Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Yuck of the Irish

Guardian Comment is Free, my annual tribute to shamrockery...

So, on St Patrick's Day, the morning trains from Long Island will have been filled with young kids, whose Hibernity consists in having an "o" at the end of their names rather than at the beginning. My friend Jeff who commutes on the Long Island Railroad complains that they puke over the seats on their way to the parade and associated boozing in Manhattan, never mind during and afterwards.

At least it lends a touch of ethnic and ethanolic ecumenism to the boozefest officially run by the humourless bigots of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. One laments the lost opportunities. John McCain could have sent anti-Catholic bigot John Hagee to represent him, and Hillary Clinton could demonstrate her ability to walk on Guinness in Northern Irish peace-making by getting the AOH to invite a couple of Orange bands across from Belfast for the event. Those Lambeg drums would have really rocked Fifth Avenue.

It is easier to keep gays out of St Patrick's Day than politicians, but luckily the actual Irish have a sense of humour, and Dublin's parade is proudly inclusive, even if I am not sure it has the Orange Lodge doing the honours there.

I've done my bit for inclusiveness. Many years ago when I was president of the UN Correspondent's Association, we invited Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams to speak at the press club in UN headquarters. The motivation was not affection for the IRA, but to protest British policy that banned broadcasters from interviewing them, and also to tweak the UN for its craven banning of a Chinese dissident from speaking to correspondents.

The UN has been consistently spineless on such issues, but the UK is much more urbane. Sir David Hannay asked me at a cocktail party how the Adams event was going, and I replied with regrets that there had been no complaint from HMG. He drew himself up to his full hauteur and replied: "Who do you think we are? Chinese?"

When Adams came, the UN security officer, an Irish-American former member of the New York police department who had finagled the assignment, waited with me to escort our speaker into the UN. He told me: "As a matter of courtesy, Mr Adams does not have to go through the metal detector." I forbore from pointing out that bringing an IRA man in without a check was hardly a courtesy for the rest of us!

A few years later, I landed in New York after a long, gruelling and jetlag-inducing flight from Kazakhstan, and was wondering whether to crash in bed as I listened to my answering machine. But the invitation to hear New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark "on banning the bomb", woke me up. She was to speak, just round the corner at O'Neill's bar on Third Avenue. It was a deliciously unmissable invite. O'Neill's was the Sinn Fein HQ in New York. "Banning which bomb?" I thought as I showered and rushed to get ready.

Upstairs in the bar, one of the local Irish bands was tuning up. The singer shouted across as I came in: "Hey, Ian, we was wonderin'- d'ye know any New Zealand songs?"

I ran a search program through my befuddled brain, that not even a pint of Guinness was lubricating into full activity. "You know, I can't think of any at all," I was forced to admit, "but if you sing about unrequited love for a woolly sheep, you can't go far wrong."

Quick as a flash, the singer replied: "Ah yes, I know that one!" Myself, the rest of the band and anyone else in earshot, did a double take and looked at him, as he expounded: "Hey, McCloud, get offa my ewe."

Blessed is the nation that swapped serpents for sharp tongues and ready wit. It's a shame about the green vomitus though.

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