Rory McIlroy not an icon for Northern Ireland
No matter how tempting it is to turn Open champion Rory McIlroy into a poster boy for a new Northern Ireland, Malachi O'Doherty says his brilliant achievements don't really reflect the reality of life here for many
Published 22/07/2014 | 08:25
While we are cheering for Rory, let's not put too much on his young shoulders. A place like this, blighted by uncertain identity, is often tempted to reach for new symbolic expression of itself.
Just when politics here is most deadlocked, our ministers are clamouring to be seen with him and to have some of the reflected glory, as if that might be enough to persuade the world of what energy and drive we have here. The truth is that they would have more right to associate themselves with a great achiever if they had achievements of their own to boast of, and they haven't.
Still, expect more pictures of McGuinness and Robinson – the Grin and the Grump – swinging clubs with him and pretending to like each other.
And it is tempting to think that Rory is the icon of the new Northern Ireland, young and confident, unstained by the past, confident in his Irishness and his Ulsterishness – if we can call it that. The Ulster flag that he has at times draped himself with is not for him as threatening or aggressive as it is for those of a generation older than him.
Rory shows us how lightly one might be oneself, when others would claim him and make him their badge or damn him as a turncoat.
It's simple, really; you just concentrate on the job in hand. You play the game.
You set your priorities by how you will excel, not by who claims your allegiance.
And, paradoxically perhaps, in setting that kind of example in how not to be bound up in the tedious old questions of tradition and belonging, Rory does make himself a kind of standard for a new way.
But let's not make him an icon or a legend.
Maybe just a poster boy, an example.
It would be worthwhile having someone to point to when urging others to put down their flags and their bottles (whether drinking from them or planning to throw them).
It just may be that we need Rory more than Rory needs us.
We have latched on to people before as perpetual examples of our decency, our achievement, and our middling commitment to being better than sectarian.
It may well be the fate of Rory to replace Mary Peters, who turns up at everything to remind us that once Northern Ireland was not defined by contention and wrath. I suspect he would prefer to be regarded for his actual golf than for being the one conspicuously wonderful young man who got on with his life in a place where so many can't.
For when you make someone a model for society, you place demands upon them they can't meet.
We did that to Barry McGuigan. We said "leave the fighting to Barry". It was all a bit trite and required him to be a symbol of unity and peacemaking when all he really needed to do was get out there and bash the bejaysus out of the other guy.
We did it to Dana as well, and maybe that expectation placed on her by a whole society to mean something rather than just to sing was part of what turned her head into messianic purpose.
We imagined for years that George Best showed the world a side of us that was so much more interesting and colourful than sectarianism. It just happened to be suicidal as well.
God help us if Rory starts to feel that he owes us more than to just play golf well. And if incidentally he just happens to be a decent bloke, with humble ways about him and a self-reflective nature and a mop of curls that you'd feel like ruffling up, then all the better.
But he won't be our angel.
He has already made his love life controversial.
Part of what is so fascinating about that is that he looks too young to have a proper girlfriend anyway. He is still a boy in his manners and in his simple willingness to try and explain himself. All those breast-beating interviews about his state of mind! Half the time I wonder if Stephen Watson – the BBC's Rory McIlroy correspondent – knows what the lad is on about.
He runs after him round the world to report on bogeys, birdies and eagles, and sends back meditations on mindfulness. You don't normally expect a kid like that to have any developed comprehension of his emotional responses. I didn't at 25.
And that candour maybe got him absolved of being a love rat with Caroline Wozniacki. She's bigger than him. She was planning the wedding when he noticed he was committed and decided he wasn't ready. What made that excusable was that we could all see he wasn't ready.
His golfing had begun to get as fickle as a peace process.
There was Stephen Watson telling us that Rory thought he was in the right state of mind again and there was the game falling apart in the second day. It was all so – teenage!
Here was the boy, suddenly a millionaire with the expectations of the world on him, and he was just a bit too reminiscent of how things kept falling apart at home.
We could look at him and think, he really is one of us. He does what we do. He flashes with occasional brilliance and then cowps. Well, what do you expect?
He comes from wee Ulster, where nothing works. Where the whole economy is a charade, mostly just the circulation of public money.
Where political imagination dries up as soon as the rabble at the back claim attention.
Where we tell ourselves we have the best education system in the world, though a quarter of young people couldn't read the back of a crisp bag. It's just that imagining we are so much better than we actually are seems to be the device by which we get through life here, so it wouldn't be surprising if Rory was just like that, too.
What is surprising is that he's not, that he's bloody brilliant.
And for that we should cherish him and not spoil him, not make him mean anything more than he does. Which is that with discipline and application, with self-awareness and good nature, a young man from Holywood, Co Down, can be the best in the world.
And the best that we can do is not make it harder for him, either by pinning all our dreams on him or by sneering when he turns out to be human.