On the impossibility of being Irish…

There has been a full scale conversation going on the nature of Britishness for some years now. Last week, Bertie Ahern called for a ‘national conversation’ on Irishness. Roisin O’Hanlon objects, primarily on the grounds that the Irish already have a negative trait for pointless navel gazing. But she also makes the point that the problem with such conversations is that the perameters are likely to get drawn to tightly, and too prescriptively.

Once you start trying to define what it means to be Irish, two things inevitably happen. The first is that you immediately create a dichotomy between who is and is not entitled to call themselves Irish – hardly very inclusive. The second thing is that you create a hierarchy of entitlement within Irishness so that some Irish people can lay claim to being more Irish than some other Irish people. All we will end up doing is producing a checklist of qualities which supposedly embody Irishness and invite people to tick them off one by one to see how truly Irish they are. And woe betide any who fail to make the tribal grade.


  • I think that both Bertie and Roisin are wrong on different counts. There already is and has been a debate on what it means to be Irish since at least the Stautes of Kilkenny! As Linda Colley, Declan Kiberd, Richard Kearney and many others have pointed out, the meaning of being Irish is intimately connected with the meaning oif being English/British in that both were originally defined in opposition to each other. I think what Bertie is hinting at is that he wants to see some sort of civic Irish identity emerge – of the type that will bear comparisons to the inclusive English identity the media will hype up during the world cup with members of ethnic minorities waving the flag of st george.
    Roisin is is mistaken in thinking that Irish people are capable of drawing their gaze from their navels (criterion enough for defining us). By saying there is a ‘debate’, it invites people to challenge essentialist views of Irishness and alert us to how modern and constructed irishness is. THe narrow version persists if as Rosiin recommends we ignore the issue.

  • slug

    I agree with the last poster.

    With a big and continuing inflow of immigrants north and south there is great scope for a civic irishess that is multicultural and inclusive of lots of things including NI Britishness and the more debate on this the more things will change.

  • Roisin O’Hanlon is missing the point, Bertie is not looking for a list ( From Dublin, Drinks Guiness, Hates Britian etc) of things it takes to be counted as being Irish but rather that people that count them selves as being Irish discuss what it means to them and what they want it to mean.
    There is nothing wrong in discussing a cultural commonality and surely by discussing what we would like to see define us it will help us to see the gaps between the image and the current reality. The discussion may also help improve on the image that is already out there but does not have to be a barrier to other cultures or even a reason to hinder other cultures from interacting with our own. If there is one thing that Irish are use to it is keeping a strong identity while experiencing others.

  • Brian Boru

    Well I consider to be part of my Irishness and that of most people down here, the fact that we used to be ruled by Britain and threw it off. Others can think what they wish. I am from the Nationalist tradition on this island and unapologetically so. Can people who are not of rebel descent be Irish?

    For me it depends. I would consider Countess Markievicz, who was born in England, to be Irish because she fought for Irish freedom in 1916 and 1919-21. Of course, under current Irish citizenship laws from 2004, you can have Irish citizenship if you have a parent or grandparent born on the island. So she would have it anyway, as would Robert Erskine Childers – who I also consider as Irish for the same reasons. I also consider Tone, Emmet, McCracken, Monroe, Yeats, Maud Gonne, Bagenal Harvey, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Bulmer Hobson, Ernest Blythe, Joseph Biggar and Sean Lester to be Irish. This gives the lie to the thesis put forward by some on this forum that Nationalist Ireland cannot embrace “the children of the Plantation”. These people fought for Irish freedom of (in Biggar’s case) supported Irish Home Rule. As such I consider them patriotic Irishmen/women.

    My concerns about immigration at present relate to the uncertainty it creates on the unification question. This is made more acute by Richard Bruton (Fine Gael)’s call for all immigrants here for 3 years to get the vote in general elections and referenda. Once a United Ireland has been achieved, I am pretty sure I will lose a lot of my concern on this issue. I am also sure I will have no problems considering everyone born on this island as Irish. But until then, I have my reservations. I also find it confusing – as do many Southerners – that Unionists say their British but occasionally say they are Irish. They seem to have something of an identity crisis.

  • slug

    What is so confusing about being British and Irish?

  • Brian Boru

    Well slug, I know the GFA says you can be both if you want, but I suppose because of our history down here, we associate Britishness with a long list of injustices inflicted against the majority community on this island. I suppose those who were privileged for a long time would have a more favourable view.

  • Nic

    What about those poor, identity-crisis-afflicted Scots-British, Welsh-British and even English-British? Pshaw.

    I personally think it’s always a bad idea to open the xenophobic pandora’s box of defining “Irishness”. (Faux-)patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel, after all.
    As well as the valid points that Roisin makes, I notice Bertie wants a “national” conversation. It might be more informative, humbling and promote the healthy perspective that a globalised Ireland of the 3rd Millenium needs, to open an “international” one instead, n’est ce pas?
    Just a thought.

  • aquifer

    Hope this will not be like the political Forum set up by Berties predecessor Charlie Haughey, where he stepped in at the last moment to insist that the best option be recorded as -an all-island Irish state.

  • irish-immigrant

    Brian Boru said: “Well I consider to be part of my Irishness and that of most people down here, the fact that we used to be ruled by Britain and threw it off. …. Can people who are not of rebel descent be Irish? ….I would consider Countess Markievicz, who was born in England, to be Irish because she fought”
    ….etc etc. descends into green mist.

    So to be Irish Brian says you have to be anti-British. Wow, how excellent to be defined by opposition. Sort of like a unionist if you think about it.

    I can imagine the kind of people who would be drawn to Brian’s vision. In England they are called the BNP – they too are anti-immigrant and define themselves by opposition to foreigners.

    Try raising your sights a bit Brian. There are other people on this island who do not hate the British, even some that are British but who also consider themselves Irish. Irishness should be defined by love of the country – whatever aspect of it appeals for you, whether it be pubs or the landscape or the fantastic development in D4. Not by hatred of those who you fear.

  • Brian Boru

    Irish-immigrant as far as I am concerned, those who truly love their country (i.e. Ireland) support the eventual reunification of the island by peaceful means.

    “Can people who are not of rebel descent be Irish?”

    They can but I am just saying what Irishness means for me personally. I am adopted and as such can have no clue what my ancestors did, but I know they were Irish and Catholic and I think it rather unlikely then that they were supporters of the removal of their rights in the Penal Laws, or the confiscation of their lands by a foreign landlord class who lived in England and rackrented us to the heavens. My identity is one of an Irish Nationalist, and polls show the majority of Southerners hold Nationalist beliefs, including 73% saying we owe a debt to the men and women of 1916, with 80% saying they are proud of 1916. Identity is partly shaped by past experiences. That is why there are commemorations of past events important in a country’s history in any country.

    I am not anti-British. But in the same way that Thomas Paine was given US citizenship because of his support for US independence, I am entitled to say that those who fight for the independence of a country can become honorary members of that nation. There is nothing “anti-British” about the fight for independence in the South in 1916-21. The fight was justified on the basis that one country does not have a moral right to rule another country against its will. I hold to this principle still today with respect to other colonial powers that are occupying oppressed countries. I accept that NI will remain in the UK unless and until the principle of consent changes that.

    Those who truly love their country will support its independence. Fighting a foreign army that occupies your country does not equate to being “anti” the country from where that army originates. Should Americans stop regarding their War of Independence as part of their identity? Are they “anti-British” if they consider it so? Is it too much to ask new citizens to support the US’s continued independence? Come now…