Paddywhackery goes global

On St Patrick's Day, being green is the new black - and everyone from Prince Charles to Tony Blair to Bill Clinton has declared their Irishness. A real O'Neill wants no part of it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Who said in February 2002, ‘I have always felt an affinity with the rhythms of the Irish soul’? A green-eyed US politician desperate for the Irish vote? Tony Blair in a soppy speech about the peace process? A Hollywood starlet who’s just bought a castle in county Kerry?

No. It was Prince Charles, first in line to the British throne and a man forbidden from marrying a Catholic. He is also colonel-in-chief of the British Parachute Regiment that shot dead 14 people in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and his beloved uncle was blown up by the IRA in 1979.

Irishness is in – big time. From a prince whose mother Queen Elizabeth II has visited every state in Western Europe except the Irish Republic, to world leaders, politicians, pop stars, writers and second-rate celebs – everyone wants a piece of Irishness.

Just look at St Patrick’s Day (which takes place this Sunday, 17 March, for those just arrived from Mars – though God knows, they probably celebrate it there too). This was traditionally a day for real Irish people to get all misty-eyed about the motherland and to raise a glass to the greatest saint in the whole of heaven – now it’s a day for everyone to ‘go Irish’, down some black stuff, stick on a shamrock and a plastic hat, and mumble things like ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph isn’t the craic mighty?’.

This St Patrick’s Day sees London’s first-ever St Patrick’s Day festival and parade – organised by the Greater London Authority, with proceedings due to be kicked off by London mayor Ken Livingstone. As one report points out, St Patrick may have been Welsh and many of those attending the festival might not be Irish – ‘but why let a little detail like nationality spoil a good patron-saint’s-day party?’.

It’s official: being green is the new black.

Since the 1990s, the great and the good have been falling over themselves to declare their Irishness. Former US President Bill Clinton told a green-tie St Patrick’s Day dinner party in 1995 that he was ‘feeling more Irish every day’. UK prime minister Tony Blair wrote in a book called Being Irish in 2000 that ‘Ireland is in my blood’ (well, his mother was born in a hardware store in Donegal).

Actress Mia Farrow took herself and her brood of Vietnamese children off to the Ould Country in the 1990s to discover her (and presumably the kids’) Irish souls. Even Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City and the epitome of New York chic, has a holiday home in Killybegs in Donegal – an area so lacking in life and laughs that my grandmother abandoned it in the 1940s for the comparatively high jinks of the bogs of Connemara.

Those who ‘deny’ their Irishness often find it thrust upon them anyway. According to the Clare Heritage Centre in south-west Ireland, Muhammad Ali is Irish. His great-grandad was allegedly one Abe Grady from the Irish town of Ennis, who emigrated to America in the 1860s, settled in Kentucky and married a black woman. If only Ali was aware of his ‘Irish soul’, things could have been so different. I can just hear him now: ‘No Vietcong ever called me a nigger or a bogtrotter….’

Then there’s Che Guevara – whose great grandparents allegedly left Galway for Argentina in the 1840s to escape the Irish famine. One Irish genealogist calls Che ‘Father of Revolution, Son of Galway’ – while an Irish-American commentator bemoans Che’s failure to declare his Irish soul: ‘If Che had…cited his Irish family’s flight from persecution, he still would have been primarily a Latin American revolutionary but he would also have been a living representative to people like myself of what the hidden Irish heritage was about.’ Shame on you, Che.

We’re all Irish now – whether world leader, black sporting legend, Cuban revolutionary or New York actress, apparently there’s an Irish soul inside us all. And don’t even think about denying, suppressing or hiding it. According to Tom Hayden, former Sixties radical, former California state senator and former husband of former actress Jane Fonda: ‘The effects of alienation from one’s Irish identity are multiple and serious.’ (1) You have been warned.

But, as a last resort, there’s always that psychotherapist in California (where else?) who specialises in helping people ‘recover their Irish souls’ and come to terms with the ‘trauma of having denied their Irishness’….

What a load of paddywhackery. We live in a society suffering from what I call ‘Dermot-itis’, where just about every Thomas, Richard and Harold would far rather be a Dermot – in the belief that being Irish will confer on them a sense of being deep/different/interesting/angry/real/earthy/victimised (take your pick). Last year, Guinness renamed 17 March ‘St Who’s Day?’, with TV adverts showing black people, Jews and Scandinavians singing their own interpretations of homesick Irish ballad Danny Boy. The message was clear: Irishness is for everyone, not just the Irish-born and the Irish-bred.

But what is this mysterious ‘Irish soul’? If we’re all Irish now, are any of us really Irish? When anyone can just declare their Irishness, what does Irishness mean? The answer is, not very much.

It certainly doesn’t mean being born in Ireland, or even being descended from Irish-born parents. As a recent magazine quiz on ‘Just how Irish are you?’ put it: ‘Forget about whether you were born in Ireland or both your parents were from the Ould Country. Instead take our special Hibernian Profiling Analysis and establish your Irish identity with more accuracy than a DNA test!’ (2) The quiz asked questions like ‘what do you name your dog?’ (‘Fido, Rover or Shamrock Rover?’) and ‘how should vegetables be served?’ (‘Sauteed, on a separate plate or boiled to a soggy pulp?’) to establish readers’ Irish credentials.

Having an Irish soul doesn’t even require ever setting foot on the Emerald Isle. An article on why St Patrick’s Day is ‘a day like no other’ said: ‘[British] engineer John Travis has never even crossed the Irish Sea – but every 17 March he becomes an honorary Irishman for the day.’ (3)

The new Irishness has even got the British state’s seal of approval, after an Irish ethnic category was introduced to the UK census in 2001. Forget old-fashioned notions of nationality or citizenship, the ‘Tick the Irish box’ census campaign went out of its way to convince people who ‘feel Irish’ to fill in the Irish cateogry. As one report said, ‘Those who consider themselves British, but have Irish roots, can still tick the Irish box’ (4).

Irishness is no longer a nationality, an accident of birth tied up with national aspirations and pride. As former Irish president Mary Robinson says, ‘Irishness is not simply territorial’, but is more of a ‘concept’. It is a ‘feeling’, as Clinton put it, a state of mind, an attitude that can be worn like a shamrock on a lapel.

Anyone can become Irish today. You can show our Irishness by going to the right pub, having the right attitude, by ticking a box on a census form – but not by getting drunk, fighting, shouting ‘Fuck the Queen’, or any of the other activities you might traditionally have associated with being Irish, which are especially frowned upon by fake Irish pubs like O’Neill’s (no relation).

On Sex and the City, a guy once looked at Miranda’s striking red hair and asked if she was Irish. ‘No’, said Miranda, ‘but I guess anyone can be Irish with the right colourist’. So you can now get Irishness out of a bottle. Irishness is everywhere…and nowhere.

It used to be only second-generation Irish people like me who declared their Irishness at every God-given opportunity – a sure sign that we were trying to convince ourselves of our Irishness (despite our British schooling, British accents and British lives) as much as anyone else. Growing up in north London in the late 1980s and early 1990s, me and my second-generation mates hung out in Cricklewood, Kilburn and Neasden pubs, wore Celtic tops or Pogues t-shirts, drank Guinness (even though we hated it), Gaelicised our names, referred to ourselves as ‘exiles’, and sometimes even talked in Irish accents.

Looking back, I can see that was a sad teenage moment – an angsty attempt to cut ourselves off from the mainstream and to create a cultural identity that was anything but British. But there was at least something to Irishness then. With the Pogues storming the charts, framed Irish prisoners being freed from British prisons, and before Irishness had become the new fad on the block, Irishness was about being rebellious, independent, confident, loud…and Irish.

Now it’s a vague ‘concept’ and ‘feeling’ that anyone with an identity crisis of their own (whether you’re the president of America or a London teenager) can dress up in. People across the world seem to be going through the sad teenage phase that my friends and I went through in 1989 – using Irishness in an attempt to look cool, distinct and interesting.

Thanks, but no thanks. If Irishness is nothing more than an attitude, a football top or the right colour hair dye from a bottle, you can keep it. I’ll pretend to enjoy a few pints of the black stuff on Sunday – but I won’t pretend to be Irish.

Irishness: more than a flag of convenience

Dermot O’Gara, editor of the Irish Abroad website, responds to Brendan O’Neill. Read on…

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

We’re all Irish now, by Brendan O’Neill

Why I won’t tick the Irish box, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden, Verso, 2001

(2) ‘St Patrick’s Day Festival 2002’ supplement, Irish Post, 16 March 2002

(3) ‘St Patrick’s Day Festival 2002’ supplement, Irish Post, 16 March 2002

(4) One in four Britons claim Irish roots, BBC News, 16 March 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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