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In class-ridden Ireland, the worst thing to be is posh

Food and culture need enthusiasts and tastemakers. Certain types of culture are valuable because they are challenging

More than once the Sinn Féin Housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin, has come under gentle fire for his cooking habits. Not because they resemble what we tend to associate with the towering heights of Irish cuisine: boiled cabbage, boiled ham, boiled potatoes. But because they seemingly demonstrate his disconnect with the common man. In May 2020 he asked “what’s for dinner in the Ó Broin household…? Well, oysters/oisre of course!”; in August 2020 he tweeted about slow-cooked beef cheek wellington with porcini mushrooms; a year later he posted a photo of a kitchen table groaning under the weight of what appears to be several types of fish, two cuts of beef and a bottle of dessert wine.

Some seemed to wonder how a man like Ó Broin could position himself as a serious advocate for social housing – in a left-wing party, no less – while entertaining such rarified culinary proclivities? To the so-called food snobs, Ó Broin’s depth of knowledge and curiosity is compelling. To the detractors it is something to apologise for: “A bit crass Eoin” read one response. It seems that liking food and wanting to rectify a housing crisis are anathema. How decadent, and dare we say, European of him.

Wine – as any enthusiast knows – is more than a so-called buzz-delivery system. It is social history, geopolitics, tradition, innovation – concepts few would dismiss as frivolous

This is among our worst human instincts: treating an affinity for high culture with derision rather than admiration. In fact, snob has become one of the dirtiest words in politics, straight out of the Trumpian playbook. On one side are the elites of the swamp (drain it!) and the other, the real people. This is a battle for the soul of contemporary politics: the pretentious nonsense of high culture versus the noble pursuits of the blue collar; Heineken from the tap versus a boutique brewery’s IPA; Jacob’s Creek chardonnay versus Burgundy; beef wellington versus boiled ham. But it is also a political framework as old as time. Even the Romans organised themselves into the optimates and the populares - the self-important out-of-touch prigs and the good men of the people. You would never catch a member of the populares with a well-thumbed copy of Ulysses, of course.

But snobs – of all manners – deserve defending. Not just as a robust ballast against this populist diatribe; a corrective to the idea that the world really is an endless war between high and low culture (it isn’t). But because such a binary comes with the unavoidable subtext that real cultural production only belongs to the upper echelons of society – Mozart for the denizens of the marbled halls and Justin Bieber for the barbarians at the gates. As a starting point, this hardly strikes me as an egalitarian mode of understanding the world.


But even more than that, culture needs vanguards, enthusiasts, tastemakers and those willing to defend its highest forms. And this, fairly or not, requires work. The late philosopher Roger Scruton understands this: the advocate of classical music “knows that the classical tradition of music contains with it precious achievements, precious knowledge and a precious world of feeling which requires a certain effort to enter”. In other words, there are certain types of culture that are valuable precisely because they are challenging. The quest and instinct to understand is a noble pursuit, in and of itself.

Of course this generates no end of hostility. It is easy kindling for populist vs elite false binary. I recently read a robust defence of the wine snob in Michael Steinberger’s rather snobbishly titled The Wine Savant. He contends that the world is full of those ready to demarcate wine obsessives as mere poseurs, ready to be humiliated at the altar of their pretensions, deservedly hoodwinked by an industry only after their cash, unable to see that there is no meaningful difference between a wine well-made and garden-variety pub plonk. But wine – as any enthusiast knows – is more than a so-called buzz-delivery system. It is social history, geopolitics, tradition, innovation – concepts few would dismiss as frivolous.

In Ireland more than anywhere there is a potent instinct for reverse snobbery. Ever heard of a GAA snob? I’m sure they exist on a technical definition of the fact (and I’m told by the sports department there is definitely such thing as a hurling snob), but we don’t hear those words thrown around so much. Yet all of the conditions exist: there are barriers to entry, years of tradition to grapple with, points of social exclusion. Meanwhile, in Irish society (increasingly riddled with class anxiety), the worst thing to be is posh. Take the fate of Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy: his image – a D4 man, son of a barrister – may not have been his ultimate downfall, but it certainly did not help.

Snobs of all kinds – whether food snobs like Ó Broin or unembarrassed elitists like Scruton – want to preserve the idea that some culture really is special; that it requires effort. It is an admirable and – counterintuitively – democratic disposition. Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the word.