Séamas O'Reilly: 98% of Irish celebrities still look like someone you could imagine working in a cash and carry

Every Irish person has spotted a compatriot from distance on holiday, whether by their gormless expression or the fabled, anatomical marvel that is the “big Irish head”.
Séamas O'Reilly: 98% of Irish celebrities still look like someone you could imagine working in a cash and carry

His name is Paddy McFlaherty and he’s obsessed with drinking, fighting and potatoes. We can tell this because he’s holding a pint of Guinness in his right hand, while angrily clenching his left into a bloody-bandaged fist.

The “loving potatoes” part of his whole deal we can infer, subtly, from the T-shirt he’s wearing of deepest, emerald green, which declares “I © Spuds”. But this is not a Punch cartoon from the 1870s. It’s an ad from 2022, aiming to dispel myths about the Irish by concocting a singular golem of celtic stereotyping against which we might steel ourselves. Commissioned by the Irish Emigration Museum, Paddy McFlaherty is “an attempt to tackle the perception that we like fighting, drinking potatoes, and holding grudges”, to show that the true legacy of Ireland is in the incredible people, culture and innovations we’ve spread far and wide. And so, two weeks ago, he went massively viral when he was unveiled as part of their “This Is Not Us” campaign.

It’s fair to say the campaign clearly worked. In the two weeks since it debuted, many found the ad clever, others a bit silly, but everyone talked about it. The result is that tens of thousands of people have been introduced to the Irish Emigration Museum which, according to most reviews, appears to be an excellent day out.

Since it has proved so successful, I feel comfortable saying I also enjoyed this ad, but not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Firstly, whatever its intentions, I find it inherently funny that a graphic designer was tasked with inventing the most racist anti-Irish caricature they could.

There’s something extremely satisfying about knowing that someone, somewhere, had to agonise over exactly how malformed and horrible and quintessentially Irish they could make this loathsome monster in the time available. I like to picture the tense zoom meetings in which they finally decided to increase his paunch, and add the speckled blood to the bandages that adorn his shovel-like fists.

In quieter moments, while my shame sleeps, I go one step further and imagine the lead designer is a quiet, unassuming Londoner named Keith, who just happens to be the only English person in the office of a Dublin ad agency. I see the sweat flowing down his face as he toggles the mouse wheel to enhance the ruddiness of Paddy’s cheeks, the cracks in his lips, unsure if the next click will be the one that causes a horrified hush among his colleagues. “Wow… ok” they’ll say with concern, as he frantically rolls back his changes, “go easy there, man”.

In Paddy’s case, however, most commentators appeared to have a rather different objection to the “This Is Not Us” campaign. “Ah it’s some of us, come on now” I tweeted, and discovered thousands of people in agreement. “I saw this guy in Harold’s Cross yesterday” said Mark Tighe. “I have not left the house once without seeing at least 30 of these guys every day of my life” wrote Commander In Keef. “We literally have a photo of our youngest wearing that shirt” replied Chris O’Dowd, who duly provided said very cute snap under a picture of my own adorable baby, in a desperate plea for one-upmanship for which he should be truly ashamed.

As hundreds, and then thousands of Irish people said similar things – and keenly watched to make sure English and Americans weren’t enjoying saying the same things too much – I felt that surge of national pride the Irish Emigration Museum were probably aiming for. Because we are not, to put it mildly, encumbered by any national myths about our own beauty.

Look, do Irish people make fun of our own appearances because we have a well-rounded, secure vision of ourselves which doesn’t need to be bolstered by asinine pretensions to conventional beauty standards? Yes. But does this mean that Irish people are somehow less attractive than the people of other nations? Well, also yes - but who cares? To paraphrase Dylan Moran, “we’re a rugged bunch – even Irish babies look like they’ve had a decent stab at an international rugby career”.

And it goes all the way to the top. Sure, we export our Pierce Brosnans, Andrea Corrs and Colin Farrells but 98% of Irish celebrities still look, basically, like someone you could imagine working in a cash and carry.

As for the rest of us, every Irish person has spotted a compatriot from distance on holiday, whether by their gormless expression or the fabled, anatomical marvel that is the “big Irish head”.

While our friends across the Atlantic and our neighbours over the Irish sea, clamour and scrap over their senses of national self - erecting insipid culture wars around whichever bedtime story of former greatness renders them more perfect, more pristine - I don’t think we know just how rare and beautiful our clarity of self-image is, and how fiercely we should protect it.

It is good, and punishingly rare, that an ambitious, kind and confident people possess the self-awareness to mock our ruddy cheeks and giant heads.

To know oneself, and like what’s there, is something that should truly make us proud. If there’s one culture or innovation we could do with spreading far and wide, it might be that.

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