The only thing that surprises me is that the list doesn’t include Roy Keane, Jedward or Stephen Gately. Oh wait a moment, it did include Stephen Gately.
What am I talking about? Irish broadcaster RTE’s project to identify the greatest Irish person, ever. So how do you think the long list for this project was assembled? Well, of course there will have been a meeting of historians, scientists, writers and philosophers, and perhaps a programme exploring the idea of ‘greatness’ and its legitimacy as a concept. And naturally all living persons would have been excluded from the list. Well actually, no.A survey was done involving a ‘representative sample’ of the Irish nation. The top 40 were then put out to the Irish people as a whole to vote on via the RTE website, and here’s the resulting top 10:
Bono, Dr. Noel Browne, Michael Collins, James Connolly, Stephen Gately, John Hume, Phil Lynott, Padraig Pearse, Mary Robinson and Adi Roche.
I think that further online voting reduced the list to 5, and you either already know who they are or if not, you won’t want to be told. But just look at that top 10: three contemporary rock or pop musicians (and if you’re going down that road, where the hell is Rory Gallagher?); two contemporary politicians and one voluntary worker; two 20th century nationalist politicians/rebels; two contemporary politicians.
This list may give us all sorts of interesting sociological and cultural insights into modern Ireland, but it sure as hell isn’t going to give us the greatest ever Irish person. I am not suggesting that all or any of these people are not great, and many are indeed worthy. But the respondents seem to treat ‘greatness’ in much the same way as they might describe yesterday’s weather or today’s lunch sandwich as ‘great’. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and people are perfectly entitled to have their own perspective on greatness. But if this particular RTE project is to have any kind of merit, then, as one commentator in today’s Irish Times has suggested, it needs to educate and enlighten, not entertain (or indeed bore).
If you look for a vox populi judgment on this kind of thing, you are going to get a lot of contemporary entertainers, and current or recent politicians on whom the roof has not collapsed. There is absolutely no merit in that, and in some cases is an insult to those living people who are on the list. In fact, 20 of the top 40 initially chosen are alive, and of the deceased 20, seven died only very recently. Only three of the top 40 didn’t live to see the 20th century; and of course they weren’t in the final list.
Of course I am not alone in this view. So maybe the project did have a purpose: it started something of a debate on what constitutes ‘greatness’. But you’ll appreciate that better if you don’t bother with the final verdict this weekend.