The looting and violent protests that occurred on the streets of Dublin on 23 November 2023 have been rightly understood as indexing prevailing tensions within the state. The street violence emerged in the aftermath of the knife attack on staff and students of the Gaelscoil Cholaiste Mhuire on Parnell Street that left one five-year-old girl fighting for her life, several other children injured, and a creche worker who tried to shield the children from the attacker in an intensive care unit. That the attack was committed by an Algerian-born Irish citizen was seized upon by agitators who utilised social media platforms such as Telegram to mobilise protestors, stoking anxieties regarding immigration levels in Ireland. The events of that day offer an insight into both the interplay between the multiple crises (of housing, policing, and public service provision, to name a few) impacting contemporary Ireland and the role social media plays in shaping public discourse and fomenting discontent. One perhaps unlikely-seeming factor in the 23 November disturbances was the prominence of Irish sportsman Conor McGregor in public discussions and digital messaging. In this blog post I supplement the already substantial commentary on the recent riots with a consideration of the role celebrity can play in times of crisis, tracing how in a contemporary age marked by the instantaneous flow of digital media, such prominent figures can focalise disparate strands of discontent.
McGregor is a polarising Irish figure who often lives up to his stage nickname: “notorious”. Having excelled as a mixed-martial-arts fighter in the 2010s and even in 2017 crossing over to boxing for “the money fight” with Floyd Mayweather, the Dubliner has amassed an international fanbase and a millions-strong social media following, as well as a huge fortune through his fights and business ventures. He has also been the subject of critique for his actions outside of sporting arenas, both for his abrasive rhetoric as well as several well-publicised violent incidents. While sporting celebrity has long been a prominent cultural script for an abrasive Irish masculinity through figures such as footballer Roy Keane and snooker player Alex Higgins, some of McGregor’s recent postings suggest a pivot toward populist nationalism that marks a striking departure in contemporary Irish popular culture.
McGregor’s entanglement with the events of 23 November stem partially from an incendiary tweet the sportsman posted the previous night. Tensions were already high given the high-profile sentencing of Jozef Puska, a Slovak national, to life imprisonment for the murder of 23-year-old Tullamore schoolteacher Ashling Murphy one week earlier. On learning that non-nationals were to be allowed voting rights in local elections, McGregor posted “Ireland, we are at war” to his millions of followers, a tweet with over 16 million views at the time of writing. This pronouncement was seized upon by many as a rallying call against multiculturalism (both within Ireland and by far-right groups as far afield as France and the US) and went viral amid the violent events of the following day.
Among the troubling images to emerge on the night of the riots was that of a Dublin Bus ablaze on O’Connell Bridge. Later that night, an AI-generated image of McGregor standing in front of the bus as gangs of threatening-looking men rampage behind him was posted by Paul Golding, the leader of Britain First, a far right group in the UK. Hashtagging the post with the phrases “#Ireland #Irelandisfull #IrelandbelongstotheIrish,” Golding urges McGregor to “call a freedom march in Ireland,” suggesting “hundreds of thousands would turn up” and that “the people of Ireland would be behind him.” The posting is remarkable for a number of reasons. The alacrity with which AI can generate propaganda-like images is troubling enough, but the fact that a self-affirmed Unionist and English white nationalist is using the phrase “Ireland belongs to the Irish” as a rallying call crystallizes the dizzying ideological about-faces that are pervasive in post-truth culture. The opportunism of English nationalist figures once antagonistic towards the Irish is also evident in supportive tweets for McGregor from Tommy Robinson (born Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon), another far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, who has recently filmed a documentary in Ireland in collaboration with Irish anti-immigration activists. Further afield, prominent right-wing figures in the US weighed in on the unfolding events, with commentator Tucker Carson hosting former advisor to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon on his online show where they propounded the “great replacement” conspiracy theory in relation to Ireland. Far right groups in the US celebrated the violence on the streets of Dublin with one popular Trump-supporting account, Catturd, urging its followers to get the hashtag #IrishLivesMatter trending, which then occurred. 
While McGregor’s transnational reach is one element that might explain why he has become a lightning rod for ethno-nationalist agitators, other elements of his celebrity are equally significant. Richard Dyer in his foundational study of stardom coined the phrase “structured polysemy,”  to explain how figures subject to intensive public focus can be interpreted in different ways by different audiences, but that certain meanings and affects are foregrounded. Put plainly, in McGregor’s case, aspects of his public persona, such as his association with combative physicality, his whiteness, his wealth and stature, as well as the braggadocio with which the fighter is associated resonate with many of the groups seeking to capitalise on his renown. This is not a recent occurrence. The multi-city publicity campaign in advance of McGregor’s fight with Mayweather was a fractious affair, with misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric emanating from both camps.  McGregor’s supporters, made up of a vocal Irish and Irish-American contingent would chant “fuck the Mayweathers,” while McGregor was criticised for telling Mayweather to “Dance for me, boy” on one occasion. The term “boy” has significant racial connotations in the US, with one scholar suggesting it served as a de facto substitute for the N-word in this instance. 
Alongside the overtly ethno-nationalist groups and commentators piggybacking on McGregor’s celebrity status to stoke racial tensions were a range of prominent cultural figures, including misogynistic TikTok influencer Andrew Tate, comedian-turned-conspiracy-advocate Russell Brand, and Elon Musk, whose takeover of Twitter, rebranded X, ensured that many far-right figures such as Robinson and Golding were reinstated on the platform. What unites the disparate set of figures who have declared support from McGregor is a professed distrust of the mainstream media (often initialised to MSM in their discourse) and an avowed support for free speech. Drawing these figures into public discussion of McGregor was the suggestion by one of the fighter’s online followers that he should run for President of Ireland, a proposal which the fighter did not dismiss. This led to a somewhat absurd exchange between Musk and McGregor on X, wherein the Dublin fighter listed potential competitors (septuagenarian political figures such as Gerry Adams and Bertie Ahern) for the Presidency alongside their age and the Silicon Valley titan suggested that McGregor could “take them all single-handed.”  Andrew Tate and his brother Tristan (both currently under indictment in Romania for human trafficking, rape and forming a criminal gang to sexually exploit women) suggested on the Rumble platform that if McGregor did stand for president they would come to Ireland to vote for him, citing their Irish ancestry.  Such pronouncements have suddenly made granting the diaspora a vote on the presidency, previously a somewhat uncontentious proposal, politically charged, with a recent piece in the Irish Times suggesting that given the #McGregor4President development “extending voting rights to Irish abroad would be … a well-meaning, naive and undemocratic disaster.” 
Given the pervasive growth of social media and rise of post-truth discourse (exacerbated during the pandemic), McGregor constitutes a post-truth crisis celebrity whose aggressive bravado offers an compelling focal point for alienated groups both on national and international scales. Perhaps what the case of McGregor’s involvement in the Dublin riots ultimately reinforces is that concerns over the porosity of the nation obtain on multiple levels. While anti-immigration groups agitate over the influx of refugees, the political system seems to be vulnerable to a digitally-enabled inundation of poisonous rhetoric from self-serving ethno-nationalist groups and free speech advocates whose interest in the well-being of the Irish nation is highly questionable.
 Gilbert, David. “America’s Far Right Is Calling for Civil War in Ireland.” Wired, Conde Nast, 1 Dec. 2023, www.wired.com/story/far-right-calling-for-ireland-civil-war/.
 Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1979.
 For a more detailed account of McGregor’s stardom and the racially charged publicity campaign for “the money fight,” see McIntyre, Anthony, P. Contemporary Irish Popular Culture: Transnationalism, Regionality and Diaspora. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, pp. 109-152.
 Beydoun, Khaled A. 2017. “The Racism of the Mayweather-McGregor Tour Has a Long History in Boxing.” Andscape, 17 Jul. 2017. https://andscape.com/features/the-racism-of-the-mayweather-mcgregor-tour-has-a-long-history-in-boxing/.
 Pequeño IV, Antonio. “UFC Legend Conor McGregor Teases Run for Irish Presidency-and Gets Nod from Musk.” Forbes, 7 Dec. 2023, www.forbes.com/sites/antoniopequenoiv/2023/12/06/ufc-legend-conor-mcgregor-teases-run-for-irish-presidency-and-gets-nod-from-musk/?sh=611359b56e82.
 Kumawat, Nayan. “Andrew Tate and Tristan Tate Expressed on Conor McGregor Running for Ireland’s Presidency.” Pinkvilla, 9 Dec. 2023, www.pinkvilla.com/sports/andrew-tate-and-tristan-tate-expressed-on-conor-mcgregor-running-for-irelands-presidency-1264222.
 O’Connell, Jennifer. “If Ever There Was an Argument against Voting Rights for the Irish Abroad, It’s #mcgregor4president.” The Irish Times, 10 Dec. 2023, www.irishtimes.com/opinion/2023/12/10/jennifer-oconnell-if-ever-there-was-an-argument-against-voting-rights-for-the-irish-abroad-its-mcgregor4president/.