Irishness: More than a flag of convenience

Dermot O'Gara, editor of the Irish Abroad website, responds to Brendan O'Neill's 'Paddywhackery goes global'.

Dermot O'Gara

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Dermot O’Gara, editor of the Irish Abroad website, responds to Brendan O’Neill’s St Patrick’s Day article, ‘Paddywhackery goes global’.

This time of year, words like ‘Irish’, ‘Paddywhackery’, ‘nationality’, ‘Ould Country’, ‘Emerald Isle’, ‘craic’ and ‘roots’ are bandied about like snuff at a wake.

In fact, Brendan O’Neill’s article ‘Paddywhackery goes global’ bandied them all about – and although the article was essentially a broadside against those who take the opportunity at this time of year to wear their Irish hearts on their sleeves, nothing in what O’Neill wrote indicated that he understands what the whole notion of Irishness is actually about.

The article was like a stream of consciousness that in some vague way was tilting at whatever Irish windmills appeared on the horizon in March 2002.

O’Neill seems unclear as to where he should direct his ire. Is he upset at Prince Charles, who recently made a ridiculous, but fairly harmless, statement about feeling an affinity with the rhythms of the Irish soul? Or is it those American politicians whose great grandmother came from County Sligo and who refer to themselves as ‘Irish’? Or is it the Hollywood star who has the temerity to buy a piece of property in Ireland? What exactly is O’Neill’s beef with these people?

He says he will not tick the Irish box on his census form, and that he won’t ‘pretend’ to be Irish on 17 March. So it would be reasonable to conclude that he chooses not to consider himself Irish – which he is perfectly entitled to do, and more luck to him. But if he no longer considers himself Irish, why on Earth does he care so much about those who do? If Irishness is no longer part of what he is, why does he want to defend Irishness from the apparent marauding hordes of Aran sweater wearers?

Perhaps he feels in some way resentful – threatened even – by the idea of people claiming Irishness as their own. A self-described second-generation Irish Londoner, O’Neill tells us that as a teenager he declared his Irishness at every available opportunity – ‘a sure sign that we were trying to convince ourselves of our Irishness’. Looking back, he says this was simply angsty teenage rebellion. Perhaps – but it was also a lot more than that. It was his way of asserting his identity in London, a city of considerable cultural and racial diversity.

The Irish reference points O’Neill cites include Glasgow Celtic Football Club, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Pogues. These reference points are certainly Irish, but they are not actually of Ireland. In other words, himself and his friends and probably tens of thousands of young Irish-descended men and women in the UK at that time, constructed their own version of Irishness.

Their Irishness was an Irish abroad version, born out of the particular set of circumstances that prevailed at that particular time. That’s not to say that their Irish experience was in any way diminished, or any less real. On the contrary. O’Neill and his friends were almost certainly more conscious of a sense of Irish identity than your average punter in Cork or Kildare.

And yet the people who bear the brunt of his criticism are simply going through precisely the same process today, albeit some years on, and in a variety of locations. Irishness is, to a greater or lesser extent, a prism through which these people view the world – just as it was to the teenage O’Neill in the late 1980s, and just as it has been to emigrant Irish communities across the world for hundreds of years.

Football and miscarriages of justice were the vehicles that carried O’Neill’s Irishness then. For others now, it might be the peace process, Riverdance, or the NYPD Emerald Society and St Francis Catholic High School, or sending a daughter to learn Irish dancing and flying a tricolour on 17 March.

Surely Mia Farrow, derided by O’Neill, has every right to construct the version of Irishness that fits in with her own circumstances? And don’t her children have every right to be as proud of their Irish heritage as they are of their Vietnamese (after all, their granny did come from Boyle in Roscommon)?

Nor do I have a problem with UK prime minister Tony Blair boasting about drinking Guinness in Rossnowlagh in Donegal. That is where his mother grew up. And if former US President Bill Clinton wants to wear shamrock on 17 March, that’s fine by me. With all the time and energy he put into keeping the peace process alive, I think he deserves at least that.

O’Neill would say that the sheen is gone off his Irish identity. Reading between the lines, he attributes this to what he might see as a dilution of Irishness caused by too many people wanting to come to the Irish party. He wanted to be Irish because it made him different – and now it just makes him the same.

That’s too bad. Remind me to weep into my glass next time I go to the pub for a few pints of stout.

Dermot O’Gara is editor of IrishAbroad.com. A native of Dublin he has lived in London, San Francisco, New York and Cork. He does actually enjoy Guinness and, despite his name, is not thought to suffer from any of the effects of Dermot-itis.

Read:

Paddywhackery goes global, by Brendan O’Neill

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