Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Class - It's a Little Bit Irish, Isn't it?

Cáit bhocht - ag eitilt i bhofógas na gréineJohn Harris is one of the few critics on the current iteration of Newsnight Review that do not have An Spailpín’s fingers inching towards his revolver as soon as they open their yaps. Harris has a marvellous discourse on class and British society in this morning’s Guardian, as the British media goes into a full feeding frenzy over the ending of the relationship between William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor, HRH Prince William of Wales, and Kate Middleton, er, full stop. It’s the full stop that broke the camel’s back, according to the blatts – the lovely Miss Middleton is rather too common to marry into royalty.

This “too common” notion about a doll whose siblings were educated at Marlborough, darling, and who herself when to St Andrews, founded in 1413, a long step of the road from NUI Galway, your quillsman’s own alma mater, is on Harris as the sound of the bugle is to the warhorse, and he gets stuck in with gusto. Harris is of his age, of course, and one of the great questions in Britain at the moment is how to respond to her class heritage and continuing monarchy. It's so less distressing as a topic at table than how the country itself is accelerating into oblivion.

It all makes for marvellous fun – your correspondent had to fight the urge to clasp his little handies together in joy when he read in Harris’ article that the contenders for the post of new girlfriend to HRH Prince William of Wales are Rosie Ruck-Keene, Davina Duckworth-Chad, Lady Rosanagh Innes-Ker and the nominee of The Sun newspaper, Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe. Them’s handles right there. Even PG Wodehouse himself would have blushed before bunging that little lot off for a weekend at Blandings.

Sadly though, in Ireland, in rolling names like Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe around our palates and thinking ourselves, in Lennon’s words, so clever and classless and free, we are ignoring the cautionary words of St Matthew in the opening verses of the seventh chapter of his gospel. Class is as prevalent in 21st Century Ireland as it ever was in Great Britain. Not to the same extent of course – while milord was having his boots shone for seven hundred years over the water and building up that class tradition, poor Paddy was under said boot, dying – but the lines are just as real and the distinctions drawn just as nice, just as subtle, and every bit by God just as enforced as those defined in polite drawing rooms up and down the sceptred isle since the Restoration.

The Pope’s Children
, David McWilliams’ book about modern, Celtic Tiger, 21st Century Ireland leapt off the shelves here when it was published eighteen months ago. People bought it trying to understand how the country had changed so much in such a small space of time, but An Spailpín is convinced that the legacy of The Pope’s Children will be that it delineates the new Irish class structure that has arisen as the result of this boom and new money in the country. Breakfast Roll Men, Decklanders, Kells’ Angels, HiCos – what are those if not the new working, middle, aspirant and upper classes of modern Irish society?

McWilliams' neologisms' success as labels is reflected in the accuracy of the classifications, and the reaction of people when they found out which class they fitted into. A certain floppy haired economist, columnist, writer and TV presenter is filed as HiCo, Hibernian-Cosmopolitan, by the way, which McWilliams identifies as those that have created the perfect synergy between the ancient Gaelic traditions and the new, European-influenced-as-well-as-bankrolled generation. He was never backward about going forward, of course, Daithí.

The HiCo label is the loosest of the four classifications, of course, as the reaching into the Gaelic past bit goes no further than finding an ancient Irish name like Naoise for one’s issue that will cause a lot of difficulty to pronounce in eighteen years’ time for whoever is supervising Naoise’s shift gutting fish for the summer job in Scarborough, Maine, and Mater and Pater making sure that little Naoise goes to a Gaelscoil where he will not have to share the organically produced contents of his lunchbox with that great class that are totally left out of The Pope’s Children but whose common, non-David-McWilliams-coined designation generally rhymes with trackers.

The other great demographic that’s left out by McWilliams’ all-seeing eye is that part of the country that is outside of the Dublin commuter belt – Ireland, I believe, is what some geographers call it. People in the larger rural cities, like Galway, Cork or Limerick get a passing mention, but only insofar as they are aping the Dublin demographic (Galway apes it now more or less exactly – how heart-breakingly sad. They’ve turned the Emerald City into a strip mall. Dorothy and Toto may never go home again). Otherwise, of rural life on the land or in the country towns, there is nary a mention. I hope it was just sloth on McWilliams’ part, because the other possibility, that all of rural Ireland is on a slow but inevitable slide towards Dublin, to be assimilated on point of entry at the city’s hungry maw into Decklander or Kells’ Angels as appropriate, is a prospect that terrifies and appals.

Once tagged, the new recruit will find him- or herself picking through a series of social shibboleths that are becoming, in their way, as complex and arbitrary as those in force at Versailles before the Revolution. The reactions to the classifications are interesting – Decklanders are particularly offended, while those tagged as HiCo, top of the tree, A-number-one, are visibly relieved while steadfastly refusing to believe there is a class system in existence in the first place. And why should they, when they exist in the perfect homogeny of their own HiCo world, where everybody is sent for tennis lessons and the closest one gets to the “people-left-behind-by-the-Celtic-Tiger” is in reading about them in the election leaflets of socially concerned millionaire businessmen like Ciarán Cuffe of the Green Party who, for all his wealth, doesn’t seem to spend much on ties?

But reader, spare a thought this day for poor Kate Middleton, who flew too close to the sun only to be slapped back down to where she belonged. Can you imagine the land she’ll get when she comes back to Ireland to forget, only to be cut dead in Reynards for not having attended Loreto, Foxrock? Good luck to Kate, where-ever her road takes her; she might be having a damned lucky escape.

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