Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.
—The Third Policeman Flann O’Brien
“Is it about a bicycle?” asks Sergeant Pluck when the unnamed narrator of the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman first encounters him. The sergeant goes on to explain himself by observing that “you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles”—a ridiculous idea Pluck defends on the basis of the atomic theory: any object placed in conjunction with another will naturally exchange atoms with it, and so consequently people who spend too long on their bicycles are in danger of becoming their bicycles. Pluck doesn’t mention the danger to the bicycles of becoming Irish—though perhaps he ought to have given that there’s been rioting in Belfast since 3 December last year. Still, though Sergeant Pluck hasn’t considered the dangers of becoming Irish, there’s one man who, very publically, is: Rory McIlroy, who must decide by 2016 whether to become Irish—if, that is, all of the bicycles haven’t become Irish by then.
In the next Summer Olympics in 2016, golf will be a medal sport for the first time since 1904, if only on a trial basis. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for the world’s best golfer, who will be just 27, to win further glory—who knows how many majors McIlroy might win by then—but as terrific as the chance might appear, the Rio Olympics also pose a dilemma for the native of County Down. In order to play, he will have to answer the question all sportsmen and women from Northern Ireland who qualify for the Games must eventually answer whenever the Olympics rolls around.
Earlier this month the golf pro addressed once more that question: which country to play for, the United Kingdom, the nation of his citizenship, or the Republic of Ireland, which traditionally has claimed sovereignty over the whole island? “In Beijing the majority of athletes from Northern Ireland represented Ireland,” noted the Daily Telegraph in 2009, “but it was a close split.” As the reigning PGA Champion said in early January, he has three options: “Play for one side or the other—or not play at all because I may upset too many people.”
Still, nobody much believes that McIlroy would really choose not to play. So the bookies seem to think, anyway—the odds are heavily in favor of McIlroy playing—and the commercial logic of McIlroy’s situation does appear to prove their point. As the world number one has said, the Olympics “spread the game all over the world and make it recognized in different countries, which can only be good”—good for golf’s manufacturers, for instance. And whether McIlroy plays or not is, according to Irishman and fellow tour player and major winner Padraig Harrington, “a very big deal because golf is on a trial period in the Olympics.” Or in other words, without the best player in the world Olympic golf threatens to become merely an exhibition, not a truly competitive event.
Almost certainly then McIlroy will play in the Olympics—for one side or another. Which side, however, is somewhat unsettled, in part because McIlroy has not had to make this kind of choice before. On the island of Ireland golf is governed by a single body, the Golfing Union of Ireland: in international competitions, all Irish golfers, North and South, play for the same team. “It does not matter,” as the Daily Telegraph observed in 2009, “if you hit your wedges in Ulster or Munster, you play amateur golf for Ireland”—as McIlroy did throughout his amateur career.
Thus far in his career then McIlroy has not needed to make a choice—but he’s made his leanings apparent. When golf became approved as an Olympic sport again, in 2009, McIlroy said that he’d “always felt more British than Irish.” When, after McIlroy won the US Open in 2011, a spectator shoved the tricolor of the Republic at McIlroy as the golfer walked off the 18th green, McIlroy ignored it. And his website, until recently, had the Red Hand of Ulster—an “exclusively loyalist symbol, an emblem of raw hostility to Catholics,” Niall Stanage called it in the New York Times in 2011—atop it. To have such a symbol proudly displayed is surprising to many because—though this is relatively unknown—McIlroy is a Catholic.
It’s for that reason that many think McIlroy should choose to represent the Republic in the Olympics. “Representing Britain,” wrote Stanage, would to some be “tantamount to backing a state … regarded as oppressive.” Some might go even further and regard choosing Britain to be a betrayal of his own family: in 1972, at the height of what the Irish call “the Troubles,” McIlroy’s great-uncle, Joseph McIlroy, was shot and killed “for trying to integrate his Catholic family into an overwhelmingly Protestant part of east Belfast,” as Fionola Meredith put it in the Belfast Telegraph. Most in fact believe—no one was ever convicted of the killing—that the 32 year-old father of four, murdered in his own kitchen, was shot by the loyalist Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.
One of the symbols of the Ulster Volunteer Force is the Red Hand of Ulster.
* * *
For some, such a strange turn could only be explained by psychological means; say, by Pavlov’s “ultra-paradoxical phase,” or what’s known as “Stockholm syndrome.” But going to such lengths may be unnecessary, because by virtually any measure, McIlroy’s decision should not be much of a dilemma—even if his religion were of no account. On the one hand, the choice McIlroy should make appears fairly obvious. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that, by the time McIlroy needs to make it, his hand will be forced by events outside of his control.
Before getting to that though it’s necessary to point out that the angst McIlroy appears to be spending on this issue seems peculiar: the choice between playing for the Kingdom or the Republic seems at best an artificial one. All golfers on the island play, as mentioned, for the Golfing Union of Ireland, which governs golf both North and South. It is, in other words, a body whose existence owes a great deal to what might be accounted the “common sense” view of how to administer the island itself.
“Irish unity makes sense,” recently said Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, by way of reiterating the traditional Irish nationalist argument for a single government to rule the whole island. “Imagine the financial and efficiency benefits if there were one education system, one health service, one energy network and all-island investment practices,” Adams continued.
Adams did not argue on “emotional” grounds; he did not make the argument that Ireland ought to be for Irishmen or something of the sort. Adams instead said it made “political sense” and “economic sense.” His argument was the rational one that two governments over very nearly the same territory—Ireland is so small a place that it might fit inside a good size Wyoming county—are, necessarily, wasteful. If McIlroy were to represent the United Kingdom, in other words, he would be endorsing an arrangement that is needlessly inefficient—or, in sum, irrational.
Of course, nationalism is of necessity not always amenable to rational analysis. It may be that nationalism is the most recent emotion human beings have developed—certainly, it is one of the few emotional states that has a datable history. Only in the past two centuries, as Benedict Anderson pointed out in his Imagined Communities, have we really had nationalism. It’s a history, as a matter of fact, that is revealed by the very name of the kingdom towards which Rory McIlroy’s loyalty leans.
As Anderson pointed out before Berlin’s wall fell, “the Soviet Union share[d] with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the rare distinction of refusing nationality in its naming.” (If the kingdom’s title did name a nationality, Anderson says, what would it be? “Great Brito-Irish?”) The name of the kingdom, instead, marks it as a survival of those dynastic states that were common throughout the world before 1914—states usually ruled by a monarchy that may or may not have spoken the same language as its subjects, and was indifferent to whether it did or not.
The United Kingdom is one of the last survivors of that kind of state: “there has not,” as Anderson observes, “been an ‘English’ dynasty ruling in London since the eleventh century (if then).”
Which, it’s worth mentioning, makes it odd for McIlroy—or any other subject of the Crown—to have an emotional attachment to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it seems that despite pre-dating the modern era of nationalism, the United Kingdom has been able to construct its own version of it even if British people are known for not being as demonstrative in their national affections as, say, Americans or Brazilians. For instance, most government offices in the United Kingdom only fly their national flags—which are actually royal flags—less than twenty times a year, mostly to honor various royal birthdays rather that “national” holidays that (for instance) might mark significant historical events or the like.
How often the national flag gets flown probably isn’t as significant a marker of sentiment, though, as the fact that a sizable chunk of the “nation” not only isn’t particularly nationalistic, but actively wants out of it. If the United Kingdom consists largely of four segments—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—then it’s probably notable if two of those segments want, if not out, then at minimum a new arrangement. Scotland and Wales have had that new arrangement since a referendum was passed in 1997; in 1999, a Scottish Parliament sat at Holyrood in Edinburgh for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707. But the current First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond—whom I caddied for at Medinah on the day after McIlroy’s European team won the Ryder Cup from the Americans—wants to put to the Scottish people a further referendum in the autumn of 2014: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” If that referendum should pass—and Alex Salmond says it is likely—then it’s possible that the United Kingdom would not be so united by the time the Olympics roll around again.
In that case, obviously, McIlroy might not be able to play for the United Kingdom because there wouldn’t be any such thing any more. But if there isn’t, it likely wouldn’t be because of the wishes of many of his compatriots. In Belfast, for instance, a Union Jack has flown above City Hall every day since 1906. A portion of the population of Northern Ireland, in other words, is committed to the idea of the United Kingdom in a far more intense fashion than virtually anyone else within it: a commitment illustrated by the events of the past few months.
In March of 2011, the Belfast City Council rejected a proposed plan to fly both the Union Jack and the tricolor of the Republic of Ireland above City Hall. On 5 May of that year, however, the voters returned a city council that, for the first time in Belfast’s history, held a majority of Irish nationalists—the largest number of whom (16 0f 51) were of Sinn Fein, the nationalist republican party. It was a result that reflected the demographic realities of the city—which since at least 2001 has had a majority of Roman Catholics—and the new, republican-controlled council thence commissioned a survey of City Hall visitors in September of 2011 on the flag question.
That survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that most Roman Catholics were—unlike Rory McIlroy—either indifferent or felt offended by the Union Jack flag. On the basis of the survey, in June of 2012 the council began a “consultation programme” about whether to continue to fly the flag every day. Most official buildings in the United Kingdom as whole usually fly their flags only 18 times a year (a number of those are royal birthdays). A final vote on the matter was announced for November of 2012, which in the event was pushed back. Hence the council voted on 3 December.
Directly afterwards, a mob attempted to rush City Hall, held off only by police. There were several injuries, but while rioting continued for the next week or so, things did not become serious—at least by Belfast standards—until 10 December.
On that day, a Protestant mob attacked police guarding the home of a Protestant city councilor who backed the nationalist position, and someone in the crowd threw a Molotov cocktail, or “petrol bomb,” into a police car. The policewoman inside did escape—but the event underlined that the flag issue wasn’t going away. The riots have, as of this writing, continued virtually every day since the vote in towns throughout Northern Ireland, and have included violent attacks on Catholic neighborhoods like Belfast’s Short Strand.
McIlroy’s statements in favor of the United Kingdom, therefore, put him at odds with the rest of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland; the difficulty, of course, is why this should be so. Examining McIlroy’s situation, one factor stands out: the rise—in the words of the New York Times—of what, in “the poor Catholic districts along the Falls Road or the working class Protestant quarters of the Shankill, people refer to the city’s more affluent fringe as ‘cloud cuckoo-land.’” McIlroy grew up in the town of Holywood, a place less than half an hour from the surveillance cameras and barbed wire of Belfast but a world away in terms other than geographical.
As William E. Schmidt reported for the Times as long ago as 1991, when Rory McIlroy was two years old—as seen from the Falls Road or the Shankill, Holywood is “as foreign and inaccessible as the far side of the moon.” For those living out in the suburbs of County Down, said the Rev. Eamon O’Brien, “a Catholic priest whose parish of 800 poor and mostly unemployed is in the middle of a Protestant neighborhood in East Belfast”—the same part of town where Joseph McIlroy was shot in his kitchen—the “‘troubles are as far away for some people who live in Northern Ireland as they are for people living in the U.S., and that includes a lot of middle-class Catholics.’” McIlroy, whose father worked multiple jobs to pay for his early golf, might not qualify as middle-class exactly, but his triumphs do nevertheless signal the success of those who turned their backs on the Troubles.
Or, to put it another way, were allowed to so turn their backs. “After years of overt discrimination in the civil service”—which in 1991 accounted for nearly half of all jobs in Northern Ireland, Schmidt reported then—“the percentage of Catholics now employed in Government jobs … is more than 39 percent, nearly equal to their percentage in the overall population, which is about 42 percent.” Though McIlroy’s parents were not employed by the government, it seems clear that he must have benefitted, directly or indirectly, by the end of anti-Catholic discrimination. Almost certainly, it’s what allowed his family to escape the streets of Belfast for the leafy countryside of Holywood and avoid the fate of his great-uncle. It’s that fact that allows an understanding of how McIlroy could become attached to a state that, by all rights, he ought at best be indifferent towards.
* * *
Perhaps the most significant sociological study of Northern Ireland in recent years is one that has little to do with the Troubles, precisely. It’s a study published by Democratic Dialogue, a Belfast think tank, and authored by Patrick McGregor and Patricia McKee. Their study found, very simply, that “the rich in Northern Ireland”—like the rich in a lot of other places—“have indeed become richer” and, in fact, they are “becoming richer more rapidly than the rest of society.” Northern Ireland has been becoming a “winner-take-all” society, like the United Kingdom and the United States have been documented to do since 1980: one in which the richest are capturing an increasing share of society’s total wealth.
Increasing inequality arguably has more significance in Northern Ireland, where nearly a third of the people—and there are less than two millions of them—are under the poverty line, than it might be in the rest of Britain, where only a fifth are. In Northern Ireland, that is, the gap is thusly that much more visible. What one might expect to see in and around Belfast then isn’t protests about flags, but rather protests about unfair economic policies—and those protests would not be divided along sectarian lines, but rather economic ones: poor Protestants and Catholics joining to protest against rich Protestants and Catholics. But that isn’t what’s being observed. Instead, the poor Protestant community—bankers and lawyers aren’t throwing cobblestones—is insisting on its own separateness from the rest of the island. In a way, that is, the flag riots are a plea on cultural, not economic, grounds for what Americans are used to call “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”
This is an odd development because it has traditionally been the Irish nationalists who have made “cultural” kinds of arguments—something that Brian O’Nolan, the man who created Flann O’Brien and wrote the novels he published under that name, knew very well. O’Nolan’s work, in fact, may be read as questioning just that part of the nationalist platform—which is why it is especially ironic to see that his work has been appropriated by academics whose professional commitments are just to the kinds of “cultural politics” that O’Nolan himself spent his career ridiculing.
The Third Policeman, for instance, written between 1939 and 1940, is often discussed among literary people as “one of the earliest—and most exciting—examples of post-modernist fiction,” as the publisher’s blurb for the study Flann O’Brien: Portrait of the Artist As Young Postmodernist has put it. If, for the author of that study—Keith Hopper—one way to define post-modernism is the belief that “the real world is not ‘given’ but constructed”—that we cannot interact with the world other than through the medium of language, or “language games”—then it’s possible to view The Third Policeman as, among other things, an investigation into how science is “a paradigmatic language game.” Or to put it another way, it’s possible to enlist O’Nolan’s work in an argument that would assert the primacy of “culture,” as opposed to any other factor, in our lives.
That may be true in some sense, because almost certainly Sergeant Pluck’s “Atomic Theory” owes something to the arrival in Dublin in October of 1939 of Erwin Schrödinger—the Austrian physicist who created the paradoxical thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” Schrödinger had been invited to direct Ireland’s new Institute of Advanced Studies at the behest of Eamon de Valera, Prime Minister (or, in Irish Gaelic, Taoiseach) of Ireland, who’d been a teacher of mathematics and Irish Gaelic before taking up the struggle for Irish independence. In America, Princeton had set up an Institute of Advanced Studies to capture scientists, like Albert Einstein, fleeing Europe ahead of the Nazis, and de Valera thought he could do something similar for Ireland. In Schrödinger, de Valera had a prize only a little less valuable than Einstein himself: Schrödinger had helped to invent quantum mechanics, for which he’d received the Nobel Prize in 1933.
Schrödinger however is best known among non-scientists for his “cat,” which he described in 1935. It was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of what’s known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, under which (to simplify the point) an atom could be both a particle and a wave, in contradistinction to classical physics under which an atom could be either, but not both. The point of Schrödinger’s paradox, without giving a lengthy description, was to say that thinking an atom could be both a particle and a wave was as well as thinking a cat could be both dead and alive.
Or, perhaps, that someone could be a person and a bicycle. Yet while the comedic potential of Schrödinger’s paradox seems just the sort of thing that might have caught Brian O’Nolan’s attention, what perhaps deepened O’Nolan’s interest in Schrödinger’s arrival in Dublin was that de Valera, seizing the opportunity, piggybacked a School for Celtic Studies (a school for the study of Irish Gaelic, in other words) on top of the scientific center. De Valera in that way leveraged Schrödinger’s scientific prestige to enhance the Irish government’s policy of promoting Gaelic as Ireland’s “official” language, which had been enshrined in the Irish Constitution of 1937 along with recognition of the pre-eminence of the Catholic Church, strong censorship laws, and a prohibition of divorce.
O’Nolan certainly would have recognized the hypocrisy—and comedic potential—in de Valera’s use of Schrödinger. The Taoiseach and his government were famously puritanical: later on during World War II, in 1944, the Irish government—on the advice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy—banned that dangerously sexual new product, tampons. (Yes, that really happened.)On the other hand, Schrödinger’s personal life was, to put it mildly, colorful even by today’s standards: the Nobel Prize winner lived with both his wife and his mistress, and the child he’d had by the latter—a fact that, in the small town that Dublin was in the 1940s, could not have escaped attention of anyone not willfully ignoring it.
De Valera’s position was, to be sure, not his alone: it was the culmination of a movement that had spread in Ireland beginning in the nineteenth century, the “Gaelic Revival” that produced, among other things, William Butler Yeats’ poetry and the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. That latter organization’s first president, T.E. O’Sullivan, gives a sense of what the Revival aimed for when said that the goal of the new athletic league was to “foster a spirit of earnest nationality” and also that it was a method of “saving thousands of young Irishmen from becoming mere West Britons.” (A “West Briton” was something like what an “Uncle Tom” is in America.) The suggestion of religion in these remarks is telling: the use of the words “spirit,” “earnest,” and “saving” indicates the close links between religion and the new movement not only in the sense of the ties between Catholicism and Gaelicism, but also that Gaelicism was itself a kind of religious endeavor. Playing an Irish sport like hurling, according to O’Sullivan, could mean salvation.
James Joyce, as is well-known, had thought that kind of provincialism nonsense; it’s why he had once for instance polemically asserted that “a nation which never advanced so far as a miracle play affords no literary model to the artist, and he must look abroad.” For its part, the de Valera government would return the animosity: when Joyce, who never married his mistress Nora Barnacle, died in 1941 in Switzerland, de Valera inquired whether he had died a Catholic “and being informed to the contrary, had ordered no Irish diplomatic official be present.” Joyce, in turn, was O’Nolan’s literary hero: in 1954, O’Nolan helped organize the first “Bloomsday,” the international commemoration of the day (4 June 1904) Joyce’s Ulysses is set, and in O’Nolan’s later work, The Dalkey Archive—which cannibalized The Third Policeman extensively—Joyce appears as a character.
O’Nolan had by that time made his opposition to de Valera’s Ireland as explicit as seems possible. Another of his books, written under another of his pen names (Myles na gCopaleen, in Irish Gaelic), is entitled—in Irish Gaelic—An Béal Bocht, which means The Poor Mouth. The title refers to the Irish custom of exaggerating one’s difficulties in order to elicit sympathy—either from an attentive stranger or, say, a bill collector—and it’s pretty directly aimed at de Valera’s brand of Irish nationalism. Written in Irish Gaelic, the novel is set in Corca Dhorcha (in English, “Corkadorkey”), a place where “it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in ‘the learned smooth Gaelic,’” as one review summarized it.
The novel is, in other words, a satire about the kinds of “professional Gael” who were practicing “cultural politics”—as opposed to some other kind—even so early as the nineteenth century. Hence, Corkadorkey is visited “by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoiri (Irish language lovers), who explain”—to the locals, who already speak the language—“that not only should one always speak Irish,” but that “every sentence one utters should be about the language question.” The cultural tourists ultimately leave when they finally find the poverty of Corkadorkey, which they initially took as a sign of the area’s Irish authenticity, to be just too depressing.
O’Nolan’s work, in other words, is a send-up of people who think “culture” is somehow the most important thing we do—a lesson that might be as applicable today, when the American academy is full of such people, as it was in de Valera’s Ireland. What’s strange, however, is that today it is the people who would have, and still do, oppose de Valera’s conception of a unified Ireland who appear to be his best students: in Northern Ireland, it is the Protestants who want to talk about “culture”—in the form of the flag—and Sinn Fein that wants to talk about economics and “common sense.” But how did this happen?
* * *
Or to put the point the way one academic literary critic, Walter Benn Michaels (of, most recently, the University of Illinois at Chicago) has, how did “the question of identity—who you are … come to replace … the economic question of what you have?” The answer, one might think, is “slowly,” and the answer to it might thereby be thought to be, correspondingly, difficult to arrive. But that question, it seems, received an answer all the way back in 1999—if, that is, one had been paying attention to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his student Loïc Wacquant.
Way back then, the two argued, the world’s academic community had become dominated by a number of global “commonplaces,” which they defined in terms of “the Aristotelian sense of notions or theses with which one argues but over which there is no argument.” One of these was “the need for the recognition of (cultural) identities.” Just as, in short,
in the nineteenth century, a number of so-called philosophical questions that were debated throughout Europe … originated, as historian Fritz Ringer has demonstrated, in the historical predicaments and conflicts specific to the peculiar world of German universities, so today many topics directly issued from the particularities and particularisms of US society and universities have been imposed upon the whole planet under apparently dehistoricized guises.
According to these two scholars, then, the notion of “cultural identity,” which seems at minimum congruent with Eamon de Valera’s promotion of “Celtic Studies,” for example, is part of the “global vulgate”: a language spoken by the academics, non-governmental and governmental agencies, and foundations of our times.
The “particularism” that Bourdieu and Wacquant allude to, of course, and that Walter Benn Michaels makes explicit, is Jim Crow: the rules and customs of the American South that were designed to oppress Southern African-Americans and that, less explicitly, also applied in the American North. The struggle against Jim Crow was, perhaps more than anything other than perhaps the Cold War, the great event of the last half of the twentieth-century: it was the change that arguably inaugurated every other. What Bourdieu and Wacquant in effect do, and Michaels does a bit more explicitly, is make the charge that—like every establishment ever—left-wing academics and their comrades are nostalgically fighting the last war, rather than the present one. “There is almost a kind of liberal nostalgia,” Michaels says, “for the time in which anti-racism wasn’t so mainstream in American society.”
Now, of course, “no one can imagine themselves to be committed to racism” and still be part of mainstream conversation, as Michaels noted in an interview with the online magazine Jacobin recently—no matter where, on the spectrum of possible responses to economic questions, one happens to fall. Both the Republican Party and Barack Obama are officially against racism, after all. That effective ban has certainly traveled worldwide, at least since the end of apartheid in South Africa.
At the very least, it has traveled to Northern Ireland, where as mentioned even twenty years ago the effects of past discrimination were slowly being lifted. It’s important to note that in many ways the system in place in Northern Ireland was almost precisely congruent to that of Jim Crow: as Chicago newspaper reporter John Conway noted in Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, a book about the height of the Troubles, in Northern Ireland the Protestant-run government “gerrymandered election districts and altered voting procedures to ensure that Catholics would not be represented in proportion to their numbers.” Even, that is, “in areas where Catholics were the majority population, they were the minority on elected councils,” and since these “councils allocated housing and jobs … the discrimination against Catholics was institutionalized.” That formal system of discrimination is ending, and McIlroy’s success is one visible sign of that.
And that, Michaels might say, is just the trouble: what Protestant loyalists could, and maybe should, dislike about Rory McIlroy isn’t that he is Catholic, it’s rather that his vast success demonstrates not only that the old ways of oppressing Catholics aren’t working anymore—and thus that older avenues of possible advancement are closed to younger Protestants—but instead that his success serves to, in Michaels’ words in a review of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African-American Literature? for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “legitimate inequality.” How? Because—and the analysis works both for the United States and Northern Ireland—while there have been successful individuals of each society’s oppressed groups, the reality for the majority of the society has been one of increasing inequality.
Which, by the way, is also a reason—a reading of Michaels could suggest—why Catholics might dislike McIlroy. Speaking of the African-American experience, but in a manner that’s readily appropriated in the Irish context, Michaels says that “the idea that we should expect poor black people left behind to be gratified by the success of rich ones moving up is about as plausible as the idea that poor whites, contemplating [a successful black person], should think to themselves, ‘Hell yeah—he’s doing it for all of us.’” In other words, the success of a person from a previously-oppressed identity group isn’t necessarily all peaches and rainbows: it also could function as a permission for greater inequality. Tiger Woods’ success doesn’t necessarily mean better times for other African-Americans. It might even mean the opposite—and some would say it has.
* * *
All of that, to be sure, is quite a lot for any person to decipher and digest, which is maybe why a lot of people appear to want to give McIlroy a pass on the Olympics question. “No sportsman,” said Padraig Harrington, the champion Irish golfer, back in early January, “should have to make that decision.” “Let’s not wreck the buzz,” chimed in Matt Cooper of the Irish Examiner, “by foisting national identities onto his personal achievements,” while Kevin Garside, also in the Belfast Telegraph, just directly urged that “Rory McIlroy must learn to keep quiet over Olympic question.” At the same time Fionola Meredith, also in the Belfast Telegraph, claimed that McIlroy is “not a symbol, he’s an individual in his own right and he doesn’t actually belong to us,” and that’s why he should “continue to duck the national flags aimed at him.” Mainstream opinion, that is, appears to think that McIlroy should not have even have to address the question.
Some people just seem to think that professional golfers are not subject to the same kinds of obligations that others face. “Let’s please give the kid a break,” wrote Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods’ agent, to the New York Times once, in response to the troubles that surrounded his client. Woods was, at the time, married, with two children, and 34 years old—an adult who’d never fulfilled his father’s promise to “bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before.” But Tiger, as we now know, lived a double life—and not just in the tabloid sense we’ve learned about in the last few years.
Tiger, after all, was initially sold as a symbol of the end of racism: the story of how he was “the only black child in his kindergarten class,” and on the first day he was tied to a tree by some older kids and spray-painted with the word “nigger” got told again and again. His own father, Earl Woods, had played baseball for Kansas State University, the first African-American to do that—but on Southern road trips he’d had to stay in black hotels. Tiger’s success therefore meant, according to the narrative sold by his marketers, the end of racism: it’s what Nike meant by the “I Am Tiger Woods” ad, for example—the one that just had many, many people, of all sorts of “diverse” complexions, ages, and genders, repeating the titular mantra, over and over.
It’s worth remembering, though, that once athletes did feel that, even if they played children’s games for a living, that did not make them children. Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, and Arthur Ashe, among many others, did not think of themselves as children—and probably would have threatened anybody who thought they were. Millions of people worldwide make far more difficult decisions every day than the one Rory McIlroy is being asked to make. No matter how young 23 is, McIlroy has passed over that border between childhood and
* * *
“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” wrote Brian O’Nolan’s master, James Joyce, towards the end of “The Dead.” It is the final story of the collection Dubliners, published in June of 1914, just before the beginning of the First World War. In the course of the story the hero, Gabriel, discovers that his wife, Gretta, had not only been loved by him alone: once, long ago, she had been wooed by another.
Michael Furey loved her so much that he had been willing to die for her—whether she loved him or not, though she “was great with him at the time.” And that is something humbling for Gabriel, because he “had never felt like that towards any woman,” not even his wife. In the event, Michael Furey does die, long before Gretta meets her husband, and Gabriel, after learning this, is awestruck by “how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.” All this happened and Gretta never told him, Gabriel, of it. He has, in a sense, never known his own wife.
“One could,” says Marco d’Eramo, the Italian sociologist, in The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago: A History of Our Future, “compare amor patrio to the idea of marital fidelity, the bonds of nationality to those of wedlock”—an eerie comment in the context of “The Dead.” In an earlier incident in Joyce’s story, during a dinner party, another guest, Miss Ivors (who wears a “large brooch” that bears “on it an Irish device”), had accused Gabriel of being a “West Briton” because he writes for an English-language newspaper, the Daily Express. Gabriel feels the charge inapposite because he believes that “literature was above politics,” and he sees “nothing political in writing reviews of books.” But Miss Ivors corners him, and asks him “And haven’t you your own land to visit … that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” To which Gabriel replies: “O, to tell you the truth … I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” He does not know his country, nor does he love it.
The character of Gabriel thus anticipates that larger-scale resistance that would spring up later in the century to what Wilfred Owen would call “The old Lie”: “Dulce est decorum est/Pro patria mori.” Gabriel is, in that sense, a prototype for all of the slackers and ironists that have come in the wake of Joyce and Owen—those followers of Hemingway’s famous remark, in A Farewell to Arms, that “the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.” They resist what Benedict Anderson calls the “deep, horizontal comradeship … that makes it possible … for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” The readers of Joyce, Hemingway, Owen, and all of the other writers who, influenced or not by the horrors of the trenches of northern France, rejected patriotism, that “limited imagining,” as a possible belief.
For decades afterwards, and still today, it’s been a mark of a certain kind of intellectual, usually literary in tone, to mimic that rejection of nationalism by the “Lost Generation”—sometimes, though not always, accompanied by an acceptance of the internationalism of Communism or some other radical doctrine. I don’t want to describe all of the consequences of that turning point, though it’s worth considering what the American philosopher Richard Rorty said in a book called Achieving Our Country. “National pride,” Rorty says there, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement.” Without it, in Rorty’s argument, there’s no means of making things better—because without the state there is no institution capable of holding its own with larger forces.
Some might even say that the growth of such an intellectual rejection of nationalism was precisely the precondition for the worsening wage conditions within Northern Ireland and elsewhere: correlation is not causation, of course, but it’s notable that the rise of levels of inequality not seen since the previous century has been accompanied by a turn away from nationalism on the part of the “Left.” It’s an arguable point, to be sure, but what I’d like to point out is just that reading Joyce, and maybe Flann O’Brien, as simply, and simplistically, rejecting nationalism is a misreading—“The Dead” is not so unequivocal.
After learning about his wife and Michael Furey, Gabriel looks out of his window. It is winter, and it is snowing. “Yes,” he thinks, “the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.” And now comes one of the most famous passages in all literature, written in English or not:
It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
What Joyce means by this passage, or indeed the story as a whole, has been argued over by the professionals since it was published. But perhaps there are some features that could be teased out: one is that “Ireland” extends from Dublin west to the “Shannon waves”—i.e., Ireland is the whole of the island. Another is, perhaps, that it is better to decide, to live and die, be one and then the other, than to hang on and be both and (inevitably) neither. And yet a third might that your country is where your dead—your memories—are buried.
If so, then it perhaps could be argued that Joyce did have a sense of patriotism—just one that wasn’t so simple as a rejection of the conception of patriotism possessed by people like Eamon de Valera. In Joyce’s time the island west of Wales was part of what was then called the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” In the ages before that, the island had been divided into separate “kingdoms”—each largely a collection of various villages. Joyce could not have known this at the time he wrote “The Dead,” but after Partition, in 1922, the island would be home to two states, Northern Ireland and the Republic: the Bog of Allen and the Shannon remain where they are, but the names of the states that contain them change.
In “The Dead,” Gretta cannot revive Michael Furey, just as the kingdoms of the island before modernity will not return. But what Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. The nation may be, as the academics say, “socially constructed,” but it isn’t any less real for all that. Joyce did not disagree with Eamon de Valera’s idea of the importance of nationalism itself, just de Valera’s implementation of it. What Joyce—and Brian O’Nolan after him—rejected about de Valera’s brand of nationalism was that it elevated the nation above the people it is meant to protect. Conversely, however, “The Dead” rejects a dismissal of nationalism, as represented by Hemingway or Owen: the story of “The Dead” is the story of Gabriel’s sudden maturation—he now knows something about his wife that is simultaneously something about his country. He learns where Michael Furey is buried.
Joseph McIlroy was buried in Northern Ireland—at least, that is what they called the place where his grave was dug when it was dug. What Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. But the point of that connection, in turn, must necessarily be to protect the living—what happens to Gretta or Gabriel or Miss Ivors is beyond Michael Furey’s care now; the dead are beyond need. Rory McIlroy’s choice of what nation to represent in the Olympics, then, ought to reject facile kinds of nationalistic fervor—but he ought to reject a specious kind of internationalism also. Both wheels, one might say, are necessary to ride anywhere—which is also to say that Sergeant Pluck is right: McIlroy’s choice is a story about a bicycle.