An A-Z of Ireland: featuring colourful characters in the city’s Irish community and beyond

In the build-up to St Patrick’s Day on Thursday, we’re revisiting a compilation we put together back in 2010

A is for ancestry, as 70 million people worldwide claim to be descended from the Emerald Isle: incredible when you consider that the population of the Republic of Ireland is only 4.595 million. The Americans are the worst culprits, fuelled no doubt by an obsession with genealogy and having a better community than the Italians. In contrast, only 123 people claim to be English and half of these live on Pitcairn Island and are descended from the same man.

B is for Bertie’s Bowl, a multi-sports stadium that former Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern threatened to build on the outskirts of Dublin, which some critics said might have eventually cost close to a billion pounds. The stadium reportedly had the capacity to host most of an Olympics on its own – it even had its own velodrome! In pursuit of these grandiose plans to immortalise himself, Ahern reportedly convinced the country’s football union to drop its own plans for a more modest football stadium, and allegedly had a hand in Croke Park’s decision to maintain its ban on non-Gaelic sports, and this ultimately derailed any chances his country had of co-hosting Euro 2008. Eventually Ahern’s plans hit the dust after his new partners in a coalition government forced him to reconsider.

C is for The Craic, the Irish world for fun, a relatively new addition to the Irish language (circa 1960s) and its usage is as addictive as its namesake drug. As Damien McNamara from Tallaght in Dublin explains: “It can just about be squeezed into any sentence ranging from greetings, put downs and compliments to even ordering food.”

D is for Dana, who long before Enya and Sinead O’Connor, and long before Johnny Logan and Dana International, was Ireland’s and Eurovision’s favourite songstress, even if her 1970-winning song ‘All kinds of everything’ is gooey, over-sentimental, Sound of Music-influenced claptrap. Snowdrops, daffodils, butterflies, bees, sail boats, fishermen, things of the sea, wishing wells, wedding bells, early morning dew – what have they all got in common? They’re all kinds of everything, you nitwit.

E is for the Eurovision Song Contest, a competition that Ireland has shamefully taken too seriously over the last 50 years, winning it a record seven times, including three on the trot in the early 1990s, which resulted in substantial hosting duty costs threatening to derail Ireland’s economic revival. Since then their entries have been deliberately bad.

F is for Fricker, Brenda Fricker, the actress who left the set of British hospital drama to pick up an Oscar for appearing alongside wannabe-Irish, British actor Daniel Day Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’. It was like she turned up in Hollywood to drop off somebody’s washing, picked up a statuette and then returned to the set of Casualty to dissect a veruca.

G is for Geldof, Robert Frederick Xenon Geldof, lead-singer of the Boomtown Rats, who shot to fame with a song he wrote after reading a report about 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who in San Diego killed two adults and injured eight children in a school playground. Her response to police was: ‘I don’t like Mondays’ and the song was, perhaps insensitively, first performed less than a month later at the Fox Theatre, San Diego. Since the lukewarm reaction to his Live 8 concerts in 2005, he appears to be genuinely annoyed that the environment has overtaken third world debt as the world’s biggest concern. “We may mess around with wind and waves and other renewable energy sources, trying to make them sustainable, but they’re not,” he wrote in a blog in December 2007.  “They’re Mickey Mouse.” Oasis’s Noel Gallagher was equally dismissive about Live 8: “Are they hoping one of these guys from the G8 on a quick 15-minute break is going to see Keane doing ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and say: ‘Ah, look at him … we should really f**king drop that debt, you know.’”

H is for Hibernian, Ireland’s name in ancient times, a place so sodden and depressing that even the Romans didn’t fancy it. The legend has it that it was infested with snakes – resulting in hundreds of years of serpentine servitude until Paddy the herdsman drove them out and they made him a saint. “The more cynical among us believe that they all drowned ‘cause of all the rain,” contends Stephen Ball, who has been living over here since 1986 and is the former treasurer of Copenhagen Celtic, a thriving football club founded by Irish expats in the early 1980s.

I is for ‘Ireland’s most wanted’: during the 1980s, Martin Cahill became famous as a career criminal who evaded the authorities during a spree of daring heists laced with Irish humour while always managing to conceal his face. Bizarrely, three films depicting his life came out at the end of the 1990s of which the first, ‘The General’, was a classic, the second (by the BBC) was run-of-the-mill, and the third, starring Kevin Spacey, was complete cobblers. A decade earlier Cahill should have robbed its director for his crimes against cinema, but he got the wrong guy and instead burgled John Boorman, the director of the first.

J is for jokes. Forever the butt of the English jokes, the Irish have started getting their own back. Here’s one about their former English football manager courtesy of Stephen Ball. “Jack Charlton goes to visit an old guy in a Dublin hospital. On his bedside locker is a bowl of peanuts. They start talking about football and fishing and Jack can’t resist eating a few of the nuts. Before long the bowl is empty. Jack apologises to the old guy who replies: ‘No problem Jack, I only like sucking the chocolate off them’.”

K is for Roy Keane, Manchester United’s most influential ever player. He famously stormed out of the 2002 World Cup after a row with manager Mick McCarthy in front of the entire squad in which he said: ‘Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a f**king wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a f**king wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.” But this paled in comparison with his treatement of Norwegian Alf-Inge Håland – the same player who he fouled in 1997, injuring himself in the process for the whole season and effectively handing the Arsenal the title – in the 2001 Manchester derby. The revenge was obscene, five minutes from time and mercilessly executed. In his own words: ‘I’d waited long enough. I f**king hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c**t. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.’

L is for leprechauns, the mischievous male fairies who are invariably dressed in green with smart shoes on account of the majority of them being shoemakers. Legend has it that if you see one, you will be forever caught in their glance unless you look away, so after ten pints of Guinness you’ve got no chance. However, this could be an advantage with a banshee. “They look like old ladies and appear before a family member is about to die,” explains Kennedy’s landlord Tim, who is from Wexford and has been here since 1990. “If you make eye contact, she might throw her comb and pierce your heart and kill you.”

M is for Lola Montez, a colourful courtesan who slept her way to the very top of European nobility. She was born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo in 1818. Following a colourful career as a ‘Spanish exotic dancer’ in which she became famous as the creator of the ‘Tarantula Dance’, her cleavage attracted the attention of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. He asked if they were real and she proved they were, and he made her his mistress and later, to widespread disapproval, Countess of Landsfeld. Many say his association with her was one of the main reasons for his decline in popularity and eventual abdication in 1848.

N is for Anne, Denise, Maureen, Linda, Bernie and Colleen – the Nolans. In 1979, a long, long time before girl bands, when it was more about talent than looks (the Spice Girls are an exception as they have neither), some pretty ordinary looking sisters told the world they were in the mood for dancing. They are huge in Japan (but isn’t everybody) where they have sold more records than The Beatles.

O is for O’Leary – not 1990 World Cup penalty hero David, but outspoken Ryanair chief executive Michael. Through his own admission he is “an obnoxious little bollocks”, “a jumped-up Paddy” and “a gobshite”. Over the years he has described the EC as “morons”, airport operator BAA as “overcharging rapists”, Britain’s air traffic control service as “poxy”, British Airways as “expensive bastards”, and travel agents as “f***ers who should be taken out and shot”.  In 2008 he said he would welcome a recession, as it would allow Ryanair to keep its prices low and would also depress fuel costs across the industry … and put an end to the “environmental bullshit among the chattering classes that has allowed Gordon Brown to double air passenger duty”.

P is for the four provinces that the island of Ireland is divided into. Northern Island is in fact part of the province of Ulster, as there are three Ulster counties in Ireland. In all there are six counties in NI and 26 in the republic.

Q is for Quinn, Niall Quinn, possibly Ireland’s nicest man. He was a successful football player as well, scoring 21 times for his country in 92 internationals – including the crucial goal that advanced Ireland to the 1990 World Cup knockout stage. Tidy with his feet for a lanky player, he was the ultimate target man and the perfect foil for an out-and-out striker, and together with Kevin Phillips for Sunderland formed a prolific partnership at a club that he is now chairman of. He is well known for his off-the-pitch generosity. He famously donated the proceeds from his testimonial to charity and once paid the taxi fares of a group of supporters from Bristol to Sunderland after they had been thrown off a plane for singing a song about him. As the Sunderland crowd often reminds him: “Niall Quinn’s taxi cabs are the best. So shove it up your arse Easyjet. Fat Fred wouldn’t do it for the Mags. Niall Quinn’s taxi cabs!”

R is for the late Richard Harris, and Ireland’s undeniable knack of producing successful actors. Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (the late Peter O’Toole grew up in England while Irish citizen Daniel Day Lewis is English!) are five of just many who have made a big splash across the pond, but none can match Harris’s raw talent and bravado, best typified by films like ‘This Sporting Life’, ‘A Man called Horse’, and ‘The Field’. He’s also one of the few Irishmen to be knighted by Denmark, accepting the honour in 1985.

S is for Bram Stoker, who was born in 1847 in Fairview, a coastal suburb of Dublin, Ireland.  After studying mathematics at university, he wrote his first book aged 32, named ‘Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland’, a book so boring it sucked the blood out of anyone who read it. Twenty years later ‘Dracula’ was published – the culmination of eight years of research into European folklore and stories of vampires. Later his widow, who had incidentally dated Oscar Wilde before marrying Stoker, ended up successfully suing the makers of the first-ever Dracula film, ‘Nosferatu’ starring Max Schreck, for not seeking her permission.

T is for Tipperary, an Irish town and county, as in: ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, a song that no World War One film adaptation is complete without a few rousing choruses of, but is immensely unpopular in Ireland because of its association with the Black and Tans – a paramilitary force mainly consisting of WWI veterans put together in the early 1920s to stop the rise of the IRA.

U is for umbrella – keep one with you at all times. “The weather is a national obsession to the Irish people,” explains Damo. “Due to the fact that it changes from minute to minute (usually from bad to worse) no opportunity is missed to discuss it. The seasons in Ireland can tend to be broken into two sections, rainy and not so rainy. Throw in a bit of wind, some sleet and the odd bit of lightning and you have a perfect excuse not to leave the pub.”

V is for Valera, Eamon de Valera, the one Alan Rickman played in the ‘Michael Collins’ film, and he got a rough deal according to most people in the know. The undisputed heavyweight of Irish politics during the last century, De Valera was central to every negotiation between Ireland and Britain over half a century during a career in which he was taioseach (prime minister) three times and president for 14 years. He eventually retired at the age of 91 and is perhaps best remembered for getting the better of Churchill in an impassioned speech defending Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two. “Mr Churchill is justly proud of his nation’s perseverance against heavy odds,” he said. “But we in this island are still prouder of our people’s perseverance for freedom through all the centuries.”

W is for Keith Wood, perhaps Ireland’s best ever rugby forward: a hooker of outstanding talent and tenacity, whose bald-headed appearance earned him the nicknames ‘The Raging Potato’ and ‘Uncle Fester’ from The Addams Family. He was capped 58 times for Ireland (most of these as captain) and five times for the Lions – playing a huge part in their last successful tour, in South Africa in 1997. His running and tackling was immense, and he was the world’s best in his position for almost a decade, so it was no surprise when he was confirmed as the inaugural winner of the IRB World Player of the Year award in 2001.

X is for x-rated moments in Irish sport. From Pat Bonner’s howlers in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals to the injury time concession of a try against eventual champions Australia in the 1991 Rugby World Cup quarter final, Ireland have a habit of snatching defeat away from the jaws of victory. Why couldn’t they have shown the poise and cheek of Eamonn Coghlan, the Irish 1983 World Champion in the 5,000 metres? As he passed the long-term leader on the final bend with a pack of runners closing down on him, he paused for a couple of seconds to survey the poor guy before speeding off to victory. Now that’s poetry in motion.

Y is for Ireland’s youth, who are staying in Ireland in increasingly larger numbers. “For my generation, it was a necessity to leave,” explains Tim from Kennedy’s. “I left when I was 21. I wanted to get away – there weren’t any jobs or opportunities. It’s more difficult to leave today and a lot of kids aren’t.”

Z is for Zombie, a 1994 song penned by Irish band The Cranberries about the 1916 Easter Rising and arguably one of the best protest songs ever. A classic, and given how it commemorated events that dragged British troops away from the front line, it was understandably number one in Germany.


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