Why Bono is the focus of begrudgery in Ireland
In 1882 a young man of just 17 years of age left his village in East Mayo and, like so many before him, headed for America. He had little education and few prospects but, a highly intelligent and creative individual, he found a successful niche for himself in the new World. He became an insurance salesman and a few years later, by dint of application, personality and ability, a millionaire.
When he returned around 1898 to visit his native village, he stayed in the hotel in the local town and word spread about his success and his generosity. As anyone who knows anything about Irish life could predict, the hangers-on listened attentively to him (as long as he was buying drink) and the local big-wig came to resent the diminution in his own status.
Later he was cheered off at the local train station but no sooner was he out of sight than a campaign of vilification started – questioning his motives, spreading false rumours about the source of his wealth and, effectively, defaming him.
He felt compelled to return and defend himself, threatened legal action against the big-wig who defamed him and settled the business out of court by forcing his opponent to contribute a huge cheque to the building of a local church.
You could write the script. Drink and envy, two deadly Irish components of life.
There’s something in the Irish character that insists on taking down anyone who makes a success of life, if they give any appearance at all that they relish their success. Isn’t he full of himself? I knew him when he hadn’t tuppence to rub together. Who does she think she is? Far from grandeur she was reared – and all the rest of it. A definitive Irish characteristic is our resentment of people ‘getting notions’. We wish others to do well but not too well in case their success might reflect on our own comparable lack of success.
It’s a peculiar characteristic. Envy, of course, is a natural human response and it’s not confined to Ireland but there is a distinctive Irish version, a virus that eats away at us and that corrodes our minds and spirits and ends up warping us into embittered versions of our original selves.
We have our ways in Ireland. The most popular person in Ireland can very quickly become the most unpopular.
The examples are legion. Some years ago the Sunday Independent, an astute institution that has its finger on the pulse of Irish life, recognised early on the Irish passion for envy and seemed almost to raise to a policy level the task of taking down the most popular people in Ireland. Eamon Dunphy, in a period of his journalistic career he has since publicly regretted, famously gave Pat Kenny, the Sunday Independent treatment. And John Hume, a political saint if ever there was one, was often unfairly criticised in the same way. It was unfair, scurrilous and unacceptable but it successfully mined the envy seam at the heart of Irish life and, as a result, it sold newspapers.
Now, Bono is the latest victim. Harry Browne has written a new book, The Frontman, which is effectively a hatchet-job on Bono, blaming him for everything except the rain. Much is made of Bono’s and U2’s tax-exemption status, his penchant for mixing with the great and the good, his signature shades (or sun-glasses to you and me) and his almost cult-like status in Ireland.
The book was written before Bono had lunch with the daughters of Barak Obama in Dublin on their recent visit but that publicity stunt, an effort to maximise press coverage of the visit in the USA with a view to encouraging tourism, would have been grist to Browne’s mill. Browne’s point is that Bono is a self-publicist who has allowed himself become the acceptable face of capitalism and that he’s either an ego-tripper or deluded.
It could be, of course, that unlike other millionaire pop-stars, instead of skulking away in a private world counting his millions and opting for a life of drugs, sex and rock-and-roll, Bono decided that he had responsibilities to do what he could to focus on important issues (like world hunger, poverty, etc) by using his celebrity status.
The only thing I don’t like about Bono is his music. Apart from that, no one could reasonably expect him to give up his business; or to clean the streets; or go on the missions. But despite the fact that he clearly has a social conscience, is a practising Christian, has a sense of humour and is a good egg to boot, he admirably fits the description of someone who could be presented as a likely target for the definitive begrudgery at the heart of the Irish psyche. J-o-e D-u-f-f-y, this should keep you going for weeks.
Adi Roche, whose Chernobyl project has helped so many sick children and whose charity has been financially the recipient of Bono’s generosity and his wife’s commitment, suggests that the public should not buy Browne’s book. It is an admirable though naive response in that there isn’t an author in the world who doesn’t want someone to tell the world NOT to buy their book. Bestsellers have been created out of less.
Envy is a joke God plays on us, testing us to see if we are able to allow others their success without turning into miserable, crabbed and bitter people. And everyone is susceptible to it. Traditionally clergy have an unenviable reputation for being envious.
There’s even been, for centuries past, a Latin phrase to describe it – invidia clericalis (clerical envy). And, like human nature, clergy tend not to change from century to century. Earthen vessels and envious as well with the possibility that, as old age creeps up on us, we can end up twisted and bitter, because we imagine others are stealing the limelight from us. Sad.