Louise O'Neill: 'The perception of Ireland has shifted'

Louise O'Neill: 'The perception of Ireland has shifted'

Picture: Miki Barlok

I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw the photo. Black and white, two young Irish actors with sunglasses on, a cigarette in one hand, a takeaway coffee cup in the other. 

There was another person too, her sharp cheekbones betraying her celebrity heritage. I looked closer and saw, yes, it was Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.

There was something about the scene that made me smile; the inevitability of it, perhaps, or the unmistakable comfort they had in one another’s company. I found myself thinking how achingly, effortlessly cool it all was.

The concept of ‘coolness’ isn’t something I’ve given much credence to over the last few years. It’s too vague, shifting too easily with age and experience. What I find interesting or worthwhile at 35 is very different to when I was 25. 

In my early twenties I was very preoccupied with what was cool and what was not. I had very definite opinions on the subject too, particularly when it came to style. There was a certain look amongst some Irish women at the time - copious amounts of fake tan, bad hair extensions, and tight bandage dresses – which I found utterly passé, preferring to find my clothes in charity shops, scouring vintage sellers on eBay, stealing my grandmother’s handknitted mohair cardigans. 

The clothes I wore, the music I listened to, the clubs I went to, the people I hung out with; everything was chosen because I thought it was cool. Thus, in many ways it was a surprise when I moved to New York to discover many people did not think of Ireland or the Irish in those terms. 

I was used to Americans who came to the Old Country desperate to find their roots, claiming a great, great grandfather from County Cork as they looked at you with a mixture of envy and admiration. In New York, it was the first time that I had really seen myself as Other, the first time I had to interrogate my own Irishness. 

How easily that could be defined by how other people saw me, a young woman from what they believed to be an insignificant backwater at the edge of Europe, a country ruled by priests and nuns.

Backwards and sexually repressed, whose sole diet consisted of bacon and cabbage and potatoes, washed down with Guinness and whiskey. A cross between Angela’s Ashes and the third-class cabins in Titanic.

It wasn’t that I thought they were cool either, necessarily. At the time, although Irish people might have been more inclined to consume American pop culture, turning west in an unconscious post-colonial rejection of our nearest neighbours, British style (especially London) had a far greater influence on my friends than American. We wanted to look like Alexa Chung or Susie Lau rather than Taylor Swift or Megan Fox. 

The New York look was polished, with freshly blow-dried hair and manicured nails, whereas we thought it was cooler to look as if you hadn't tried too hard. It was like choosing between 90s Kate Moss and 90s Carolyn Bessette, between grunge and minimalist chic. I’d have chosen the former, and assumed I always would.

It’s ten years later now and much has changed. What I find most interesting, and perhaps most exciting, is how the perception of Ireland has shifted in that time. 

The two referendums helped, challenging outdated notions of a country that answered only to its clerical overlords. The surprise in the international media at this progressiveness amused me, it seemed the only people who weren’t completely floored at the results were the Irish themselves. 

But something else has helped too. The actress considered the finest of her generation? Saoirse Ronan, an Irish woman. The author behind the buzziest novel of the last decade? Sally Rooney, an Irish woman. The actor who made GAA shorts and gold chains this season’s hottest accessories? Paul Mescal, an Irish man. 

Ruth Negga was nominated for an Academy Award, Hozier’s second album debuted at number one on the US Billboard. Aisling Bea won a BAFTA for Breakthrough talent, Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch my Hair was declared ‘groundbreaking’ by the Guardian. Fontaines D.C were nominated for the Mercury Prize last year, Samantha Barry is the Editor-in Chief of American Glamour magazine, Derry Girls and The Young Offenders are smash-hits. 

Richard Malone and Simone Rocha are the designers every Bright Young Thing of the new twenties wants to wear, and it’s artwork by Shane Keisuke Berkery and Stephen Doyle they want to hang on their walls. 

Denise Chaila’s performance on the Late Late Show last week, coupled with her spellbinding interview, marked her as a star in the making, as are GodKnows, Girl Band, and Gemma Dunleavy. 

I can’t help but wonder that if I was 25 and moving to New York today, riding on the coattails of all this talent and energy and vibrancy, would I be perceived differently? Would I have been, as Paul Mescal did when he was mistakenly labelled as British after being nominated for an Emmy, far quicker and prouder to proclaim – “I’m Irish.” 

Louise Says:

Read: Intimations by Zadie Smith. A slim collection of essays -six in total- written during and about lockdown. Self-reflective, honest, and moving.

Listen: The Spencer and Vogue podcast. The pair’s dynamic is very funny, as they bicker delightfully through every episode. (Irish listeners will be pleased to hear that Vogue wins most of the time)

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