Whose Ireland is it anyway?

Another St Patrick's Day of tacky celebrations confirms that Ireland is now not so much a state, as a state of mind.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘I feel more Irish every day’, President Bill Clinton famously declared in 1995, to the Irish and Oirish dignitaries at the annual St Patrick’s Day dinner and dance at the White House. The then most powerful man in the world was attempting to join the ranks of the relatively powerless Irish.

In 2000, Tony Blair followed suit. ‘Ireland is in my blood’, Blair wrote in a book called Being Irish – probably not the first time a British prime minister has used the words ‘Ireland’ and ‘blood’ in the same sentence, but surely the first time a PM has staked a claim to Irishness (1).

Two years later Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, got in on the act. ‘I have always felt an affinity with the rhythms of the Irish soul’, said Charles during an official visit to Dublin, confirming that even those of German/Greco origin can ‘feel’ Irish these days (2).

Now, none other than George Dubya Bush has signed up for the green army, albeit in a jokey, self-deprecating style. ‘I must be Irish myself’, Bush said recently, because ‘every time I speak in public I end up sounding like James Joyce…’ (3). All we need now is for Saddam Hussein to discover a long-lost Irish aunt, and sure we could cancel the coming war and have the craic instead.

Can it really be the case that some of the most powerful men in the Western world (and Prince Charles) are Irish? Of course not. Clinton, Blair, Bush and the rest are only Irish in the same way everyone else is – where Irishness is a feeling, attitude or pose rather than a nationality or accident of birth. From presidents to pop stars to paupers, anyone can become Irish now.

Being Irish used to be a straightforward affair. Those born in Ireland were Irish, and those born outside of Ireland were not. The second generation (those born outside of Ireland to Irish-born parents) were seen as kind of Irish – especially in Britain, where, because of the close proximity of the two states and the huge movements of Irish people to the UK in the modern era, the second generation are automatically Irish citizens at birth.

But the third generation and beyond? They could forget it. Britons, Americans and Australians (or Brits, Yanks and Aussies, as the Irish called them) who Gaelicised their names, claimed to have an Irish ‘soul’ and described themselves as ‘exiles’ were more often than not denounced as wannabes – Plastic Paddies and Brittle Bridgets who should stop codding themselves.

Today, no such rules govern Irishness. Being Irish has become a lifestyle choice, not a national status. Ireland is not so much a state, as a state of mind. During her time as Irish president in the 1990s, Mary Robinson (who was later the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights) sought to ‘redefine Irishness’ so that it would include the diaspora, the millions of Irish emigrants who left Ireland over the centuries – and, of course, their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, descendants, wives, lovers, illegitimate offspring, cats and dogs. Overnight, the Irish population jumped from four million to 70million and counting (according to one estimate).

For Robinson, ‘Irishness is not simply territorial’, but is more of a ‘concept’. Ireland has ceased being a mere physical entity somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, and has become more like a cross-border attitude. And it’s not even restricted to those of Irish descent anymore. Now has-beens from Arkansas and oil men from Texas can ‘go a bit Irish’ whenever they feel like it.

Anyone can ‘be Irish’ these days. You can show your Irishness by going to the right pub, having the right attitude, or you can just ‘feel it’ like Clinton does. On the New York girlie show Sex and the City, a male character once looked at Miranda’s red hair and asked if she was Irish. ‘No’, said Miranda, ‘but I guess anyone can be Irish with the right colourist’.

At an American chain restaurant called Bennigan’s – where they serve well-known Irish dishes like bamboo chicken and shrimp and Caribbean crab cakes – the management declares that, ‘Irishness is manifested largely in the state of mind that permeates our restaurant’ (just as well, seeing as it isn’t manifested in the menu). For Bennigan’s, ‘in the true Irish Spirit, even the smallest things can be celebrated’, like ‘finding a $10 bill in the pocket of your jeans and getting the best parking spot at a crowded shopping mall’ (4). And you thought Irishness was a complex cultural identity?

As a second-generation teenager (and full-on Plastic Paddy) growing up in London in the late 80s and early 90s, I had to get copies of my parents’ birth certificates and my own British birth certificate and National Insurance card, in order to get an Irish passport from the Irish Embassy – thus finally becoming An Irish National (of sorts). Today, turning Irish requires nothing more than a leap of the imagination – you can dye yourself Irish, think yourself Irish, or go to Bennigan’s and eat yourself Irish.

No other nationality is this amorphous. Imagine if in 1995 Bill Clinton had declared that he was feeling ‘more Finnish every day’ – he might have been considered unfit for office long before the world discovered his penchant for interns and cigars. And President Bush would never say something like: ‘I must be Czech, because every time I speak in public I sound like Milan Kundera.’ Irishness, on the other hand – you can slip in and out of that nationality as you please.

As well as being easy (in both meanings of the word), Irishness is in. It confers on its claimant a sense of being deep, different, interesting, angry (but not violent), real, vulnerable, earthy and emotional – which makes it attractive to everyone from American presidents who don’t want to come across as, well, American presidents, to teenagers looking for an identity that is not WASPy, British, Afrikaans or any of the other identities that are so last millennium. Identity crisis? You too can become Irish….

Of course, when Irishness can be found everywhere from a crab cake in New York to a $10 bill in your pocket, it becomes meaningless. Irishness has become so ephemeral that it no longer has any grounding in reality. Consider how Irishness (the feeling) is increasingly separated from Ireland (the island). Indeed, some now argue that the further from Ireland you are, the more Irish you become.

According to Joe Horgan, a second-generation British journalist who moved to Ireland to discover his roots, some people in Ireland actually think that St Patrick’s Day is about their island! The fools, the fools. Horgan writes: ‘Every year, [Irish people] review the way the day is being celebrated around the world, and this small island looks out and thinks it’s all about here and they smile wryly at how they think we see them. But we’re not celebrating them. We’re celebrating us.’ (5)

Having moved back to Ireland to realise his Irishness, Horgan now wishes he was back in Britain for St Patrick’s Day. ‘I feel as if my Ireland is not being celebrated here’, he writes, so he would far rather be in Birmingham where the craic was mighty every 17 March (6). Irishness is so meaningless now that a British-born journalist can go to Ireland, complain that they aren’t celebrating his Ireland, and wish he was back in the Ireland of Birmingham, England, which felt more, erm, Irish.

Likewise, Tom Hayden, the Sixties radical and former husband of Jane Fonda, argues that those outside of Ireland who consider themselves Irish are often the most Irish of all. He favourably quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1963 book about New York’s immigrant communities, which claimed that: ‘In the coming generation, it is likely that those persons who have the fewest conventional Irish attachments will become the most conscious of their Irish heritage.’ (7)

Of course, there’s an element of truth in Horgan and Hayden’s claims. In the past, those who left Ireland through little choice of their own often held on to their sense of Irishness, creating communities across Britain, America and Australia that were very definitely Irish. Irish immigrants sometimes faced hostility and discrimination in the nations they moved to – which only served to make their Irishness a more deeply-held thing. Irishness, and all that it entailed, became their heart in a heartless world, if you like.

But what the second, third, fourth, infinite-and-beyond generations of Irish are doing today is a different story. They are not excluded from society, except in their own fertile imaginations – instead, they demand official recognition for their ‘differences’. They do not face discriminatory laws or hostile attitudes – instead they wilfully separate themselves from the ‘host community’. Like angst-ridden teenagers, they just ‘wanna be different!’. And like tantrum-throwing teenagers, they want you to ‘recognise my difference!!’

So Joe Horgan writes: ‘On St Patrick’s Day we are visible. For the rest of the year the Irish in Britain, especially the second-generation Irish, just disappear into the rest of the community.’ (8) God forbid that the second-generation Irish should be the same as everyone else in Britain – even though, as it happens, they are the same. Irish people and British people speak the same language, live in increasingly similar societies, share the same cultural interests. The only thing that now distinguishes an Irishman from an Englishman is his nationality – and it is precisely that which is played down in the new definitions of Irishness.

This is Irishness as special pleading. When individuals talk about ‘my Ireland’, ‘your Ireland’, Tom, Dick and Harry’s Ireland, then Ireland becomes nothing more than a private conceit – not an identity defined by territory, place of birth or national aspirations, but a personalised identity based on little more than an individual’s desire to carve out his or her own space in the big bad world.

When I was growing up in Irish London, those among the second generation who aspired to ‘be Irish’ at least defined themselves in relation to Ireland itself. We liked the place, and its people; some of us delved into Irish literature and language, while others got into Irish politics and joined campaign groups demanding an end to the partition of Ireland. Ireland was the thing, and we (so we thought) were simply its exiled sons and daughters. Now Ireland the island – that patch of land where some people seem to think they have a monopoly on Irishness – is viewed by some as a barrier to the true expression of their own personalised sense of Irishness.

Are they Irish? Are they feck.

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:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) See Tony Blair in Being Irish, edited by Paddy Logue, Oak Tree Press, Dublin (2000)

(2) Prince aware of ‘long history of suffering’, RTE News, 15 February 2002

(3) President Bush’s Irish roots, Irish Abroad, October 2002

(4) See the Bennigans website

(5) Oh to be in England now St Patrick’s here, Joe Horgan, Irish Post, 8 March 2003

(6) Oh to be in England now St Patrick’s here, Joe Horgan, Irish Post, 8 March 2003

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

(8) Oh to be in England now St Patrick’s here, Joe Horgan, Irish Post, 8 March 2003

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