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The History of the Irish Hating U2

Dublin’s hometown band has often had a hard time in their home country. Sometimes it’s because they’re too famous. Other times, it’s a lot more complicated.

Bono is a pox.

I’ve never been to Dublin, but if I visited, one of the first things I’d want to track down is graffiti bearing that four-word statement. Apparently, it’s not hard to find: In the city where the frontman for one of the world’s most famous rock groups was born and still lives, you can spot “Bono is a pox” fairly easily around town.

Toronto music writer Alan Cross discovered this firsthand when he arrived in Dublin several years ago. When he asked someone at the local tourist office if they had a U2 tour, the guy responded, “Why wouldja wanna do that?”

“You can walk all over Dublin for days without seeing anything that indicates the world’s biggest band lives here,” Cross wrote in the piece, confirming that he did, in fact, find some “Bono is a pox” graffiti. That pithy putdown has actually traveled the world, even making its way to a Tokyo gallery, where it’s treated like art. But it’s not just something scrawled on a wall: You can find the sentiment all over social media whenever Bono does, well, anything. For instance, in 2017, when Bono stupidly declared that “Music has gotten very girly,” he got meme-d, with “Bono is a pox” putting the period at the end of the sentence.

For a while, there was a “Bono Is a Pox” Tumblr, and even those newly moved to Dublin feel the need to blend in by hating the frontman. In her 2018 piece “An Immigrant Fits In,” Lithuanian writer Laura Gerulyte Griffin notes, “I knew very little about Ireland when I moved to Dublin almost 14 years ago. … I arrived with very little English, relying on friends to get me settled. … As the years passed I learned that making friends with Irish people wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. … I was told that the Irish were the friendliest bunch in the world and yet I couldn’t make connections. [So] I tried harder. … ‘Bono is a pox.’ I repeated the phrase without knowing what pox was.”

Dublin’s — and, to a larger extent, Ireland’s — dislike of Bono has been a source of some local anguish. In 2019, writer Eoghan Rice penned an op-ed in The Irish Times in which he stood up for the singer, essentially describing him as a humble local boy made good. “Bono gives Dublin a lot of love,” Rice argued. “He could live anywhere but has chosen to stay here. … Despite this, Dublin ignores Bono. There are no plaques, no commemorations — just permanent marker on walls and the groaning whenever he speaks. Bono is a lad from north Dublin who wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century, married his childhood sweetheart, lives in his hometown and generally tries to use his vast fame for good. Maybe we need more poxes around here.”

You can dislike the music that Bono makes with U2 — that’s fine, that’s not really what this is about. (For the record, I like U2 — in fact, I love some of their stuff — but even I can find them a bit much.) But from the group’s earliest days, there’s been a vocal portion of their countrymen and women who despise the singer, and the reason has had to do with national identity. This isn’t that unusual: There are plenty of U.S. citizens who can’t stand Bruce Springsteen because they resent that he’s anointed himself (and been anointed by the media) as some sort of avatar for “everyday Americans.” But the Irish’s disdain of Bono is revealing about that country’s character and its history. This goes beyond thinking Pop sucks or “Beautiful Day” is overrated. This is personal.

In some ways, U2 are an inspiring story: four friends from Dublin who formed a rock band in the 1970s, never broke up and have sustained gargantuan success around the globe. (Their Twitter bio proudly identifies them as being “[f]rom the north side of Dublin.”) No band of their era has had such staying power — no one ODed, no one got replaced, no one was the subject of sexual-assault allegations, no one split to pursue a disastrous solo career. And they were led by their charismatic vocalist, Paul Hewson, who dreamed big but also was nursing a psychic wound in the form of his mother’s death when he was only 14. “You don’t become a rock star unless you’ve got a lot missing somewhere — that’s becoming increasingly obvious to me,” the man who would soon be known the world over as Bono once said. “If you were of sound mind you wouldn’t need 70,000 people a night telling you they loved you to feel normal. It’s sad, really.”

They had some success with their first two albums, Boy and October, but it was 1983’s War where U2 started enjoying significant commercial attention and critical acclaim outside of their homeland. One of the songs on that album was “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a protest against the fighting going on in Northern Ireland. With its drums-of-war beat, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” could easily be misinterpreted as a rabble-rousing anthem. But the band saw it very differently. “America had its own troubles with race relations in the 1960s,” Bono once explained. “We started to see similarities with the civil rights movement. We became students of nonviolence, of Martin Luther King’s thinking. … Then we wrote ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ as a way of refuting the armed struggle. So America had brought us to that place. America had made us question about being Irish. The irony was that a lot of people thought ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was a call to arms, a rebel song for a united Ireland. It was about unity, but not in the geographical sense.”

Bono had spoken out against the IRA on stage early in the decade, and U2 received threats as a result, including supposedly reports of at least one potential kidnapping plot. But even if nothing too traumatic occurred, by arguing that both sides were at fault in the Troubles, the band had put a target on their back. “[W]ithin some quarters where we used to be welcome, we became persona non grata,” he said in the same interview. “In certain pubs and certain places, people would look at you, and think you’d let them down.” 

In the ensuing years, U2’s rising popularity — and their desire to give back to their community — didn’t seem to placate Dubliners. A year after Live Aid, the band joined with other musicians, including Van Morrison, to put on Self Aid, a charity concert for the city’s unemployed. The problem was, no matter how good-intentioned, the all-day event didn’t really have a plan for how to help the jobless. A May 1986 piece in The Irish Times noted, “As the limitations of the concrete side of Self Aid — the fund and the job pledges — has come under public scrutiny over the last few weeks, the organizers are at pains to point out that the primary object of the exercise is inspirational. Self Aid, they say, is a celebration of positive thinking.” Not surprisingly, that infuriated locals. “We would be totally opposed to the ideological connotation that it is up to people to create their own jobs, and that it is not economic and social policies generally that are creating our problems,” Peter Cassells, the economic and social affairs officer for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told the paper. (In Dublin was even blunter, printing a cover story entitled “The Great Self-Aid Farce — Rock Against the People.”)

Not long after, U2 were superstars thanks to The Joshua Tree, and with that acclaim came a grandiose Hollywood-backed concert film, Rattle and Hum, that documented their new celebrity as they toured America in sold-out arena shows. The band took the opportunity to include a performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in which Bono condemned Irish-Americans “who haven’t been back to their country in 20 or 30 years, come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home. And the glory of the revolution. And the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution!” 

His tirade had been promoted by his fury at the Remembrance Day bombing that had occurred that day, in error, by the IRA, killing 11 innocent people. When Rattle and Hum opened in theaters the following year, there were rumors that Bono was on an IRA death list because he’d included those comments in the film. Sinn Féin denied the allegation, but in 2017, a “prominent Irish musician” spoke anonymously to the New York Post, saying that the anxiety was real, even if that specific claim wasn’t true. 

“The danger may not have come from someone within the IRA,” the musician told the Post. “It could have come from any Republican angered by Bono’s words, a lone-wolf or rogue element, someone with a lot of rage who felt their cause had been undermined. It took guts for him to say what he said because, as someone in the public eye, the threat of reprisal was real — whether sanctioned or not.”

In later years, the local animosity toward the band has, thankfully, been a lot less potentially dangerous. But it has continued to be vocal, starting in 2006 when U2 made the controversial decision to move some of their publishing out of Ireland and into Holland. For years, the group (like other Irish artists) benefited from an Artists Tax Exemption, set up in the late 1960s, to encourage creative types to stay in their homeland. In U2’s case, the exemption kept them from being taxed on royalties, although they were still on the hook for income from, say, concert sales. But when the news broke that they were moving some of their holdings overseas — reportedly because of a new cap on that exemption — it sparked furious accusations that they were tax cheats, even to this day. (When you go on Twitter and look up “Bono is a pox,” you’ll often see it accompanied by some variation on “Bono, pay your taxes.”)

The band did their best to defend their actions. “You know, we pay a lot of tax by the way, a lot of tax, enormous, millions of tax. … People think that artists in Ireland are tax free,” Bono said in 2008. “Our publishing, which is about one third of our income, we have tax breaks on, and that’s great and that’s encouraged us to stay in Ireland and if that changes, it’s not going to affect anything for U2 — but young U2s might have to leave and that would be a shame.” And their guitarist the Edge wrote to the Baltimore Sun in response to an insinuation that they were evading their taxes. “For the record U2 and the individual band members have a totally clean record with every jurisdiction to which they are required to pay tax and have never been and will never be involved in tax evasion,” he wrote, pointing to an earlier statement from Ireland’s Ministry of Finance representative Owen Durgan, who had said, “People complained at the time [about U2 moving their publishing]. But we have companies moving here from the rest of the EU, so it all evens out. We wouldn’t make an issue of it.”

On the one hand, it’s hard to fault a superstar band for wanting to relieve their tax burden a little. (Since the days of the Beatles, performers have publicly fumed about the amount of money they have to hand over to the government.) But because U2 (especially Bono) have always presented themselves as do-gooders — for instance, the singer long advocated for “Drop the Debt” measures to help poorer nations — the move smacked of hypocrisy. “U2 might publicly support development aid to Africa, but it is taking advantage of the same tax avoidance schemes that multinational companies use to deprive developing countries of important revenue,” Hans Zomer, who was then the director of Dóchas, the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organizations, said in a 2009 Christian Science Monitor piece. 

In the same article, a U2 fan who was in line to buy the band’s latest record, No Line on the Horizon, said, “They are living in Ireland, so they should pay Irish taxes, especially now that the country needs the money” in the wake of the global economic collapse.

I was unable to find an exact origin date for the start of “Bono is a pox” graffiti in Dublin, but because Bono lives there, he’s certainly aware of it. Cross, the man who was rebuffed when trying to find a U2 tour in Dublin, later told the singer about his encounter at the tourist office. “Yeah,” Bono replied, laughing, “U2 has an interesting relationship with Ireland.” To that point, during Cross’ trip, the journalist stumbled upon this Bono quote: “In the United States, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, ‘You know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion.’ In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, ‘One day, I’m going to get that bastard.’”

That was certainly the takeaway from an infamous 2017 Guardian piece, written by Dean Van Nguyen, who interviewed his fellow Dubliners to figure out why the Irish hate U2. “If another country produced the biggest guitar band in the world — let alone one with a population of just 4.8 million — you’d expect airports to be named after them,” he wrote. “But walk around the musicians’ home city of Dublin and you’ll barely see an image of Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. There’s no major mural solely dedicated to the group. You might, though, catch some graffiti scrawled on concrete walls and darkened doorways, opining in classically Irish slang that, ‘Bono is a Pox.’” Van Nguyen went to a Dublin pub to ask patrons about the band, with few having kind things to say. (“We don’t like them because they did well,” said one person. “They’re not the Dubliners, the Pogues, even the Cranberries — they all weren’t that big. But U2 did very well.”) Of course, the belief that they were tax cheats was part of the equation, but to Van Nguyen’s mind, “[T]he nation’s dislike of U2 is classic Irish begrudgery — the phenomenon that Irish people are predisposed to feel envy and resentment towards those who achieve a certain level of success.”

This squares with a recent conversation I had with friend and colleague Donald Clarke, who’s chief film correspondent of The Irish Times and a regular columnist. “The antagonism to Bono in Ireland is often seen as a manifestation of the country’s more general addiction to ‘begrudgery,’” he tells me. “A post-colonial nation long sat-upon by a larger neighbor, Ireland is often suspicious of those who do well with the British — and, to a lesser extent, the Americans.” (Indeed, Bono’s acceptance of a British knighthood didn’t go over well at home.) 

But although Clarke mentions that other Irish celebrities, such as Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, get a certain amount of grief from their countrymen and women, Bono inspires a unique, and intense, level of ire. “I was hosting a Q&A with Julien Temple at the Dublin Film Festival in 2007 for his documentary on Joe Strummer,” Clarke recalls. “Temple mentioned Bono — who, of course, had a talking head in the film — and there was audible muttering from the audience. Temple, who’d obviously already encountered this, said, ‘Jesus! You really hate this guy.’” 

Ultimately, it’s Bono’s loftier moral aspirations — the sense that he sets himself up to be a more righteous, decent fellow — that don’t sit well with the Irish. “It’s useful to compare Bono to Conor McGregor,” Clarke tells me. “McGregor has always had his detractors, but they don’t tend to be the same people who hate Bono. The rock star was a peace-loving internationalist. McGregor has always been a less emollient old-school patriot. They offer different things for different classes of begrudger to complain about.”

Perhaps U2, and particularly Bono, are cursed to a not-altogether-terrible fate: A byproduct of their success is that their homeland will always find them a bit obnoxious. (Although, Clarke informs me, “The other band members get nothing like [the anger Bono receives]. Larry Mullen, in particular, is held in near-unbroken affection. Yet they all profit from the same tax arrangement that wiseacres never tire of mentioning whenever Bono’s name comes up on Twitter.”) However, this hasn’t stopped the group from continuing to give back — especially during the pandemic. In early April of last year, they contributed 10 million euros to help Ireland’s COVID fight. 

But one of the most nuanced explanations for why U2 will always be a bit of a thorn in the Irish’s side came from Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, who for Bono’s 60th birthday last May grappled with the frontman’s complicated cultural makeup. “Bono is the child of a ‘mixed marriage,’ his mother Protestant, his father Catholic, but his faith is essentially Bible-based evangelical Protestantism,” O’Toole explained in the essay. “This is part of what has made him both astonishingly effective as a political operator in the U.S. on the one hand and such an ambivalent figure in Irish Catholic culture on the other.” 

To O’Toole’s mind, all the good that Bono does in the world only further rankles his home country because it runs counter to Ireland’s shifting ideas about faith, activism and charity. “[F]or a Catholic Ireland that was secularizing gradually at first and then very rapidly, Bono’s old-time religion is hard to fathom,” he suggests. “There is a politically radical, socially activist evangelical tradition in Ireland (much of genuine Irish republicanism comes from it) but it was largely marginalized, especially in the South. The frame of reference within which Bono’s biblical sense of calling might be understood is mostly absent. In that void, the sense of mission that animates him is easily misread as delusions of grandeur — all the more so because it is indeed wrapped up in rock’s innate preposterousness.”

Whether it’s the band’s response to the Troubles or the accusations that they’re tax cheats — or just the fact that they’re so damn popular without being particularly hip — U2 have often revealed something about Ireland as a whole. But with that said, it’s worth pointing out that the animosity U2 engender in Dublin isn’t unique on the planet — I know lots of Americans who find them and their music insufferable for all kinds of reasons. Also, let’s be clear: No country’s citizens share the same beliefs and attitudes. (I’d hate it if our overseas neighbors thought we were all MAGA idiots.) Plus, tons and tons of Irish citizens love this band: Their concerts sell out there as much as they do anywhere else.

And yet, the idea that “Ireland hates U2” is fun to hold onto simply because it speaks to something that the band’s detractors secretly suspect, which is that this now-legendary, practically mythic band are actually just a bunch of phonies that their countrymen and women see right through. If anything, that desire to convince ourselves that U2 aren’t all that connects us with the band’s passionate Dublin detractors. With another St. Patrick’s Day looming, maybe anyone who rolls their eyes at this group’s sanctimony has a little Irish in them.