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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:16pm

How can you tell that an Irish person’s successful? The media starts calling them British

By Seamas O'Reilly

This week Shane Lowry did something he may well have never expected – a career-defining moment that ensures, however else his career pans out, he will always have this one achievement on which to look back fondly.

I speak not of his impressive victory at the British Open, although he probably enjoyed that just fine – I’d have to check – but of what came with it. The soul-vaulting honour afforded to any Irish person attempting something above their humble station: being referred to as “British” the second he achieved it.

This is not a new thing for the plucky Gael who manages to succeed on the big stage, as Brian O’Driscoll, Katie Taylor, Michael Fassbender, or even Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, will tell you. The British have form.

Well, actually, let’s be real here: this is a phenomenon practically exclusive to English people, who bandy around the term “British” much more than their fellow Union members. Imagine four people, each the broadest caricature of an English, Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish person you can think of. Now think of a “Brit”. How different is that Brit to the English person, exactly, and which of those others’ attributes can you see melded in alongside the English ones?

Not many, I’d wager. “Britishness” is, essentially, a slightly less nationalistic way for English people to declare how great England is, while deploying a meagre fig-leaf of imperial distance which, for some reason, they find more palatable. This allows the English to combine a heartfelt conviction of their own popularity, with a reflexive, toddler-like joy in grabbing things that don’t quite belong to them; and also enables their pesky habit of cheerily rendering “British” anything else that isn’t nailed down, like countries, museum treasures and, latterly, Irish celebs.

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On some level, it’s understandable that, say, Michael Gambon or Richard Harris might be thought of as British, since they spent decades filing their accents down to appropriately tweedy points, just so they could move around the English stage without other actors handing them their coats or sending them to fetch the paper. It’s stranger, in 2019, to see Harper’s Bazaar stick Saoirse Ronan on their January cover, championed as “the spirit of Britain”, despite the fact she has the cheery brogue of a small, Irish, cartoon mouse and a vowel count which surely leaves little room for confusion.

We tried the same trick with the awkward spelling of Domhnall Gleeson, but no dice there either, since he was promptly called a “British actor” by GQ, the Guardian and the Daily Mail the second he did a high profile Burberry campaign. And who can forget the time Kate Thornton referred to Colin Farrell – a man so Irish he feeds his mammoth eyebrows on a strict diet of rosaries and red lemonade – as British, which prompted his co-star Samuel L Jackson to liken Thornton’s attitudes to those of American slave-owners.

Weirdly, and maddeningly, little of this is deliberate. To be an Irish person in the UK is to have many conversations with well-meaning English people which suggest they’ve never been told Ireland is a country. That small, charming island to the left of them, shaped like a raggedy giant’s ear, or a teddy bear at rest; that rainy isle which provides them jockeys and golfers and charming radio presenters doesn’t even really seem like a real place. Moreover, even when the mistake is made, the further question is “What’s the big deal?”, with an unspoken, near-subliminal extra note of, “Who wouldn’t want to be called British?”

It’s uncomfortable having to explain to people who are from Britain that not everyone wants to be, and that the reasons for this refusal aren’t merely because we dislike cricket or calling dinner “tea”. Just as when an American discovers other countries don’t pay to use ambulances, it’s awkward to see an English person becoming aware of the more problematic aspects of their reputation.

Most English people would prefer – and thus choose to presume – that British stereotypes revolve around things like queuing, passive aggression, drinking tea and so on. We would all, of course, love to write our own reviews. But, inconveniently, Britain’s neighbours don’t often mention much of that stuff, since the fact that it invaded or colonised all but 22 of the planet’s nations tends to take centre stage. On these travels, they brought with them not just cricket, gin and bally good railways, but death, starvation and sufficient cultural erasure that I, an Irish person, am writing these words in English. 

This doesn’t mean all former colonists hate the British, or the English, or that we don’t all get along famously now – it’s just that the past did actually happen, and everyone but Britain appears to be aware of it. Bringing any of this up risks making us sound a bit touchy, or even insensitive, since these are usually honest mistakes about trifling issues. But, such small concerns gain greater scale when put in a context in which we don’t have the luxury of forgetting, and Britain seems fundamentally incapable of remembering for longer than five minutes.

In that spirit of fairness that they think defines their nation, each individual English person will take your word for it when you tell them that calling every single successful Irish person British gets a bit wearying – even though part of them thinks if the British really had a reputation for taking things that weren’t theirs, they’d surely have learned about it in school. And look, even if it did happen, the Empire was broken up 70 years ago, and it’s not like you always hear Brits harping on about the Second World War, is it?

No, society has to move on. And that means never teaching an entire nation of people any of the commonplace things about their own country that might make it easier for them to avoid such faux-pas, or the reasons why those faux-pas might be uniquely annoying. Not hurtful, or hateful, or even offensive necessarily; but deeply, deeply annoying.  

It’s my hope that English people take this light, whimsical scolding in the spirit it’s intended, issued from a place of admiration and respect. Perhaps these words will prove so iconic, so impactful, that I will be venerated for their truth, remembered forever as the probing and insightful British author, that my genius so clearly suggests.

Séamas O’Reilly writes for publications including the Irish Times and the Observer.