ESPN’s Senior Writer is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.
WRIGHT THOMPSON KNOWS what’s coming.
Thompson is our latest guest on Behind the Lines, and while there’s lots to talk about – Jordan, Tiger, Messi – we couldn’t not talk about his infamous visit to Dublin in 2017 to profile Conor McGregor.
(Behind the Lines is our sportswriting podcast exclusive to members of The42. To gain access to the episode and the full 44-episode back catalogue, visit members.the42.ie.)
In preparation for our conversation, he re-read the piece which caused enough outrage to become a significant chunk of his Wikipedia page.
Thompson spent some time in Dublin in 2017, profiling Conor McGregor and his background ahead of the fight with Floyd Mayweather. It was his melodramatic description of Dublin, rather than McGregor, that provoked controversy.
“Dublin is best understood by exploring its many divisions, its unending physical and mental boundaries. The city, and its current champion, McGregor, are defined by those limits. It’s a clannish, parochial place. Crossing the wrong street has traditionally been reason enough for an ass-whipping. Men have had to drop dates off at bus stops instead of walking them all the way home.
The social media reaction was charted on sites on both sides of the Atlantic, while Fintan O’Toole called the description “ludicrous.”
His Irish Times colleague, Jennifer O’Connell, wrote a column arguing back against Thompson’s rendering of Dublin.
In the piece, McGregor’s childhood upbringing in the “projects” of Crumlin and Drimnagh suggests he was brought up in the Gaza Strip or 1920s Chicago, not a neighbourhood in which this writer lived for six happy and peaceful years, oblivious to the grenades whizzing by, or the fact that I should have been taking an armed escort whenever I had to cross the Liffey.
Three years on, Thompson accepts that section of the piece was sloppily written, and that it was supposed to convey the descriptions of Dublin as told by a couple of locals he spoke to. (The scene of his talking to them didn’t make the final version of the piece.)
He does chafe slightly at the scale of the reaction, however, when I use Jennifer O’Connell’s piece as an example of the criticism.
“If you actually look at the passage, it’s clearly past tense because it’s these two old men who were telling stories about it. I was like, ‘man, it must be a slow news day in Dublin, when people have lost their fucking minds over a verb tense issue.’
“The argument I think [Jennifer O’Connell] is making is that the place she sees is real. And then there is the overdramatised version of it that McGregor and his people are telling as part of his sort of narrative that I just fucking bought. That’s an accurate articulation of the criticism, right?
“I would say she lived in a very specific Crumlin, and should be thankful that it isn’t the one that Conor grew up in, as opposed to saying that his world doesn’t exist.
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“I thought it was like media elite arrogance a little bit. But look, I read the passage that got the most criticism and they’re right, I mean, that was sloppily written and edited.
“The fatal error of that piece is that there should have been three paragraphs about, ‘in many ways, large swaths of this are a very middle class suburb. And it is possible to live an entire life and not even know that the world that Conor McGregor struggled to escape exists.’
“Yeah, I screwed that up.”
We then moved on to a more interesting discussion about McGregor’s relationship with Dublin, as we discuss whether McGregor’s vision of a tough, working-class, crime-riven city from which he escaped is an accurate description of the place, or an exaggeration served to further McGregor’s self-image and narrative.
“McGregor definitely comes from a world in which all of that goes on”, says Thompson. “The question is, is he creating a myth of this culture that is damaging to society and to the Irish identity? Or is he the fruit from a culture tree that exists that no one wants to acknowledge? I really don’t know the answer to that.
“Is he creating a culture in his image, or is he the product of a culture that the existence and lack of knowledge of reflects some sort of deep divide in Irish society and identity that no one has seen heretofore? Like that would have been, frankly, smarter and more interesting.
“Now I just said that out loud. I want to go and fucking do the story again.”
Listen to the full interview by subscribing at members.the42.ie.