I feel embarrassed to come from this nation of ‘culchies’
Sometimes I feel embarrassed to come from Northern Ireland. Usually it happens when we're shown up on the international stage in some way or other.
It only takes a small group of attention-seeking political or religious hardliners to make us all look bad, tainted by association, and Northern Ireland is once again represented as a crazy place stalked by intolerant, potato-brained haters.
But I was embarrassed — and enraged — in a different way just last weekend. On a flight from Belfast to Amsterdam, two groups of young people from Northern Ireland made a really appalling spectacle of themselves and, in the process, made the journey a misery for all those around them.
They stumbled onto the plane, clearly half-cut to begin with, and proceeded to get more offensive with every further drink.
One luridly orange-tinted young woman from Fermanagh clambered up on her seat to yell flirtatious obscenities at a group of lairy lads from Tyrone several rows away, who responded in kind with the coarsest farmyard language you can imagine. I'd tell you the details, but I can't be bothered typing out all those asterisks.
When we finally arrived at Schiphol airport, most people waited until the troublemakers lurched off the aircraft before disembarking.
An older man lifted my suitcase down for me. He nodded towards the exit, where we could still hear them bellowing and screaming as they crossed the tarmac. “Culchies, eh?,” he said. “They just don't know how to behave.” I felt ashamed to come from the same country as these young people.
And I was not the only one: we all felt the disgrace. God knows what the handful of Dutch people on the flight made of this circus of yahoos.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a bit of high spirits and I suspect that most of the people on that flight were looking forward to a fairly hedonistic weekend.
Yet the cringeworthy behaviour of these young louts went well beyond harmless banter: it was obscene and utterly indifferent to everyone around them, including several young children.
Still, is it fair to dismiss them as “culchies”? It's an uncomfortable word, absurdly implying that those who come from the city are models of mannerly sophistication, while country-dwellers are crude, ignorant and lacking in social niceties.
If proof were needed of urban degradation, you only need to look at the recent spate of car-jackings in greater Belfast, with cowardly thugs mostly targeting women because they are likely to put up less of a fight.
And it's one of the curious features of the summer marching season that the majority of rural parades, populated largely by elderly, slightly doddery unionists, tend to pass off peacefully and reasonably decorously, while the big Orange parades in Belfast — dominated by secular loyalists — are more likely to be marked by aggression and confrontational tactics and leave a trail of blue WKD bottles in their wake.
Then there's the uneasy sectarian associations that go with the word, too. “Culchie” is often used as a pejorative term for people from a rural Catholic/nationalist background. It doesn't seem right that the regrettable actions of a few drunken idiots from west of the Bann should be used to disparage a whole section of the population.
And yet there was a ring of truth in what the man on the plane said. We have seen similar boorish behaviour in recent years in the Holylands area of south Belfast, not just on St Patrick's Day, when students' drunken antics reach their peak, but in the year-round ‘partying’ which residents must endure.
In the noise, the mess, the casual vandalism, the disregard for others, we see the same aggressive sense of entitlement that I witnessed on the flight to Amsterdam.
Of course, small-minded ignorance is not the sole preserve of urban or rural-dwellers, whether Catholic or Protestant. That would be simplistic nonsense.
The truth is that anyone — whether you live in a city apartment or a country cottage — can be a culchie, if to be a culchie means to be part of a crude, aggressive, unreflective tribe.
In many ways, we are a nation of culchies. The answer, as always, is to look outwards, towards the world and away from the dumb logic of the pack.
Perhaps their trip to one of Europe's great capitals did the trick for the culchies I encountered on the plane. It might even have been a cultural epiphany.
Put it this way: they were certainly a lot quieter on the flight home.