Let’s be honest, Ireland is among the tiniest of nations. When God said “go forth and take your place among the nations of the Earth,” a few lads were late for the bus and as all other nations were snapped up they got stuck with this small windswept and rainy island — more of a large rock actually — out in the middle of the Atlantic. I suppose God saw that the Irish had gotten a bit of a raw deal and with His infinite wisdom and in His infinite mercy packed a few extra treats in our lunch box. In this feature, Ger Leddin takes a slightly irreverent look at what the Irish do better than most other countries, or at least as good as others way bigger and wealthier.
1. The ability to tell tall tales
The Irish have always been known for their ability to tell tall tales. Let’s face it; go into any pub in Ireland, strike up a conversation with the right person and you’re liable to hear one of the most exaggerated stories ever. Believe me, this happens, but it’s probably no wonder, because we Irish can boast some of the greatest storytellers of all time. From Bram Stoker, the chap who ‘invented’ Dracula, through to James Joyce who turned a simple stroll around Dublin into Ulysses, Oscar Wilde the guy who kept a picture of Dorian Grey upstairs and Samuel Becket who wrote the odd few chapters while Waiting for Godot. Even our contemporary writers are world famous: Frank McCourt, Brendan Behan, Roddy Doyle, Seamus Heaney. I could go on and on but I need to leave room for the other things that we’re brilliant at!
The population of Ireland is about 4.7-million, which is about half that of either Paris or London or Los Angeles. But even with our small population we still managed to populate and play a very significant part in the development of many other nations, such as Britain — Irish navies built most of their infrastructure. The United States — police forces, firemen and politicians. Australia — well the less said about that the better! The Irish Diaspora is one of the largest in the world. There are an estimated 80-million people of Irish descent living around the world. Yeah, most of these are in English speaking nations like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and of course England, But you will also find Paddy’s descendants in far-flung lands such as Argentina and Mexico and even up north in Iceland. You see, you’ll have a hard time hiding from us, so don’t even try.
Maybe it, because of the long dreary winters and the need to stay indoors for months at a time but the Irish have always been fairly handy at inventing things. Take John Philip Holland for example; looking out from his window in the small coastal town of Liscannor County Clare and seeing the usual collection of currachs (a small tar covered traditional timber boat) he must have thought “wouldn’t it be great if I could come up with a design for a boat that could travel underwater.” Well, he did and went on to design the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy in 1897. You can go back even further to 1661 when Waterford man Robert Boyle often referred to as the father of modern chemistry figured out that atoms do whatever it is that atoms do — to be honest it’s a bit beyond me. He also discovered that pressure and volume do something a bit weird to gases — that’s a bit beyond me too.
From the stethoscope invented by Wexford man Arthur Leared in 1851 through to the portable defibrillator invented by County Down man Frank Pantridge in 1965. And from the induction coil, by none other than an Irish priest Fr. Nicholas Joseph Callan in 1836, to the humble potato chip by Joseph ‘Spud’ Murphy and Seamus Bourke in 1950. The list is endless; down through the centuries, Irish people have been at the forefront of scientific thought and invention, not to mention potato chip development.
4. The ability to compete in International Sports despite being a tiny country
Right, I know I’m going to get into serious trouble writing this paragraph, as the list of Irish people who have greatly contributed to international sport is far too extensive to adequately do justice too; in a short piece like this, I can only touch on the subject. But by touching on it I might serve to illustrate how great — and modest — we Irish really are.
When Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland in May 2011 she had only three short days to fulfil the many state functions which were organised for her whirlwind tour. However, the Queen who has always held a tremendous interest in horseracing and being the smart lady that she is insisted on fitting one very private event into her schedule. She visited Coolmore Stud in County Tipperary, which is the world’s largest and arguably best racing horse breeding center in the world. From Arkle to Redrum and so many others the Irish have been breeding and training the world’s finest thoroughbred racehorses since, well since man first Said “Giddy-up.”
Soccer and rugby, ok so we didn’t invent the games, we could have but we were busy inventing Gaelic football and Hurling; two sports which have travelled the world and now are extensively played in America and Australia. But we caught on fast and supplied many of our leading players across the water to our nearest neighbour England; in order to teach them how both games should be played. From Johnny Carey who captained Manchester United for seven years 1946-1953, through George Best, Roy Keane, to, well actually the list is far too extensive so and to quote “We’ll leave it there so.” If you’re Irish you’ll get that.
The British and Irish Lions are a Test side who tour the world every four years taking on teams like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and giving these nations a good run for their money. Irish players have often been chosen to captain this team. Irish captains from Dr. Tommy Smyth in 1910 through Tom Kiernan who captained the Lions in 1968 and Kieran Fitzgerald (1983) Brian O Driscoll in 2005, Paul O Connell (2010) and most recently Peter O Mahoney (2017) have excelled in this role and with this honour.
As I said this piece is by necessity far too short to do justice to the many Irish sports heroes who have brought International sporting honours home to Ireland: Sonia O Sullivan in track events. To Katie Taylor, WBA Female Lightweight Champion boxer; on an aside and speaking about boxing, did you know that “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali’s great-grandfather emigrated from Ennis County Clare to Kentucky during the 1860’s? Anyway as I said the list is endless, whether it’s world popular sports like soccer or minority sports like lightweight double sculls (the O’Donovan brothers) Ireland’s contribution to the International world of sports is incalculable, and looks like continuing to remain so.
5. Music and Art
I have already mentioned above some great Irish writers, the Irish are also noted for their contribution to the Worlds collection of great works of art and music. Ok, obliviously we invented Irish traditional music, a genre which has become immensely popular all over the globe and is noted for its ability to make one feel both happy and sad at the same time, which when you think about it, is a fairly good trick. From the Dublin rock group U2 to the excitement of the world’s most successful dance production Riverdance which has been seen by over 25-million people in more than 450 venues across the globe it can be said without any hesitation that for a small country, Irish musicians and dancers are among the best in the world. Actually talking about dance; let’s not forget the phenomenon of Irish dancing. In no small way helped by the success of Riverdance and its offshoot Lord of the Dance, this unique form of step dance has spread exponentially all over the globe. From Sydney to Los Angeles and from the Middle East to Middlesex millions of people have learnt and fallen in love with the Irish reels, slips and jigs — next week they’re going to learn to incorporate their arms — another Irish joke, sorry.
But to be serious for a moment, let us turn to the visual arts. From: Jack Butler Yeats through to John Lavery to Louis Le Brocquy Irish artists have gained international renown for their work. Even what is probably one of the most iconic images of the seventies, the portrait of Che Guevara — and himself with an Irish grandmother who emigrated to Argentina — was painted by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, that particular two-tone black on red image has debatably defined an era of pop art.