BOY RACER: HERO & FOLK DEVIL by Annemarie Ni Churreain

boy racer

“Hop you in filly in my passion wagon./ Loud music and cigarette butts are shafted into space./
We’ll speed hump it all the way baby/look at me, look at me/
I’m young, I’m immortal, I’m free.”
‘The Immortals’ Rita Ann Higgins

Checkpoint on the Gorey Road, Wexford. I fail to be impressed each time I open my social media to find a well-meaning person alerting others about the location of speed cameras or Garda check points on the roads. Essentially, I think it’s a misguided endeavour. And yes, I’ve flashed my headlights at oncoming traffic to forewarn of road security ahead, and yes I’ve been grateful of the same type of warning from other drivers. Then, someone I loved was killed in a road accident last year.

In 2014, 196 people died on Irish roads, including drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and children. Young men account for the majority of road fatalities, and they account for a large number of the people who survive with acquired brain injuries.

Car enthusiasm has spawned it’s own unique sub-culture, and driving hard and fast is a pursuit that won’t go out of fashion soon. Modified engines, bigger turbos, louder stereo systems – for some young men their vehicle is a shining, neon-lit extension of who they are or who they think they want to be. In Boy Racer: Fast and Furious in the UK, a driver tells the documentary crew it “makes me feel… the way it’s meant to be” and “the attention you get for it is insane”.

Of course many car enthusiasts drive responsibly, but there are also those who have made a hobby out of breaking the law. For them the risks are, presumably, worth the perceived rewards. Arguably, these rewards include thrill, community, respect from peers and a sense of identity. Let’s ask ourselves the question: why so many young men are turning to car culture for a sense of identity? And why do we as a society, continue to be so unclear about how we feel about this identity?

Boy racers are often demonised by society but visual artist Grayson Perry offers an alternative perspective. “There are many different things going on…. there’s an appreciation of craftsmanship and effort. They talk about cars like they talk about sculpture. It’s like a form of magic maleness”.

And who among us has not engaged with the magical fantasy of the out-law who, meaning no harm, takes monumental risks and narrowly escapes (sometimes) the consequences? Cuchulainn, Robin Hood, Billy the kid – these narratives are part of who we are and on any ordinary day it can even make us feel quite good when the not-so-bad baddie gets away. Online there are whole pages dedicated to the task of helping the not-so-bad baddies avoid reprimand. In his short essay about boy racers, Patrick Langely writes that
an “air of romance hovers around them, the outsiderness of fallen angels. For all their self-evident buffoonery – their taste for cars so kitsch they resemble pantomines on wheels; their pubescent lust for cheap vodka and thudding music – boy racers are unquestionably rebels. And rebels are often heroes”.

But hero-worship is fraught with difficulty – not least by the fact that a hero creates the need for the anti-hero or what Stanley Cohen calls in his research the ‘folk-devil’. In Irish society, the boy-racer plays both the roles of hero and folk-devil making his place in the community even more tenuous.

In Ireland, the tabloid media hold the puppet strings of folk devilry. The Star, The Mirror, The Donegal Daily all know well the currency of certain marginalised groups – asylum seekers, social welfare recipients and teenage mothers – to stir fear in the community. This kind of fear is what Cohen has defined as ‘moral panic’ and perhaps we all have shares in this panic, with dividends. Cohen explains that we engage with moral panic in five separate ways 1. concern of a potential or imagined threat 2. hostility towards that threat 3. a consensus on the threat and the need for action 4. disproportionality – a response to the threat 5. Volatility: the panic recedes of results in social changes.

Based on Cohen’s moral panic, I’d argue that we are collectively responsible for creating an environment in which the character of the boy-racer can flourish. We invent the role, fill it, and engage with the self-fulfilling prophecy of danger at large in the world requiring – crucially – people in positions of power to exercise control. We love power and control.

What makes some young men want to drive cars dangerously? There is no one popular or easy answer – boredom, peacockery, thrills, recklessness, expression, passion, stupidity, and a conscious or unconscious ability to see life for exactly what it is – an absurd game of chance. We are to blame and they’re to blame and the number of road fatalities on Irish roads continues to rise as society makes it possible for another young man driving a car too fast to disappear around a corner.

Annemarie Ni Churreain is a poet and writer from Donegal. She is currently a Literary Fellow at
Akademie Schloss Solitude, Germany.