What is it to be Irish?
Being Irish: Personal Reflections on Irish Identity Today
Edited by Paddy Logue
Oak Tree Press, Dublin
I'm not sure that constant analysis of national `identity' is entirely healthy - particularly when it becomes conflated, as it so often does, with ideas of race and racial purity - but this volume of 100 short, personal essays reveals the immense diversity contained within that most arguable of concepts, Irishness. Curiously perhaps, some of the more interesting contributions come from those who are most definitely not Irish, or from those whose legitimately held sense of their own Irishness is often denied.
Mike Allen, General Secretary of the Irish Labour Party, for example, is a third generation Irishman, born and brought up in Wales. He returned to Ireland more than half a lifetime ago where, although ``my sense of being Irish hardened from a feeling into a commitment, a loyalty... I still speak in an accent that many Irish people consider English''. Being forced onto the defensive - having to say ``I'm not English'' in the face of occasionally serious hostility - is an experience well understood by those who have, because of economics, history and accident of birth, grown up outside their own country. It is a recurring theme throughout the book.
Gregory Campbell's angry little contribution would be better placed in a book entitled `I am NOT F***** Irish!
Brian Dooley, who now works for Amnesty International in Ireland, remembers the difficulties of the London Irish during the 1970s - particularly republicans, who faced persecution in England because of their politics and rejection in Ireland because of their accents. Ironically, many of his parents' generation, who stood out in London because of their Irish accents, ``were keen to show suspicious Londoners that the IRA didn't represent them, and missed few chances to denounce the bombings''. This observation is borne out by several of the other contributions in the book. The desire to please an English audience by condemning fellow Irishmen and women remains a depressing tendency. Too many express an Irish identity characterised by over-anxiousness not be seen to be either subversive or threatening to delicate English sensibilities. It is also borne out by the book itself, which is notable for the almost total absence, save for those of Martin McGuinness and Des Wilson, of republican voices.
Tony Blair's much-quoted effort (``Ireland is in my blood'' and all that) has a familiar whiff of condescension and insincerity. I wonder if he actually wrote it himself or if some minion was delegated the task. One phrase in particular that rankles is the same one used when the British government apologised for the Famine: ``Down the centuries Ireland and Britain have inflicted too much pain on each other'', reiterating the old English lie that this pain has been of equal measure.
The real value of this book lies in a new, potentially important, concept of Irish identity. That is, in the words of one contributor, being ``Irish by choice of allegiance''
He (or his writer) could learn some lessons from the English barrister Lord Anthony Gifford, currently representing the family of James Wray at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. His eloquent essay is entitled simply `A Letter to the Irish from a Friend' and is worth quoting at some length.
``Dear people of Ireland: After visiting you for over 30 years, I have come to admire some of the ways in which you are, most assuredly, not British. You do not want to rule the world. You have never been conquerors. You do not try to beat up the opposing fans when you go to a football match... You have a patriotism which is like a bottomless well, a patriotism which burns for the dignity and honour of your people, rather than the `Rule Britannia' patriotism which seeks rather to heap indignity upon others. Ten of you, including a Member of Parliament, died in 1981 by refusing to eat food, all for the cause of dignity and honour. To me, that shows courage which is unimaginable.''
Des Wilson, the final entry in the volume, represents the embodiment of that passionate will to fight for the people.
The DUP's Gregory Campbell, on the other hand - whose angry little contribution would be better placed in a book entitled `I am NOT F***** Irish!' - represents that concomitant wish to ``heap indignity on others''. He also suffers from the unfortunate habit of capitalising every other word for EMPHASIS. This is the literary equivalent of SHOUTING and very off-putting; ``If the green shamrocks were all to be painted Orange it would not change anything and if King William's portrait were to be hung on every Town Hall in the Republic, WE STILL WOULD NOT WANT TO BE PART OF IT'' he yells. We hear you Gregory. And we understand why you would not want to be part of it because we recognise you for what you are - a RACIST. In saying what you say you reveal that your objections to a united Ireland are less a matter of politics than of race. But we also accept that, come unity, people like you are the cross we will have to bear.
Bigotry, sadly, is not confined to the unionist community. One particularly poignant essay is from Martin Collins, a leading member of the Traveller community. He writes of his pride in his Irishness during the 1990 and 1994 world cups; ``Every Traveller trailer and house had Irish flags and bunting on it'' he says, ``despite the fact that Travellers could not get into the pubs to watch the matches because of the discrimination and prejudice we have to endure''.
Amal Omran, a Sudanese postgraduate student at UCD, also writes of her mixed feelings at the reception she receives but, still, her essay is filled with forgiveness and profound affection for her adopted home; ``I have seen Irish people questioning me with their eyes - what am I doing in their country? But why? Because I look like an alien with my skin colour and the way I dress. However, there are always those who are there for me to wipe my tears, and they are also Irish.''
The real value of this book lies in a new, potentially important, concept of Irish identity. That is, in the words of one contributor, being ``Irish by choice of allegiance''. That is, being in possession of an Irish identity located in a desire to belong to and contribute to the well-being of community and country and which is not dependent on race, religion, birthplace or accent. It may be that our best hope for unionists is that they will ultimately want to become Irish `by allegiance', instead of being British by default; cherished citizens rather than unloved subjects. In return, Irish-Irish people will have to allow others to express this most valuable form of Irishness without fear of rejection or ridicule.
BY FERN LANE