Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is Martin McDonagh Irish Enough?

One of my favourite films of last year was In Bruges, a black comedy about two hitmen on the run hiding out, er, in Bruges. It was written by Martin McDonagh the Oscar and Tony winning playwright who was born in London of Irish parents. McDonagh is up for best original screenplay at next week's Academy Awards and if there's any justice in the world he'll win. However in the last few weeks I've begun to hear mutterings on blogs and in a couple of emails that McDonagh is an Englishman who, like the unfortunate Shane McGowan, "exploits" a certain Irish persona for economic gain. This Punch magazine persona is certainly not true today and probably was never true to begin with: the comedic, drunken, loquacious, sentimental, professional or stage Irishman. Of all places the anonymous writer of McDonagh's Wikipedia entry seems to have provided the best summary of the controversy:

McDonagh has his critics - especially within Ireland - who view his work with suspicion. His English birth and London childhood have caused many to question his credentials, validity and sincerity regarding Irish life. Many Irish scholars feel that his work is in fact stage Irish. A review by Elizabeth O'Neill for RTÉ said :"A modern day Synge or an English chancer? Martin McDonagh's plays have been courting controversy since The Beauty Queen of Leenane took the world stage by storm in 1996. Audiences have been divided roughly into two camps; those who think he's captured the black humour and zeitgeist of a postmodern rural Ireland, and those who see him as making a mockery of Ireland and the Irish by lampooning that caricature of old, the 'stage-Irish' fool."

Of course no one likes stereotypes but I think McDonagh is being picked on because of his 'Englishness' - always the bogey man for a certain class of critic. I suspect part of the problem is the entirely mistaken notion that the Irish represent some sort of unique genetic group who have maintained their purity throughout the centuries. If you spend a mind numbing ten minutes or so reading the comments on any of the Irish related YouTubes you'll know that this view is deeply held. It's ridiculous of course. Ireland is just as much a genetic mixed bag as every other country in Europe. In fact peer reviewed studies in the last year have proven that the Irish, Welsh, Scots and English are virtually indistinguishable genetically. The gate keepers of Irishness are on very shaky ground when they try to exclude people with planter names (Gerry Adams) or Norman names (the entire Fitzgerald clan) or anyone who's spent the majority of their life living outside the 32 counties (Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Swift, etc.) and both the Northern Irish and Republic of Ireland football teams sensibly apply the grandmother rule: if your granny (or granda) was born in Ireland then you're Irish and that's an end to it. So let's keep London born McDonagh and just to balance things out I'll gladly swap all four of those proud non tax paying Micks in U2 for him.