What Does It Mean To Be Irish?

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.

16 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be Irish?”

  1. I am ethnically part Irish and when I think of what it means to be Irish I think of the Irish spirit, even to the point of belligerence, I think Irish people demonstrate the joy of living just about better than anyone else. On top of that, the Irish invented Guinness. That alone should get them a top spot in the human Hall of Fame. What else could you want, mate?

  2. I like the title of the article and I think what I will trying to do, in my reply, is to compare what it means to be Ukrainian, versus what it means to be Irish. I am part Ukrainian by descent, and am as proud of those routes as I am of the other parts of my mixed heritage.

    My country [Canada] has large communities of Irish and Ukrainian descent, large than those of most countries outside of Ireland or Ukraine, respectively. I have wondered what is special about being Ukrainian, particularly with the lack of close friends who are East Slavic.

    I admit that my ability to speak any Slavic language is not very good, although all such language is sound wonderfully when I hear them spoken. That said, Ukrainian is spoken by over one half of the population from the country after which the Slavic language is named. A lot of people in Ukraine are bilingual Ukrainian-Russian speakers, although in Ukraine’s equivalent to the Gaeltacht (like in Ireland, in the west of the East Slavic country), a lot of the locals prefer to speak Ukrainian versus Russian. In the Donbass and Crimea, however, the opposite is true.

    In Ukraine, the locally-named Slavic language is the countries only official language, although Russian, like English in Ireland, is widely spoken. Kazakhstan’s locally-named official language, like Ukrainian, is also widely spoken in the Central Asian country. Ukrainian and Kazakh, unlike Irish, are commonly used outside the schools in the countries in the respective ex-Soviet republics.

    The language situation in Ireland appears to be very similar to that in Belarus, with the latter as much a Russian-speaking nation as Ireland is an English-speaking nation. English, like Russian, opens up a lot of doors, and economically-depressed Ukraine and Moldova are known for their high rates of emigration, with many nationals, of those two ex-Soviet republics, now working in Russia. That nonstop flights between Ukraine and Russia are indefinitely on hold, I admit, does not help matters, although the lack of such flights is a casualty of the poor relations between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Despite the poor relations between the two East Slavic governments, the bonds and friendships among the East Slavs are still strong.

    Russia is also known for attracting nationals of various Central Asian ex-Soviet republics. Why live in Dushanbe or Bishkek when you can go work in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and make far more money than back home? Among Central Asian ex-Soviet republics, it appears Kazakhstan has seen the most economic growth since the Soviet Union broke apart.

    Ukraine and Kazakhstan were once part of the Tsardom of Russia, then the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union. The native tongue of Pushkin and Tolstoy was spread far and wide, and is still widely used even in those ex-Soviet republics that no longer use Russian as an official language at the federal level. Padraig Pearse’s words, about “a land without a language” being “a land without a soul,” are still very much true today. It may one day be, for instance, that’s Belarus will simply merge with its bigger neighbour to the east, although, for customs and immigration purposes, the two countries have effectively merged into the Union State. It may one day be that Ireland’s and Belarus’s locally-named official languages will rise from being nearly dead, and join Ukrainian, Kazakh, Tajik, Uzbek, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Romanian, Turkmen, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian as being nowhere near dead. I hope that that day will come sooner than later.

    1. I from Kiev. I was very interested to read your comment, all right. In today situation in Ukraine many people understand what mean to be Ukrainian, and all try to speak national language.

  3. “Sure, Ireland is nowhere near as religious, gun loving or generally conservative as America,”

    -Whaaaaa? Wasn’t abortion totally banned in Ireland until, like, a couple years ago?

    1. Abortion is still banned in Ireland. The older generations are still quite religious and conservative, and their votes hold a lot of sway still.

      It will probably be legalised in the next few years, but until then we’re stuck in an uncomfortable limbo where women go to the UK for an abortion, and the authorities choose to ignore and not prosecute them.

  4. To be Irish is to have a sense of its history and to have a understanding of its culture such as James Joyce? I reside in Australia and am haunted by the massacres here had I know of this history I would never have came here also the British were all part of this but predominately the elite that run Britain and the riff raff sent here for punishment of course not all that came here were low class scum.
    When I lived in London their were individuals who were committed to seeking some possibility of what reality is? here I know no one who is doing this although Britain may now have sunk so low that the search for truth is now a sentimental abstraction having no place other than what Britain is now? dog eat dog? if so its not the place I knew when I left, having been here so long the primitiveness and the people I have known here are such that you know that more or less they are much like a consumptive and low class lot, this is not excluding the arrivals of most who come here are soon tarnished by the disease, I detest the place and should not be here but can no longer go back home as i cannot afford Britain, I left Britain as I was persecuted there, now I know the game I would not be vulnerable to what it was once for me.
    What Robert means if he were to face death in this place he is now in Belgium or where ever he would have this hankering to die back home, as I do I would hate to die in Australia but the chances of getting out of hereto back home is doubtful.
    I now see what the MI5 is all about and the class system and know the evils of Britain and can now rise above the corrupt British political system as within Britain such as the landscape and history I know so much.

  5. Imagine an American writing the following: –

    What Does It Mean To Be American?
    Since I’ve moved abroad, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be American.
    Part of the problem comes from language or more the lack of one. English, albeit of the American variety, is my native language and I’ve never been interested in learning languages such as Spanish or Cherokee spoken as their native tongues by other American citizens.
    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.
    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 expressions of culture and identity and the fact that we don’t speak a language of our own 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 a famous half-Irish revolutionary, Padraig Pearse said “A country/nation without a language is a country/nation without a soul”.
    As the most powerful nation on earth, how did we get here without an American language, without a soul?
    It’s doggone ornery!

  6. A chara,
    Bhain mé sult as an t-alt seo, agus as an ceann eile a scriobh tú le déanaí ‘Why Don’t The Irish Speak Irish’.
    Tuigim a bhfuil ráite agat, agus ba maith liom mo €0.02 chuir ós do chomhair: Is uirlis aigne í teanga. Cainnt, scriobh, éisteacht léamh; níl ann ach torainn gan é .Croí an teanga ná ar gcumas smaoineamh. Agus cé nach bhfuil ach 77,000 cainteoirí; tá an rogha ar fáil do saoránaigh na hÉireann. Mar sin, ‘What does it mean to be Irish?’ Tá an ceart agat, agus ag daoine eagsúla beidh smaointe eagsúla. An cheist níos domhain: Cé híad na Gael?

  7. I would love you to write about the distinctive Irish character. As a German having lived for over a decade in England I could write whole essays about how German mentality is different from English mentality and since you have lived outside of your own country I am sure you have become more and more aware which characteristics are distinctively Irish.

    1. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately,but I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe because I’m normally surrounded by Irish people, I can’t see the difference. It’s also hard to generalise about an entire people.

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