“The pride of Ireland” was the declared title UFC announcer Bruce Buffer gave to Conor McGregor as the fighter paced around the octagon before his battle against Khabib Nurmagomedov. A sinister smile was smeared on the 30-year-old Crumlin native’s face as a chorus of “olé, olé, olé” echoed around the T-Mobile Arena. The venue was filled with a boisterous emerald sea, arriving from early afternoon onwards to support a competitor who they saw as one of their own.
McGregor is undoubtedly the most famous sportsperson Ireland has ever produced. His bold character and inherent magnetism has helped establish UFC as a force in the arena of world sports. Key to his success is his legions of loyal Irish fans, who flock in their thousands to wherever McGregor is fighting, adding their considerable weight to his cause. These supporters place emphasis on McGregor’s Irishness, viewing him as a national icon. However, McGregor is by no means a good ambassador for Ireland, as he constantly defies the strongest characteristics associated with the Irish national identity.
“The prominence of Irish culture globally is a testament to the pride one has in their ancestry.”
Firstly, Irish people are fiercely proud of their roots. Even here on campus, students are very keen to proclaim their heritage, particularly those from outside the commuter belt. Under threat from the cosmopolitan and often gentrified Dublin setting, Irish people make an intense effort to preserve their traditions, sometimes to the extent that it begins to define their character. Whether you join the College GAA team, have an active part in Cumann Gaelach or simply accentuate the country, all these feed into the importance of retaining your heritage.
Outside of home, the diaspora maintain their strong links to their home country through cultural institutes and GAA clubs. Irish bars are dotted around major cities across the world, and those with sharp hearing can often pick out the unmistakable melody of the Irish brogue. The efforts of expats ensure that in all four corners of the globe there is a distinctly green flavour. The prominence of Irish culture globally is a testament to the pride one has in their ancestry. The Irish march proudly through the streets, acutely aware of the envious eyes that glare at them, wishing they could join in on all the fun.
“McGregor conforms to the painful caricature of the Irish: a dishevelled pitbull, short of size and temper, with a passion for fighting and drinking.”
By contrast, for all his ranting and raving, McGregor is unusually quiet about his early days. He seldom mentions his albeit modest upbringing in Crumlin, nor his days as an apprentice plumber in Lucan. This is evident when on one side fans herald McGregor as a true underdog who rose from poverty to become a champion; conversely, he prefers to be secretive about his past. For him it seems, life may as well have begun at 20, when he made his professional MMA debut in 2008. Prior to this, there was no McGregor and no myth.
Of course, McGregor is all for resurrecting his former self when necessity, or specifically business, dictates. In an ESPN promotion for his boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather, McGregor returned to his boyhood stomping ground: the “clannish, parochial” Crumlin. The inner-city suburb was portrayed as a squalid district of tenements and drug dealers, a depiction with which the locals were less than impressed, to say the least. More recently, McGregor looked to his home place for inspiration in naming his new whiskey, Proper 12. Safe to say, McGregor is comfortable with hiding his past from public view, except when there’s money to be earned.
Even then, McGregor’s representation of Irishness is jaded and riddled with tasteless stereotypes. In the press conferences leading up to his latest bout, McGregor displayed his new whiskey beside his mic, taking regular swigs while verbally castrating his Russian opponent. In doing so, McGregor conforms to the painful caricature of the Irish that the rest of the world deems accurate: a dishevelled pitbull, short of size and temper, with a passion for fighting and drinking. Indeed, McGregor’s personification of Irishness is reminiscent of their portrayal in the 19th century, made famous by travelling showmen such as Dion Boucicault.
Boucicault is regarded as one of the best “stage Irishmen” of the era. He and other actors would tour around America and the UK, performing plays such as The Shaughraun and The Colleen Bawn. These plays featured many Irish characters, who would regularly slur their speech and make delightfully simplistic one-liners and quips. Audiences viewed these characters as hilariously ignorant, dim-witted, and deceptive. With these plays, Boucicault and his contemporaries created a mythical idea of the Irish as a race of naïve and unintellectual beings, planting the seeds of ignorance in American and British minds.
The rest of the world now viewed the Irish as simple folk – a charming bunch of swindlers and chancers. At the dawn of the 20th century, there was a push to reinstate Ireland as a land of saints and scholars. Pioneers such as Yeats and Beckett helped shape the new Ireland, and after a lot of ink, sweat, and tears, wrote themselves into high academic esteem. In the last 50 years, the country has shaken off its depiction as a rural, backwards island nation in the middle of the Atlantic. Innovations in music, art and fashion have demonstrated that the Irish have plenty to contribute to contemporary culture. Finally, it seems, the world is beginning to take Ireland seriously, as both a nucleus of intellectual thought and a key player in the development of cosmopolitanism.
“Maintaining the stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in the minds of foreigners is not positive, particularly in a world where nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments are constantly on the rise.”
However, McGregor’s personality has revived the archaic view of the Irish as a roguish people who are fond of a drink and a brawl. As a successful and well-respected sportsperson, McGregor has a role as an ambassador for Ireland, especially since the American media tend to focus on his nationality as an interesting narrative. He has a responsibility to depict Irishness in the fairest and most objective form. Granted, he is a young fighter whose meteoric rise and busy schedule may not have allowed for quiet reflection on his identity and his representation of Irish culture. But maintaining the stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in the minds of foreigners is not positive, particularly in a world where nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments are constantly on the rise.
Worse still are the Irish fans who are so willing to follow the fighter, despite the derogatory portrayal of the Irish to which McGregor subscribes. Heralding him as a hero and a role model is troubling, especially when you consider the younger generations that look up to McGregor. Keith Duggan mentions that MMA is no longer a niche sport, now being compared to the WWE in terms of appeal: “UFC is part of the mainstream now. Kids are watching this stuff. Wheeling out ‘the King’; its cursing, megalomaniacal, wild Irish man with his very own brand of whiskey is a UFC trick that is starting to look old and ugly and a little embarrassing.”
Positives can be drawn from McGregor’s defeat to Khabib at UFC 229. As the Irish fighter’s fame and dominance begins to fade, now is the perfect opportunity to search for a new figure to represent Ireland on the world. McGregor’s reluctance to adequately reflect on his roots may be a symptom of his immaturity, but one cannot condone him selling an falsified image of the Irish national identity. Contrary to his most famous saying, we simply cannot continue to do nothing about Conor McGregor.