We were haggling and tussling recently …and possibly still are, about our nation state,our strange sense of identity in Ireland, our part of the little island ,the whole landmass and possibly even the whole worldwide Irish diaspora that stretches across the planet.
That is one huge rambling cloud of assorted “Irish” humanity .
Some elements of that diaspora began here , born in a house , possibly on the corner of of a street near you , maybe … and possibly emigrated from Ireland for reasons of finance, romance or adventure…..and settled there.
Many of those are second and possibly third generation “Irish” (which means that they are not really “Irish” at all, if you think about it) ,who although possibly American , Australian or whatever, still cleave to the idea of being “Irishmen” or “Irishwomen” because their fathers, mothers or grandparents were truly “Irish” or do so for reasons of sentiment and tradition and they maybe even go to the extent of buying an Irish passport to prove their “Irishness” to themselves, as they can if their parents had such a document.
Are they really “Irish” though, or are they simply joining an Irish fan club of sorts?
In past generations the American actor James Cagney was identified as the little “Fighting Irishman” and his fans in Ireland saw him as one of their own ,as he snapped , sneered and bamboozled his way through crime epics like “White Heat” in the 1930’s. Cagney wasn’t an Irishman . He was an American , born in the Lower East Side of Manhatten , and he had some Irish in his family tree.He was also a Roman Catholic which also caused Nationalist Irishmen of his day and time to glom on his reflected movie -star glamour and to identify with him.The Kennedys of “JFK” fame were seen as Irishmen too and were welcomed in Ireland as long-lost sons , even though JFK was an American through and through ,albeit with Irish roots. Nationalist, Catholic Ireland of the time , took him as one of their own too because he fitted the profile with his Roman Catholicism . These were the very things that probably turned Irish unionists in Ireland away in droves , of course. Most of them , especially in the North of Ireland were uninterested in anything with a tinge of the Roman Papacy.In any case , JFK was all but sainted and sanctified in Ireland and I can still remember his iconic portrait featured on many living-room walls ,flanked by a picture of the Sacred Heart, in the 1960’s .He wasn’t an Irishman either..He was an American, born in Brookline , Massachusetts.
America and Australia were sponges soaking up a myriad of immigrants from across the world from all sorts of different cultures. The people going there were running away and hoping for a new and better life. Those nations became something entirely new and the people in them became something new too.Much as is now happening as we engage and welcome refugees and migrants from across the globe. We now have a nation consisting of native stock but also peppered and salted with Russians, Chinese, Poles, Italians, French, Lithuanians and Syrians and more.That is already having an impact on what it might mean to be Irish. The children of those immigrants born here are filling our schools with new names, new cultures and new foods.On the streets we see it and hear it happening around us.We have seen such changes within a very short span of time so i can imagine thta the next fifty years will be an eye-opener. It has always been like this throughout the world and throughout ireland from time immemorial.
So you might ask yourself, what does it mean to be ” Irish” and why should it matter to someone whose father emigrated to America, France or somewhere in the UK. What does that feeling of still being “Irish” really mean? Does it mean, for example, that you don’t even have to be born on the land of Ireland to be “Irish”. Come to that, do you ever even have to visit the place?
It’s also very true that many of our close, current Irish neighbours would run for the hills rather than spend money on an Irish passport to proclaim their “Irishness”. They are actually really Irish, (much to their undoubted chagrin) as opposed to being second -generation Irish and we all know they are Irish just by being born here , but some of them would rather not accept that simple reality. They know they are not English nor Scottish, Welsh , French or German, but they’d rather just call themselves “British”. We know that being British is not a specific national identity . They may be part of a current and transient British political combination , but a Scotsman will still say he is a Scotsman and a Welshman or a Frenchman will still say he is so ,but some of our immediate neighbours would rather call themselves “Northern Irish “,as if it was a country or even a “nation”. It is not. They have a need to differentiate themselves from everyone else , even their neighbours across town who share the same streets and land with them .
Well….this state of being and this state of affairs we have arrived at in Norneverland has no new identifying label of any sort. It is not a curiously new kind of hybrid – nation but rather it is a somewhat unworkable state that has been cobbled together as a political stop-gap under threat of violence. It really can never be anything else and the idea that it should have it’s own identifying “National Anthem” for sporting events , as I overheard being discussed on the radio,this morning , for example , is something of a nonsense given that it will never issue its own unique passport either. Also given that about half the people in this curious construct actually see themselves as already “Irish” and have a loose affinity of sorts to some world-spanning Irish totems such as literature,dance , music and language , surely this new idea of Norneverland as another little unique micro-nation is only the latest conundrum that this awkward little mixed -up state has thrown up.
Granted , there may be a case for re-inventing virtually every horrendous dirge that masquerades as a national anthem everywhere in the known world but that is an entirely different story.
So what does it really mean to be Irish?What does it mean to have pride in being an Irishman?
Does it mean, for example, that you identify with W.B. Yeats , Oscar Wilde,Seamus Heaney ,Van Morrison, Paul Mudoon, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Liam Neeson, Pearse Brosnan, Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, Spike Milligan , George Best,Flann O’Brien, Patrick Magee ……or so on….. and on….. as well as a plethora of creatives throughout the world ….people whom the world identifies as Irishmen, no matter where they live or wander….Or do you identify with something entirely different and insular which makes you feel your Irishness is something else? Maybe your identification hangs on less lofty individuals. These listed above are obviously very famous people, after all . Maybe you identify more with more prosaic individuals or the land, the mountains , the rivers and the glorious landscapes. You might feel they are yours and are part and parcel of what makes you, uniquely, you. That is …part of Ireland. Does it matter that some politicians have fought over and drawn an imaginary line right through the map of your mental landscape…cutting up your “Irishness”? Does it remotely change who you are in your mind or your Irishness?
Maybe you identify more with someone like Edwin Poots , Stephen Nolan, Ian Paisley or the Pastor James McConnell, every one for good or bad , a true Irishman , born and bred here . I’d be interested to hear the reasons for your identification on that score, mind ….