By Michael Gilligan
At a time of a severe drop in public morale, RTÉ recently released a documentary series which allowed the Irish public to vote on who they thought Ireland’s greatest ever figure was. Top of the poll, as decided by last Friday’s Late-Late-watching public, was Nobel laureate John Hume followed by Michael Collins, Mary Robinson, James Connolly and finally – unequivocally both last and least – trailed Bono.
Historians were baffled and thrown into disarray at the list which contained names as obtuse and irrelevant to the some 1500 years of documented Irish history as Roy Keane, Ronan Keating and Collin Farrell. Granted it isn’t likely early Christian monks influenced to any great extent the historical direction of Ireland, but it is just as unlikely that we hit the supreme genetic jackpot in the twentieth century. Only three of the names among “Ireland’s greatest” predated the 1900s. The oldest bidder was Daniel O’Connell who, despite having peacefully achieved the right for Catholic Irishmen to become MPs in Westminster, was left contending with figures like Roy Keane whose contributions to the course of Irish history (as distinct from Premiership football) remain at best negligible.
What the poll incontestably demonstrated, apart from the influence and power of popular culture, is the rupture that exists between Ireland, pre- and post-colonial. In the British equivalent, “100 Greatest Britons”, released in 2002 and by which “Ireland’s Greatest” was inspired, the wealth of figures stretched as far back as AD 60 with Boudicca (a leader of the resistance to the Roman Empire) and included such legendary names as King Arthur, William Wallace and Alfred the Great. The question that we must then ask ourselves is why is our conception of Ireland so bound and limited to the twentieth century?
Two weeks ago when Bob Geldof (who, incidentally, was also on the shortlist) spoke at The Hist, he briefly made reference to Ireland and, in an attempt to stir empathy, compared its colonial history to that of Africa. However, he went a step further again, claiming the Irish were a “deracinated people” who were cut off from their heritage and forced to “forge an identity” for themselves. Despite my initial incredulity, the results of “Ireland’s Greatest” revealed a harrowing truth behind Sir Bob Geldof’s words.
Where was High King Brian Ború, the Earl of Tyrone Hugh O’Neill, Red Hugh O’Donnell and even Colmcille to name but a few of those who were so casually thrown aside. I dare not mention St Patrick in such hallowed grounds as Trinity but (and I think we can grant him citizenship under the same grounds as Connolly) was he not in many respects an immense figure who irrevocably changed the course of this island and whose name, for one hazy day every March, has become synonymous with all things Irish?
Ireland may be a young nation politically but its history is rich and vast. The problem with “Ireland’s Greatest” was that it saw “Ireland” as a concept which has only existed for the last 150-odd years.
However, if, as Bob Geldof seemed to imply, we owe much of our identity to the cultural revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where then on the list were the men that made this possible? Douglas Hyde, it can be argued, was almost single-handedly responsible for the (pseudo-)survival of the Irish language, yet he was unworthy of a place. People like Michael Cusack were also nowhere to be seen, and even poor Arthur Guinness probably deserved a mention. Yeats, combining in his work both the Gaelic and the colonial, is in many senses the father of modern Irish literature. With Joyce, he carved Ireland onto the literary map. Is Ireland then, and our very identity by association, not more indebted to these cultural giants than their political counterparts?
But hey, in the eyes of many people abroad Bono and Arthur Guinness are Ireland’s greatest, and (to sprinkle a little more cynicism on the wound) Michael Collins’ deserved place as runner-up is probably, for our generation, due to the myth-sustaining role played by Liam Neeson – who, need I even say it, was also on the shortlist.