GERARD HOWLIN: We are never far from the madding crowd because we want to belong

SUNNY DAYS, a World Cup, Gay Pride, and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie have come together to melt the national mood. Nothing much — let alone anything fundamental — has changed, but the public spirit has lightened a little, for now.

Mood in Ireland is as changeable as the weather; days of brilliant sunshine, but largely overcast and grey. Squalls can come at any moment and clear just as quickly. The national psyche goes from hair shirt to champagne and back again, rapidly.

But, for now, there is a little to be encouraged about. Apply good weather, put on a World Cup and anger abates, or is momentarily distracted. Popular culture, so-called, is a powerful political tool, a laxative for anger.

The power of perception and the pull of the psychological incite emotion and emotion ultimately stirs events. Sport attracts and appalls in almost equal measure. It’s compellingly enjoyable for its participants. Exercise, team-building, and tactical skills are all to the good, surely. Team sport is an object of admiration to behold.

But it is the crowd in sport that I find far more interesting than the game. The huge, heaving, public emoting about fellas running around after a football simply strains credulity.

It is a great investment of fantasy, faux loyalty, and unreal intimacy that astonishingly absorbs otherwise rational people. In their millions, those crowds actually have ‘their’ own team. Some of it is local loyalty, and that has layers of meaning that may be more understandable.

But passionate, lifelong following of British soccer teams, for example, exhibits an astonishing neediness to be part of an unrealised fantasy. No, you won’t ever be togging out at Old Trafford, but you can buy the Glazers’ gear at inflated prices, stretch it over an expanse of tummy where abs haven’t been visible in living memory, and off you go. You may be going to Old Trafford; more likely you are going to your local hostelry, but whatever, it’s only a game. Momentarily, in your head, you are on the field; a player.

But crowds are never only a game. In a world where you are lucky to have a handful of real friends, there’s an astonishingly real urge to gather again and again in the midst of the crowd. Being part of something much bigger makes every participant feel better. Gay Pride, in Dublin last Saturday, was a riot of colour, fun and good humour. It was a celebration of inclusion and being out and up-front. Traditionally, for gay men and women, the crowd wasn’t celebratory. It was more likely a menacing mob. Maybe that mob was as few as two or three, but, if you are only one, that is frightening indeed.

You truly have nothing unless you have someone to look down on. Snobbery is a sly, subtle pleasure that invariably undermines the self-regard of those who feast on it.

So, part of the purpose of every crowd is to define itself in terms of those who are left out, or kept out; bareknuckle snobbery. The problem for every crowd is that, like team sport, to serve any positive purpose it must be policed, otherwise it is a mob. And this is the conundrum of the crowd. It is people-power only up to a point. It is far more often about diverting energy and corralling it, as a means of control. What people in the middle of crowds seldom seem to realise is that they represent the status quo, not a challenge to it.

The only single occasion I can remember a crowd, apparently uncontrolled, successfully challenging power was in St Andrew’s Church, on Dublin’s Westland Row, in October, 2008.

On a wet day, marching to retain their medical cards, the over-70s verbally rioted. Some went further, but mostly it was a riot by verbal laceration. That government, then, caved in on the issue and its authority crumbled, although it continued in office as an after-life for another two and a half years.

St Andrew’s was a moment when a small group of people, albeit influential ones, slipped the leash and changed events. Paradoxically, they had gathered in a Catholic church associated with Daniel O’Connell, the holder of great monster meetings. Imbued with a horror of the revolution he had witnessed as a young man in France, O’Connell’s crowds were tightly controlled. In the end, rather than unleash a mob, by default he surrendered his authority.

Crowds are all very curious and comic. The release of a pent-up desire to be part of something, anything, is truly telling. Long after all the tribes have disappeared, at least on this island, new tribes form around big screens, burning like campfires. Accommodating the crowd, allowing it space, if just enough space that it doesn’t impinge on anything that is actually important, is part of the art of power.

We may rail at Fifa and its alleged corruption, we may marvel at the transformative effect of a successful Gay Pride march on the streets of our capital city, but this is all about gently opening up, and closing off, pressure valves.

There has to be a stage for anger, an outlet for effervescence. Global, corporatist sport, followed by an increasingly corporatist sporting culture here, takes over exactly where the bread and circus of the Roman Empire left off. An enormous spectacle and a massive distraction, it makes compelling viewing for millions. It is the distracting power of the spectacle that is always the most important; it is designed to distract.

Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, packing them into the cinemas, and Brian Friel’s great play, Aristocrats, on the stage of the Abbey, are about families and their fantasies. In the Aristocrats, the O’Donnells, in the big house on the hill above Ballybeg, stood aloof from the crowd, until, exhausted but maybe relieved, they sank back into it. In Mrs Brown’s Boys, Agnes Brown has one child for every archetype in the audience. Her preposterous brood are The Waltons on Duracell batteries, with bad manners, dirty talk and unbelievable lives.

SOAK a spectacle in sunshine and what can be wrong? In Ireland, there is always an unexpected pleasure in sunlight. It is added to by unaccustomed cheeriness. You almost feel, for a moment, part of a crowd. The urge to belong, even to Mrs Brown, is far stronger that the capacity to stand apart. We excoriate those who don’t stand up, speak out, and stand apart. Funnily, we become most vociferous on that point when comfortably ensconced in the middle of a crowd ourselves.


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