Irish image is outdated blarney

SUN JOURNAL

Stereotypes: All those negative or quaint conceptions about the people, especially the ones about heavy drinking, have little basis in fact.

March 17, 2002|By Seamus Martin | Seamus Martin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DUBLIN, Ireland - If someone wishes you "the top o' the mornin'" today and offers to buy you a green beer to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, tell him to hold on a minute. It's time to remember that most Irish stereotypes are hopelessly outdated nowadays.

In Ireland, if you wished someone "the top o' the mornin'," you would be taken for a being that had just arrived from Mars, and as for green beer, Guinness, the national tipple, is so black that it defies even the strongest of dyes.

Most of the stereotypes center on drink, so it's worthwhile looking at the statistics. Irish people drink more than Americans do, but in alcohol consumption per person per year, they are behind the French, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Portuguese and the Hungarians, and far behind the Luxembourgers, who don't appear to have been the victims of any stereotypes at all.

The Czechs drink the most beer. The French drink the most wine. The Russians drink more spirits, in the form of vodka, than anyone else. The Irish, it should be said, do, according to international statistics, lead the world in consumption of one beverage. It is a little bit embarrassing, but we are at the top of the international lists for drinking tea.

But if you really wish to confront the most outdated stereotype of all, take a short drive south from the center of Dublin to a place where large, 19th-century villas dot the landscape. To buy a house here would cost more than $1 million. First-class restaurants and purveyors of fine wines are close at hand. Two Rugby football clubs cater for the sporting needs of Dublin's well-heeled youth, and the discos they hold on weekends ensure that young men and young women from the same high end of the social ladder meet each other.

At the area's edge, on Ailesbury Road, stand even larger and more expensive residences with flagpoles set impressively in their gardens. Here live many of the ambassadors accredited in the Republic of Ireland.

The inhabitants in this part of town regard themselves highly. Many of them speak in what the English describe as "well modulated tones." It's not quite a British upper-class accent, but it's close enough to satisfy local pretensions.

The name by which this part of town is known is synonymous to Irish ears with wealth, comfort and fine living. Outside of Ireland, however, it takes on a completely different meaning. The place we are talking about is called Donnybrook.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives two definitions of the word: 1. an uproarious brawl: FREE-FOR-ALL. 2. a rowdy contention between rival forces carried on in public (as in legislative halls and public print).

The dictionary explains that the word is derived from Donnybrook Fair, "an annual event known for its brawls held in Donnybrook, suburb of Dublin, Ireland."

It does not explain that this "annual event" has not been held for about 150 years.

People might, therefore, be excused for thinking that once a year some of the richest and most elegant people of the Irish capital, including a number of foreign ambassadors, emerge from their Mercedes sedans and take to the streets of their home locality to drink copious amounts of whiskey and beat the living daylights out of each other with cudgels.

In the unlikely event that you wish to watch scenes of unrestrained drunkenness, then Donnybrook is not the place to visit. You should go Temple Bar in the center of Dublin on a Saturday night; in doing so you will also witness the demise of another Irish stereotype.

On a recent visit, Sergei Oleinik, chief spokesman for Russia's leading pro-government political party, Edinstvo, was shocked.

"My strongest memory is of a scantily clad young woman crawling around on her hands and knees, obviously drunk, and barking like a dog," he told me. The "barking lady" was part of the new phenomenon of the "drunken English." On weekends, thousands of young English descend on Dublin to drink themselves silly at "stag parties" for the lads and "hen parties" for the lasses (it takes about 2 1/2 pints of lager in most cases).

The result has been that pubs in the area have put up notices announcing that people coming over for such functions are not welcome. They are the latter-day mirror images of the 19th-century signs that read "No Irish need apply."

Mary Maher, a Chicagoan who has been living in Dublin for 30 years, is slightly embarrassed about how she felt about Ireland before she came here. "I thought that `top o' the morning' was a lovely Irish greeting and the phrase `the rest of the day to yourself,' was its traditional response.

"I loved songs such as "'Twas Only an Irishman's Dream' and even `Santa Claus Wasn't from Ireland, but He Had an Irish Heart.' On March 17 we had a party in school and ate cupcakes with green frosting and cut out huge cardboard shamrocks in livid green to decorate the blackboard.

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