There were a wild few months back in 2005 when the singer Damien Rice was reported to be romancing the movie star Renee Zellweger. Irish people go slightly berserk when one of our own does something glamorous. That Rice, a man who took your cousin’s friend to his debs or once stood beside your friend at Electric Picnic, might be coupled with such a nebulous being as Zellweger seemed giddy.
Legend has it that the pair were spotted on a date at the Tesco in Celbridge, the Kildare town from which Rice hails. It’s celebrity lore that I, as a person from Kildare, cling on to to this day not only because it’s delightful but also because, as a county, Kildare is a bit flat. As flat as the Curragh plains that host the county’s most noteworthy export: racehorses.
As a native I feel qualified to call Kildare a bit, well, blah. Yes, there are the horses and, yes, I am proud to be from the same village as Ted, Ruby and Katie Walsh and, yes, I did once see the Rolling Stone Ron Wood – one of the county’s most famous blow-ins – in the supermarket.
But when it comes to notable characteristics, Kildare’s standout trait is that it’s in the shadow of Dublin depending on what time of day it is. Kildare is beautiful and lush and full of interesting history, but we don’t have an iconic coastline or quirky local dish. Our county colour is literally white. Sure, we can rival Donegal’s Daniel O’Donnell and Westmeath’s Joe Dolan with our own legendary Christy Moore, but his most famous song about his native land brings us right back to the Curragh and the horses.
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There is more to our people than third-, fourth- and fifth-class tours to the Irish National Stud and getting days off school for the Punchestown races.
Last week a humble chap from Maynooth gave Kildare a new feather for its jockey cap. Paul Mescal was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Aftersun. Mescal has done more for Kildare than the Naas Ball could ever dream of.
When he blistered on to our screens at the height of lockdown as the brooding Connell in Normal People he turned his lilywhite GAA shorts into a lusted-after fashion statement. He reignited a county pride that was last at its zenith in 1998, when the Kildare football team beat Dublin, Mayo and Meath on the way to an All-Ireland final with Galway. Sadly, Galway won on the day – but, crucially, we got the following Monday off school.
When the BBC predictably claimed Mescal as British when he was nominated for the Academy Award for actor in a leading role, we were not only able to say “He’s Irish”; we were also able to say “He’s from Kildare, and don’t you forget it.”
Anyone who’s ever had even a third-degree link to Mescal is coming out of the woodwork to proudly reminisce about the time their brother-in-law’s sister saw him in that Dunnes in Maynooth. His old driving-school posted a photo of him passing his driving test, and hundreds, if not thousands of us gasped and said “I did my driving test in Naas too. We are kindred spirits. I wonder did he struggle with the hill start on the Ballycane Road?” One particularly lovely Mescal titbit was a tweet about his father, a primary teacher, giving his class the night off homework to celebrate the Oscar nomination.
In Belfast there are plenty of people getting mileage out of the fact that they were delivered by Jamie Dornan’s late obstetrician father. Now a new generation will be proudly telling tales of being taught by Mescal’s dad. Between Paul and his sister Nell’s social media we saw heart-warming images of the family celebrating remotely. The Kildare heads among us noted that at least some of the people in the pictures were in Maynooth at the time. No patriotic association is too minuscule when it comes to the Oscars.
Christmas 2021 was particularly dizzying, as Phoebe Bridgers, the American musician who was Mescal’s girlfriend at the time, descended on Maynooth to spend the holidays with his family, which blew the whole Damien-and-Renee-at-Tesco situation out of the water. Sorry, Celbridge.
It’s safe to say that, in the three years since Normal People, Paul Mescal has been elevated to St Brigid levels of famous Kildarites, and has given the county a pride not felt since Snoop Dogg appeared at the Oxegen music festival and incited the chant “When I say Punches you say town”. Thank you, Paul. Up the Lilywhites.