned, and this space is filled by assuming tribal allegiance to the Old Country.
Traditions are thus developed, including idealised perspectives on what it is to be Irish/Italian/Polish etc. Irish-Americans suppose themselves to be plucky, hard-working, and intelligent in a smart but not flashy way. Of course they possess these qualities no more nor less than any other ethnic group in America, but that’s beside the point. There are other more specific historical associations as well: red hair, potatoes, drinking, and, of course, centuries of struggle against British rule. Figures who are seen to manifest these qualities and resonate with these associations can quickly rise to popularity.
So it has been with UFC fighter Conor McGregor, who has developed a huge fanbase amongst the diaspora on the other side of the Atlantic. McGregor (literally) wraps himself in the flag. His Irishness is the core component of his brand and his other attributes – his incessant trash talking, his dogged resolution to see fights through to the end etc – are represented as springing from, or at least being coloured by his nationality. He received a euphoric reception in his first fight in Boston, in August 2013. At the post-fight press conference, McGregor eulogised his supporters. “The support out there was unbelievable. It was green walking out there. The place was green. Green flags, fucking leprechauns jumping around. It was unbelievable” he said, according to vice.com. “It was crazy going out there the first time, it really was a crazy experience for me because you always hear about the Irish Americans, even when I’m in America it’s like everyone is Irish.”
McGregor rose to new heights when he defeated Chad Mendes to win the interim UFC lightweight championship in July. McGregor entered the ring holding an Irish flag aloft behind himself while Sinead O’Connor, rising above the crowd on an elevating platform, wreathed in dry ice, sang the Foggy Dew. Hundreds of supporters waved tricolours and cheered ecstatically while O’Connor bawled out the song – a rebel tune about the Easter rising containing lyrics such as “Right proudly high over Dublin Town/They hung out the flag of war/’Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky/Than at Sulva or Sud El Bar” and “Britannia’s Huns, with their long range guns/Sailed in through the foggy dew”.
The narrative of the fight itself further reinforced the mythology. McGregor holds to a kickboxing style, while Mendes adheres to a wrestling tackle-and-grapple style. For most of the match, Mendes was in control, keeping his opponent locked in a submission grapple. At the end of the second round McGregor – who had kept up his relentless taunting throughout the match, even when lying half-stupefied on the blood smattered floor – rallied and, after cornering Mendes with a flurry of kicks and punches, knocked him out with a devastating one-two. Another trope plays itself out here: the Irishman as an unsophisticated but wily and resilient fighter who hangs on to the end.
The comparisons to physical force republicanism – an association McGregor is obviously keen to promote – are easily drawn. Terence McSwiney, an IRA volunteer who died on hunger strike during the War of Independence, said that “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will prevail.” For the American diaspora in particular, for whom Irish nationalism has not been as tarnished by the troubles, it is easy to fit him into the narrative of the underdog which persevered through centuries of oppression and failed rebellions.
The cultural agreement goes both ways as McGregor, to some degree, owes his success to American can-do thinking. According to a Bleacher Report article, McGregor was set on the path to greatness by a self-help book/film called The Secret which preaches that “the power of positive thinking can change [your] life and bring about anything [you] desire: money, wealth, happiness.” By following The Secret’s advice, McGregor was transformed from a shy boy into the loudmouth fighting champ that he is today.
Irish-Americans like to think that they worked their way up from the bottom – that they built the skyscrapers, and later occupied them, that they climbed to the highest political office, that they made their fortunes and earned their spots on the golf courses and country clubs. It is true that many families, at least from a generational perspective, climbed up from the lowest to the highest ranks.
Nevertheless, the general ascension of the diaspora occurred through a variety of factors: their cultural assimilation, their size and concentration, their displacement at the bottom by non-white ethnic groups, and, crucially, their being in a position to have a stake in the richest country in the world. Regardless, most Irish-Americans are still working class, even if they are in the upper stratum of that group. And McGregor is the latest vehicle for the lie that binds the deep fissures within American society: that anyone can make it, if they are smart enough.
McGregor’s popularity in Ireland is easily explained. He’s meteorically successful in a glamourous if barbaric sport, and his in-your-face rudeness is entertaining. For Americans of Irish descent his popularity is revealing by the way in which it derives from his position at the locus of tribal symbols and native ideological tropes. Because the Irish-American culture is, at least ideologically, one of success, whereas our own is one of failure. And when McGregor finally tastes bitter defeat he can return home where, if he is lucky, he will become that most admired of Irish failures: a glorious one.