There are unlimited understandings of what it means to be Irish. There may be millions. “Irishness” likely means something different to everybody who is Irish!
Unfortunately, “Irishness” often gets identified via narrow lenses. Some people believe being Irish means being from the Republic. Some believe it means being Roman Catholic. For some, it means being nationalist or being an uncompromising, Anglophobic republican. And some hold that to be really Irish, you must be white. But all of these myopic notions of “Irishness” are misguided.
Being Irish is not an exclusionary thing. Irish people aren’t monolithic and never have been. Ireland has been a diverse land for centuries. The earliest settlers came from outside, maybe Britain or elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, the Celts (precursors to the Gaels) came from mainland Europe and brought European influences with them. Both the Gaelic people and Celtic Christianity have roots far from our shores. Thus, the blend of influences from which the dominant cultural identity in Ireland emerged were foreign imports.
We owe many of our physical and cultural structures to a group of Scandinavians, including much of what evolved into our capital city. And, while their treatment of the Gaelic people was brutal, the Normans and the Tudors have influenced every aspect of Irish life, from how we govern ourselves via the Westminster and common law traditions, to the counties we divide ourselves into, facilitating intense pride in our home county come the All-Ireland senior championships.
“Irishness” and being from the Republic aren’t synonymous. Some of the richest bastions of Gaelic culture are north of the border in County Derry, County Tyrone, South Armagh and West Belfast. Many of us will have been stuck in traffic passing through Dungiven on weekends when Gaelic fixtures take place (thank feck the Dungiven bypass opened last month!).
Being Roman Catholic is NOT an essential trait of true “Irishness”. Some of the most significant historical figures in republicanism and Gaelic culture were Protestants: the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, Sam Maguire, and indeed Douglas Hyde, the first president of the Gaelic League and the inaugural Uachtarán na hÉireann. I think also of people like Linda Ervine and her wonderful work bringing people together via Irish throughout Northern Ireland.
You don’t have to be nationalist or republican to be Irish. Many in the North are both Irish and Catholic (for monitoring form purposes at least!), but are not in any rush to see a united Ireland. They’re comfortable both within their identity and within the Northern state. Their priorities involve the everyday essentials of living.
You don’t have to be Anglophobic and anti-British to be truly Irish. If you did, that would negate the Irishness of the millions of Irish people who have built their lives in Britain and of each of us who supports a Premier League football team or watches reruns of Father Ted (it was, after all, filmed in London for Channel Four).
And, you don’t need to be white and pasty to be authentically Irish. Some of our most well-known singers, actors and TV stars aren’t white or are from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Some of our most prominent elected representatives have mixed ethnic heritage, be they Tánaiste Leo Varadkar or Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu. We might even call to mind Kevin Sharkey, who delivered the immortal line “Sure I wouldn’t know, I’m from Donegal!” (although, curiously, he’s somewhat opposed to immigration).
Irish identity is the product of countless influences. It has been greatly influenced by our next-door neighbour over the last 800 years and by those whose ancestors came here during the Plantations. While some of their culture may be closed, as with the fraternal orders which aren’t especially enamoured of Catholics, it is part of Ireland’s cultural fabric.
The Irish have travelled the globe and had a massive impact on British culture, American culture and Australian culture, and these influences have been bilateral, with Irish culture being embedded with influences from Britain, the USA, Australia and elsewhere.
Moreover, Irishness has been influenced in recent decades by those who have made Ireland home. They’re part of the fabric of every village, town and city on the island, whether they be from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa or Latin America. I’ve yet to meet an Irish person that doesn’t love a good Chinese or a big dirty kebab after the sesh.
We’ve made our imprint on the many lands to which we have ventured and been welcomed, and we have been very much enriched by those who have made their imprint on ours.
Irishness embraces us all. It embraces those of us who want a united Ireland. It embraces those of us who don’t. It includes those of us who enjoy the Angelus before the RTÉ News and a good Mass. It includes those of us who prefer a Kirk Session and the BBC. It includes those of all faiths and none, and those of all ethnic backgrounds. It includes all the peoples of our beautiful island.
“Irishness” as an identity is not a closed, homogeneous category. Ireland is a melting pot. It always has been. “Irishness” can and does embrace everybody who calls our fantastic island home. Let’s cherish our diversity and, in doing so, make Ireland a hundred shades better.