Belfast Telegraph

Australian PM better tread carefully with praise of Irish

By Mandy Johnston

Liam Neeson is the latest superstar recruit to Tourism Ireland's gargantuan efforts to promote Ireland as the go-to destination for St Patrick's Day. His golden voice booms a Ballymena bass with just a little lilt of LA drawl, as he promises an experience of rolling hills, majestic cliffs and green fields a-plenty.

The thousands of visitors who flew here for the festival will certainly not have been disappointed as they landed in Dublin. The glorious vista of Ireland from afar is stunning.

But how do the Irish see themselves up close? Is the image something they are comfortable with when the mirror is held up and the image bounces back to them?

While Liam Neeson waxes lyrical about the glory of these shores, on the other side of the world, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, was criticised for his St Patrick's Day message, which was full of praise for the Irish, but deemed in some quarters as patronising and mildly insulting. In particular, some felt that his reference to a pint of Guinness - or three - was lazy stereotyping.

The second mistake that poor Mr Abbott made, it seems, was to suggest that the Irish were "responsible for providing the song". How dare he.

The land of saints and scholars, yes, that is fine, but song - no. Sure, the Irish never sing, or stay up past midnight. The Irish spend their days skipping through Liam's lovely hills and then it's off to bed by nine to prepare for morning prayers.

We spend a lot of time basking in the glory of U2, Van Morrison and the like on the international stage, but when they come home, sure they are 10-a-penny, so we can just take them, or leave them.

Our successful reputation in music and the arts is something that we rightly take immense pride in, because proportionately we export, and are responsible for, more than our fair share of global talent.

Creativity and expression through word and song is a huge part of why people love Ireland. So it is odd that Mr Abbott's reference to the Irish being responsible for song would be viewed as insulting.

To cap his contemptuous missive off, he actually said it was "Okay to be green". Some people on Twitter found this desperately offensive. Which is an awful shame, as globally Ireland is probably expending enough energy to run a small Russian nuclear power station with the wattage required for lighting up every single iconic edifice on the planet in green.

The one saving grace for Mr Abbott was that he never strayed into the controversial area of sport. Lord save us if he had accused the Irish of being a sports-obsessed tribe who punch above their weight on the world stage in many sporting disciplines.

Had he ventured into that territory, the Irish may have had to take off en masse to his country in their county jerseys. Oh wait, they're already doing that. Australia has, for the most part, provided an open-door policy to many who went there seeking work and a new life, now and in the past.

In truth, as a nation, Ireland has literally spent millions promoting itself as craic-loving songsters who revel in green and shamrocks, so it's a bit ridiculous to criticise others when that image is reflected back from afar.

Nevertheless, Mr Abbott, you should still proceed with caution because Liam Neeson is on the case, he has "a set of special skills" ... and he will find you.

Belfast Telegraph

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