One might think that a country with a national flag representing its two noisiest tribes would be most vividly represented by the region where both groups coexist in greatest numbers. Not in Ireland. To the contrary, though the Orange tribe has long been casually disparaged as a “funny sort of Irish”, increasingly we hear talk categorizing the “Northern Irish” as a generally deviant category; the ‘southern’ Irish are apparently the norm, no qualification required.
So, do hierarchies of “Irishness” exist?
For example, is someone born and resident in Donegal, living in a state called “Ireland”, paying taxes to that state and electing their representatives to an assembly in Dublin, therefore living in a place more Irish than Derry, (where tax arrangements are more similar to those in Finchley)?
To argue ‘yes’ is to draw on a destructive centuries-old tradition in Irish history, the practice of associating the governing power in Dublin and its agenda of the day, with some notion of an ‘Official Ireland’ (a place most Irish people have tended to gladly find themselves the other side of). Yet rather than this sordid lineage providing cause for pause, advocates of identity hierarchies are gaining in volume.
Just recently on Slugger, Andy Pollock asked: “Does the South really want the North as part of Ireland?” Before asking, Pollock evidently didn’t dwell very long on what the North was the northern part of. He’s not alone.
Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and the replacement of the Dublin Government’s all-island territorial claims with a definition of the Irish nation based on (article 2) “the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland”, something important has not happened. The Republic of Ireland, no longer claiming the right to jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland, has not discontinued using the pre-1998 shorthand “Ireland”.
Whatever about the legal and political arguments let’s speak plainly: this is downright bad manners, the moral equivalence of Ulster unionists’ irritating misuse of the ancient name Ulster as though Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal didn’t exist.
Not content with abandoning northern nationalists to search for a state – to paraphrase Fionnuala O’Connor’s fine book – some would now have us seek a new national identity too.
Northern unionists may care little and, with politics in mind, many will readily embrace attempts to normalize an identity-based partition and relegation. But surrendering the term Irish with all its associated richness brings a little death of sorts for unionists too and despite the momentary political rush, it’s not of Shakespearian variety.
We’re now at a point where international media reports on everything from local sportsmen to tourism programs routinely distinguish the “Irish” from the “Northern Irish”. It wasn’t always so. Belfast’s most famous Protestant son, Georgie Best, routinely referred to himself and was described by media as Irish and rightly so.
Bestie didn’t need instruction in identity formation; he had the only one worth having: the Belfast Boy created his own. But for those less sure, the lesson from Introduction to Irish History, Culture and Identity is a simple one. No notions of state have ever neatly aligned with Ireland’s national identity and perhaps none ever will.
Yet despite all the hassle these unresolved tensions have generated, there’s a glorious side to the incongruent relationships between the borders of the 26 and Ireland’s imagination, territory, and far-flung people. Simply look at the record of states where attempts were made to draw clean lines through blood, borders and belonging; invariably, we find misery and artificiality. Similarly, notice how the near sum total cultural output of a calm safe unambiguous place like Switzerland is the cuckoo clock.
Let’s face it: Ireland’s crap at politics. We’re so bored by it, north and south, that we get the dysfunctional polities our inattention and lack of interest make inevitable. Politics, law and questions of taxation are the last places the Irish should look to explore who we are. States come and go, grow and shrink and we all either have one or want one. (Except the “Northern Irish”, we demand the benefits of two each, including subventions and passports from each, thanks much.)
Whatever about the complexities of describing what Irishness is, none can dispute its existence centuries before December 6th, 1922. And incidentally, far from acting as a guarantor or beacon of Irishness, the Irish Free State, it is too often forgotten, was initially used to restrict and pervert notions of “Irishness” with catastrophic effects that scar the nation to this day.
Nationalist fanatic Éamon de Valera is generally the go-to culprit referenced by political historians conveying the narrowness and nastiness of the new state’s “Irish” project. Dev’s infamous goal of a “Catholic State for a Catholic people” well captured the spirit of hostility and downright self-delusion that fuelled the Free State’s administrators’ earliest acts of cultural vandalism and their legislative aggression towards any Irish who failed to fit this chauvinistic and conservative “ideal”. But the rot predated Treaty opponent De Valera’s rise to power in the thirties.
Immediately as soon as the caitiffs replaced the rebels, a nefarious, censorious attempt to define Irishness began and the exclusion and exiling of many Irish soon followed.
The Republic of Ireland’s record on officially defining Ireland or Irishness was, until Article 2′s rewrite in 1998, a sorry one. Now that the southern state makes no pretense about representing all the Irish, anyone describing us, north or south or beyond, ought to remember our nation extends beyond the borders of its Republic.
PS – Declan Kiberd’s “Inventing Ireland” and “Irish Classics”, two dazzling explorations of what Irishness might mean and has meant, particularly to the artists who defied two states in search of it, are two great reads on this.
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