The authentic Irish tradition of impersonating Elvis

News from Elsewhere Fintan O'Toole in Dublin

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A FORTNIGHT ago, I took my two sons to see their first professional soccer match, a pre-season friendly between the local side Shelbourne and Liverpool. It was a cheerful occasion on a fine evening, full of all the usual colour of a big match - the fans chanting their team songs, taunting the opposition, cheering every move by our side, protesting every free kick given to the others. Nothing strange in any of that, except that for at least 95 per cent of the Dublin crowd "our" side was Liverpool, and the other side was Shelbourne.

Everybody in Dublin takes it so much for granted that a Dublin soccer crowd will cheer an English Premier League team against a Dublin team that nobody even remarks on the fact. But I wondered, watching it, how you could begin to explain this to a tourist, especially to the new kind of American tourist that now comes to Ireland. The new Yank is young and politicised, drawn to Ireland as much by the romance of pure Irish nationalism as by the beauty of the landscape. How could you ever get a head full of 800 years of heroic Irish struggle against English oppression around the notion of real Irish people praying for Liverpool to hammer a Dublin side?

Even Americans who don't know Gerry Adams from Jerry Lewis now seem to want to encounter something authentically Irish on their holidays. In a recent column for the Miami Herald, the American humourist Dave Barry complained that when he visited a pub in Ireland advertising "traditional Irish music", he found "the worst Elvis impersonator in world history". Evidently he had hoped for a few grizzled old men in cloth caps, their faces blackened with aeons of turf smoke, their noses reddened with heroic quantities of home-made whiskey, sawing at fiddles in the corner. Instead, he got a man attempting to sing along to a tape of Elvis backing-tracks, stopping every time the sound system started to screech with feedback and spending most of his time twiddling knobs with his backside pointed at the audience.

Our American friend seemed to imply that he had been shortchanged. And this is the problem with tourists: they don't recognise authenticity when they see it. Only an ignorant foreigner could possibly think that a bad Elvis impersonator is less traditionally Irish than a venerable octogenarian with one hand on a tin whistle and the other on the knee of a winsome student of ethno-musicography from Wisconsin. In fact, the Irish tradition of bad impersonations of American icons is much older and more time-honoured than is the Irish tradition of playing folk music in pubs for American tourists.

Not only was the Elvis impersonator the bearer of a proud Irish tradition, but he was also a genuinely endangered cultural species. When I was a lad you couldn't go into an Irish lounge bar without being confronted with a man in a cowboy suit, specially tailored with an extra-large seat, singing in a Nashville accent about his gentle mother. It was a unique hybrid art-form, compounded of a delicate mixture of native self-pity and imported sentimentality. But now that Ireland has become trendier than San Francisco, it is dying out faster than the corncrake, retreating ever more rapidly before the inexorable advance of Anglo-American cultural imperialists with their insatiable demand for old men with fiddles.

Tourism, anyway, makes it very hard to remember what is authentic in the first place. Some years ago I went for a drink in the "Irish" pub in the basement of the Europa Centre in Berlin. The place was expensively decorated with authentic Irish road signs, shop fronts and post boxes. On a low stage was a trio of musicians playing Irish folk tunes. Two of them were execrable, playing out of tune, and occasionally dancing on a table with gyrations that owed more to Zorba the Greek than the Man of Aran. The third, the banjo player, was terrific - quiet, serious, with an unmistakable feel for the authentic pulse of the music.

I analysed the situation instantly: two German chancers had teamed up with one genuine Irish traditional musician. When they finished playing, I went up to the banjo player to sympathise and let him know that although the burghers of Berlin couldn't tell the difference between his authenticity and the awful antics of his companions, I could. He looked at me with hurt in his eyes. As it turned out, he was Austrian, and the two chancers were from County Roscommon. He loved Irish music very deeply and considered it a great privilege to be allowed to play with two native and authentic masters of the form.

I resolved there and then that if I ever wrote a best-seller and made enough money to buy a pub in the West of Ireland, I would hire only Austrians to play Irish traditional music for my American tourists. They would turn up on time, drink less, work for nothing but the privilege of being engaged in an authentic and ancient act of cultural expression, and they would probably play better into the bargain.

I suppose tourism everywhere has the same effect of flattening out the gleeful complexities and contradictions of real identities. What is different about Ireland, though, is that even while history is still happening, it is already being fossilised into images that can be consumed for tourists and cinema audiences. Less than a year after the IRA cease-fire, and who knows how long before a final settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict, there is a proposal to make a film of the IRA hunger strikes, with Brad Pitt as Bobby Sands.

The idea has upset many nationalists, but is not really inconsistent with much of what is happening on the ground in Belfast. I spent a morning in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast a few days ago and was struck by this phenomenon of something that has become tourism while it is still raw and unresolved. Throughout the morning, there was a steady trickle of taxis emptying American tourists at the Republican plot, burial place of IRA members killed over the past 25 years. The drivers seemed to know what the tourists were looking for - here is Bobby Sands, this is the Gibraltar Three, it was up this slope that the Loyalist killer Michael Stone came and shot three mourners... People took pictures of the more famous headstones.

Down at the other end of the plot, though, an elderly woman was putting flowers on the graves of two of her sons. She was trying to say a rosary but her little grandson was causing trouble. He liked the bunch of flowers and couldn't understand why he was supposed to leave them behind on this old stretch of stone and gravel. While the old woman tried to pray, he was shouting "I want my flowers". None of the tourists seemed interested in photographing the scene, though it might have given them an authentic image of the complexity of a culture that is still trying to find a meaning for itself, all the more so as the dead IRA man's little son was wearing a Liverpool shirt.

Fintan O'Toole is a journalist with the `Irish Times'.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.

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