Since I’ve moved abroad, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Irish. In Ireland this isn’t too relevant of a question because almost everyone is Irish, but I’m currently living in a town where I am the only Irish person. I’ve always been proud to call myself Irish, but lately I’ve been wondering what does this mean? What makes Irish people different from others, such as the English and Americans? What is special about being Irish?
Part of the problem comes from language or more the lack of one. Only about 2-3% of Irish people speak the Irish language on a daily basis, for the rest of us it’s something that’s learnt in school but never used outside the classroom. For most people, their level of Irish is no better than any other foreign languages learned in school (not very high). Even those who speak Irish are also fluent in English, so we are to all intents and purposes an English speaking nation. English is my native language and I’ve never had more than a rough grasp of Irish (I’ve forgotten much of what little I had due to lack of use). My sister is fluent in Irish because she went to a school where everything was conducted in Irish, but she never uses it outside the classroom even with school friends who can speak Irish. Aside from the occasional government gesture, Irish simply isn’t used outside the schools and most people have little connection with it.
Speaking English has a lot of advantages, it gives us access to a huge amount of literature, music, television, as well as contact with people all over the world. It gives us a lot more opportunities to travel and work abroad. During times of unemployment, it opened a door to work abroad. Having fluent English is an enormously useful skill recognised all over the world. It gives us access to an enormous global market for writing and media. It lets our voice be heard all over the world, not just in Ireland.
But all of this comes at the cost of diluting our culture and identity. Most national movements and identities are built around the language. For many people, speaking the language is the clearest form of national pride and self-expression. Language is one of the strongest expression of culture and identity and the fact that we don’t speak our own language undermines our separate identity. After all, it is through language that we speak, listen, read and even think. At most, all we have is a different accent and a few different words and slang. As Padraig Pearse famously said “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam” (A land without a language, is a land without a soul).
Like the language, most parts of Irish culture is being pushed to the fringes, only carried on by the elderly in remote parts of the country or as shows for tourists. In fact, you could split culture between Gaelic culture (traditional culture) and Irish culture (the culture as practiced by the vast majority of Irish people). Gaelic culture is the typical stuff tourists come to see, the language, traditional music, Irish dancing etc. Yet few of these are practiced by the overwhelming majority of Irish people. So what culture do the rest of us have? Irish music still survives, but is never heard on the radio and I’d be embarrassed to play any in front of my friends. Irish dancing too, is limited in appeal and going to watch a dance is not a usual occurrence. Gaelic culture still survives, but it is marginalised and concentrated among older and more remote people. The rest of us have only brief interaction with it on rare and special occasions.
Most other elements of Gaelic culture have died off and only survive in museums. I’m not even sure what traditional clothing would look like, if it even exists, but I’d guess a shawl for women and a tweed coat and flat cap for men. While in Germany over the summer, I was shocked to see some people casually wearing traditional clothes, a completely unimaginable sight in Ireland. Nor I’m sure if traditional Irish food exists, as people usually ate what little they had, rather than going out of their way for something special. There is the traditional stew, but this is losing popularity as is the Sunday roast. An Irish fry is still popular, but what’s the difference between it and an English fry? Bacon, sausages and eggs are eaten all over Europe, not just in Ireland, so that’s not much of a distinctive identity. Even the most stereotypical of Irish foods, potatoes, no longer dominates. On the streets of Ireland, you see restaurants of many different ethnicities and styles, but no specifically Irish ones.
There aren’t any special Irish festivals apart from St Patrick’s Day (which was originally created in America in the 19th century by Irish emigrants). Even this is little more than a day of parades (containing a random mash of groups and marching bands) and a night of drinking. There is no serious engagement with traditional culture, people don’t make any attempt to speak Irish or read literature or do much except drink. Even though Halloween was originally a Celtic festival, the holiday we celebrate today is essentially the American version of trick or treat. Nor do people light bonfires at Lughnasa anymore.
Sport is the one area where traditional culture is holding its own and there is an overlap between Gaelic culture and Irish culture. Gaelic football and hurling are still the most popular sports in Ireland and receives huge support at all levels of society. They are sports with a long history and have been played in Ireland for hundreds if not thousands of years (in fact one of the ancient Irish myths mentions hurling being played). They are not simply copied from other games, but genuinely unique Irish sports. Large numbers still play at local clubs and stadiums are still filled. Yet even it is coming under pressure from foreign sports like soccer, rugby, basketball, even cricket and American Football are becoming popular.
The other main centre of Irish culture the pub, is a source for socialising, music and entertainment. Yet, is drinking a part of our culture to be proud or embarrassed of? Nor are pubs holding strong, many are closing and those that remain are becoming more American with little overt signs of Irish or Gaelic culture.
The biggest problem with Gaelic culture and Irish identity is that it has a strong inferiority complex. Many people are embarrassed or mocking of traditional culture, seeing it as suitable for peasants in bygone time, not modern time. Many people would imagine Gaelic culture as belonging to old men in a barren cottage, alive only in history books and black-and-white films. Part of this is the fault of British rule (in fact a large part of Irish identity is defined by not being English) which for a long time supressed and discouraged Gaelic culture and mocked those who kept to it. Partly poverty is to blame, it is hard to be proud of your country if it is too poor to support you and thousands leave every year. Much of traditional culture is associated with poverty, whereas English and American culture is associated with success and prosperity.
I am in a somewhat different position to most Irish people in that, although born and raised here, my father is American and I have dual Irish-American citizenship. Yet this has never been an issue for me. There has never been a conflict in identity or culture between the two sides of my heritage. The music, TV, clothes and language is pretty much the same. Sure, Ireland is nowhere near as religious, gun loving or generally conservative as America, but it could pass as a liberal state. I visited America many times without any major culture shock. Sure there are differences in accents, expressions and attitudes, but these are pretty minor and comparable to regional differences that every country has.
I don’t know if we have traditional values, or if they are worth keeping. For example, Ireland was an extremely religious country up until about twenty years ago, yet most people would view this as a negative part of our culture. Catholicism was seen as a key part of Irish identity and to be Irish was to be Catholic. Yet the Catholic Church abused its power to such an extent that they are now one of the most disliked organisations in Ireland and few young people are religious. Ireland was a very narrow minded, insular island, which was unwelcoming to those who didn’t fit social norms. A lot of these values have faded away and for the better. Ireland is a lot more welcoming to people of a different ethnicity, religion and sexuality, which is definitely a change for the better.
We do have a shared history. We all feel some connection to the past, to the Famine, various rebellions and the fight for Irish freedom. It is possible that there will be a surge in national feeling around the centenary of 1916 next year. But does that have any relevance for today? Is our identity stuck in the past? The Troubles in Northern Ireland shattered the naive belief that war was a glorious fight for freedom and showed that instead it was often dirty murder and indiscriminate slaughter. This has put a serious damper on over displays of nationalism and flag waving isn’t too common in Ireland (outside of sport). People are now questioning whether violent rebellions like 1916 should be celebrated or moments of pride.
There is a connection with the land. At its core being Irish means being born on the island of Ireland, even more so than having Irish heritage. Identity is linked to the land and most crises of identity come when someone leaves the land. But does this just mean we have a regional identity? After all, everyone feels a connection with where they were born, but that doesn’t make every region an independent country.
What we do have is a common identity, which at its core is what culture and nationality is all about. If people think they have their own identity, that’s all they need for an identity. If people think they are different from others, that makes them different. But is that it? Is Irish simply a label we use for ourselves without having any significant meaning? Is there no major difference between ourselves and the rest of the Western World?
What does it mean to be Irish? Fucked if I know.