Unbeknown to many beyond the shores of Ireland, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor is a majorly polarizing figure in his homeland
Ireland, in itself, is a country still divided.
A quick glance at a map of Europe should eventually draw one’s eyes to a small, bear-shaped island which extends with its arms reaching out towards America. Steeped in a rich history which dates back thousands of years, the majority of the island and its people share a rich culture which has mostly been preserved, despite various invasions and conquests.
The Vikings, The Normans and the British all inflicted brutality on the land and its people over the years with the latter’s presence still felt in the north of the country. The British, just over 200 miles to the east of the country, had the most lasting impression. Following brutal conquests and campaigns inflicted on its neighbor, they were responsible for the death and displacement of millions of Ireland’s inhabitants over the course of more than 800 years, changing the common tongue from Gaeilge to English.
In 1916, a band of rebels rose up to fight the mighty British Empire, sparking a full-scale rebellion which saw Conor McGregor’s home city of Dublin turned to rubble. Most fans will be familiar with the UFC lightweight champion’s walk out song “The Foggy Dew” which was inspired by that rebellion. While this rebellion culminated in the majority of Ireland gaining Independence from Britain, six counties in the north of the country remained under the control of the British. In 2017, the country is still divided by the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The division in Irish culture does not end there as it can be felt in the country’s capital city of Dublin, which is separated by the river Liffey running through it. The Northside, which is traditionally associated with the working class “Dubs” contrasts with the Southside’s more affluent and (traditionally) Anglo-Irish contingent. What keeps those apart in the “Fair City” are the perceived economical and cutural differences, not any foreign invader.
The area of Crumlin where McGregor was raised may sit on the south side of the river, but the locality and mindset of the natives are certainly more working class in their nature. Famous Irishmen such as Phil Lynott (frontman of 70’s rock band Thin Lizzy), poet and playwright Brendan Behan and Holywood star Gabriel Byrne all hailed from Crumlin and are massively celebrated for their achievements (the first two, posthumously). For McGregor, however, the story is different.
It is fair to say that Conor McGregor is the most famous Irishman in the world right now. Ireland, a country with a population almost 50% less than New York, has produced a man who has caught the attention of hundreds of millions at least and become a megastar in his field. McGregor’s name sits in the record of books for becoming the first fighter to hold two titles in separate divisions in the UFC as well as shattering pay-per-view records in the sport.
On Saturday night, the man who was collecting welfare checks just over 4 years ago will fight arguably the greatest boxer of all time while seeing his income quadruple to over $100 million dollars. An inspiration to many of his people, he is single-handedly responsible for a massive upsurge in the participation in Mixed Martial Arts in his country. So what is it about McGregor that many in Ireland detest so much?
Well, it is tricky to pinpoint. It is not just in Ireland where McGregor is disliked or even, to a degree, hated. Due to his braggadocious and cocky nature, he has earned both positive and negative attention with just as many willing to pay to see him beaten as to see him win. Having grown up studying the likes of Muhammad Ali and WWE wrestlers, McGregor created a similar character which, in addition to his abilities as a fighter, would turn out to be lucrative in selling fights.
The Irish people are often, by nature, unassuming and modest folk (U2’s Bono being an obvious exception). Those from Ireland, in contrast to Americans or the British, are not as embracing of celebrity culture, which is often surprising to many famous folk who enjoy relative peace while walking through the country’s cities and towns. When it comes to one of their own being thrust into the spotlight, there can be a sense of unease for many in how they portay the nation.
One hangover from the British propaganda which emerged from Irish reluctance to accept their colonial keepers was the abundance of negative Gaelic stereotypes. The inhabitants of the country were referred to as savages, alcoholics and as having low intelligence, which was surprising given the abundance of great minds, art and literature which Ireland gave to the world. In what should be even greater comfort to an Irishman or Irishwoman is the popularity the country and its people enjoy around the globe – the sight of the Statue of Liberty, Giza’s Great Pyramid, The Eifell Tower and other great world landmarks emblazoned in green on St Patrick’s Day is one noteworthy example of the warmth felt for Ireland by the world’s community.
Despite this, there is an anxiety in how a son or daughter of Ireland should handle themselves when given the ambassadorial platform which “The Notorious” currently enjoys. According to an article written by Kevin Palmer which appeared on Independent.ie McGregor is an “embarrassment to Ireland”:
“McGregor has come across as unintelligent, ill-informed and naive in some of his ugly comments and if he is the modern version of an Irish role model, then this country’s morals are in a far worse state than we feared.”
Additionally, it is not just McGregor as a person which seems to ignite such debate in his homeland, but the nature of what he does. There are many in the Irish media who simply despise the sport of MMA and look down on its perceived “barbaric” qualities. Following the tragic death of Portugal’s Joao Carvalho in Dublin following a bout with McGregor’s SBG Ireland teammate Charlie Ward, many called for the ban of the sport outright at a time when the country’s most successful sportsman was an MMA fighter.
There is a suggestion among many that it is the UFC lightweight champion’s background which incites so much “begrudgery”, as it is referred to in Ireland. McGregor’s thick, broad working class Dublin accent is almost foreign to the softer, over-enunciated and almost British sounds generally synonymous with the leafy suburbs found in the more affluent areas of the southside. It is no coincidence that the majority of criticism of their fellow countryman comes from members of the Irish media who, for the most part, hail from the richer areas of the city.
All of that will not matter, regardless of the result on Saturday. While McGregor’s critics either are sleeping or slurping coffee in anticipation of hoping to see him lose against Floyd Mayweather, the 29-year-old will earn $75 million for his efforts. There is no denying that Conor McGregor has harnessed both positive and negative reactions and sentiments to his favor, which he expertly converted from publicity into dollars.
For those who feel embarrassed by the fighter’s antics, choice of words or his flamboyant attire and penchant for fast cars? McGregor represents the new working-class Irishman: confident, cocky and capable of achieving, despite the snobbish protests and opposition of the haters, hacks and plum-mouthed detractors.