Starbucks Ireland found itself in hot, mediocre coffee-flavoured water this week when it mistakenly asked its Irish Twitter followers to ‘show us what makes you proud to be British’. The backlash from the proud people of Ireland was, of course, as prompt and severe as it was inane and littered with spelling mistakes. I am still undecided as to who deserves my respect less: the computer monkeys at Starbucks whose historical gaffe must almost have had O’Connell and Parnell climbing down from their plinths to go up round the corner and crack some heads; or the pathetic group of 2,000 or so self-styled baristocrats who took time out of admiring their MacBooks to follow the pointless tweets of an enormous faceless organisation that serves hot drinks.
This indignation is no surprise of course; we Irish tend to be quite sensitive about these matters, our nationalism usually displaying itself most vehemently when the subject of old Blighty is brought up. In recent times, in particular, a veritable maelstrom of patriotic fervour seems to have gripped our stricken country.
On the one hand we have the defensive, jingoistic wailing of our socialist contingent, lamenting the loss of our sovereignty, our free water, and our jobs for white people to the maniacal fat cats in Brussels. In marked contrast to this we have also seen a much more positive exhibition of our national pride in the euphoria surrounding the impending European Championship. Tacky plastic referendum posters and tacky plastic tricolour bunting have been jostling for our attention, each intent on whipping up a frenzy of patriotism for very different reasons, the only common element being that they both look shite.
Patriotism can be something of a nebulous concept, ranging from the nostalgic fondness of an emigrant for the auld sod, to a convenient label to excuse the ignorance and xenophobia of the ultra-nationalist. Oscar Wilde labelled patriotism ‘the virtue of the vicious’; Mark Twain regarded it as an illustration of moral cowardice. Although it seems that those two spent most of their time sitting around thinking up pithy witticisms and probably should have left the house a bit more often.
While there are certainly elements of truth to their aphorisms, perhaps the most salient description was offered by George Bernard Shaw, who called it the ‘conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it’. This summation captures both the simplicity and the illogical nature of the idea of patriotism.
In this country it is almost impossible to separate our supposed patriotism from a very childish, but deep-rooted anti-English sentiment. An immensely complicated relationship with our neighbours, which has been characterised for centuries by violence and bloodshed, has essentially been reduced to the ritual of celebrating whenever an English sports team loses. The less progressive among us, of course, still cling to a mountain of sectarian prejudice, as evidenced by the bile and invective spewed by many around the time of the Queen’s visit to our shores last year. Hatred and stupidity dressed up in a Celtic jersey does not equal patriotism, but it is unfortunately all too common a sight.
One major problem is that in the current strained economic and political climate, as has always happened throughout history, more reasonable and educated people are turning to the extremist fringes of the political spectrum. Anyone who has a functional cerebral cortex and has ever read a book, other than a pamphlet entitled ‘Methadone: The Easy Way Out’, should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for even considering voting for a party like Sinn Féin. It is when their exploitative, abhorrent republican propaganda begins to seep through to the minds of previously sensible people that you really start to think that evolution might actually be a bell curve, and that we are currently entering freefall from the apex of human civilisation marked by the discovery of nuclear fission, the moon landing, and the revelation that was Angry Birds.
Where flagrant, flag-waving patriotism is concerned, however, the Irish aren’t a patch on our star-spangled friends from across the pond. When it comes to national pride, and as it happens, most other things, the US is rather like that really loud, spoilt brat from your primary school class. He’s a classless, brazen little shit who has to be the best at everything and screams the house down if he doesn’t get what he wants. But you go to his birthday party anyway because you know there’ll be rice krispie cakes, and because his mam has huge cans.
The US is a case study in using the blind patriotism of its lower echelons to its advantage, particularly when it comes to supplying the fodder necessary to flex its military might. Naive, impressionable kids grow up taking the Pledge of Allegiance and being programmed in the ways of idolatry and worship of an intangible idea of America. The chimera of American freedom, under threat from the looming shadow of terrorism, is the product of one of the most successful propaganda machines in recent history, resulting in legions of young men and women who give their lives, and take plenty too, for something they can never hope to realise. This is the most profitable form of patriotism, and its proliferation is a sad indictment of the world we live in.
The sense of wanting to belong to a tribe is very much a human trait, and this explains our affinity with people of a similar culture. However, the fact that this is usually expressed most vehemently at a national level is peculiar. Even small countries like ours encompass countless disparate peoples, religions, personalities, beliefs, and anything else which may define us. To be grouped together due to geographical circumstance, and to have a collective identity and pride, is very much a phenomenon of the modern world.
As easy as it is to be sceptical of the uninhibited, zealous patriotism of others, there is something attractive in its ability to bring people together. Which is why, even as a devoted cynic, a disillusioned, lapsed patriot, and someone who can’t stand that overblown, tedious spectacle of overpaid ball-chasing urchins that somehow passes for a sport, I’ll still be cheering for the boys in green this summer. I might even have a chuckle to myself when the English team inevitably implodes and crashes out of the tournament. I guess old habits die hard.