A warning ; what follows is best described as a brain dump, an attempt to get some thoughts down on paper and to see where it leads…
One of my first challenges in the study of Irish writing is to determine what is Irishness or Irish culture? How is it, or indeed, can it be defined? To what extent are the concepts of nation, nationalism and culture connected and what do people mean by these concepts? What, if anything, is essential to being Irish? What fits under the heading of ‘Irish’? I am reliving a similar sensation I experienced as an undergraduate when philosophy lecturers continually repeated there was no such thing as the “wrong answer”…that is until it came to exams in the form of multiple choice questions! Getting your head around these questions is akin to herding cats (recommend you try this at home as it will teach you the concept of the impossible) or picking up mercury (absolutely not to be tried at home as it will at least poison if not kill you).
Is it actually possible to define “Irishness” and do other nations have the same difficulty defining itself? Ireland, according to Terry Eagleton is a word of Scandinavian origin (22), and encompasses like all good dissociative disorders, multiple identities and a good dollop of delusion, for example: Eire is the official name of the state but we do not use it, Irish is our official and first language, but only a very small minority speak it, in the 2011 census, a population of approximately four and a half million was recorded, three and a half million claimed to be Roman Catholic, but you will find no where near that number at mass of a Sunday (cso.ie).
Arguably, the European Union suffers from a similar problem. Efforts to theorize European integration have to date come up with functionalism (Mitrany), federalism (Spinelli), functional-federalism (Monnet), neofunctionalism (Haas), intergovernmentalism (Hoffman), liberal intergovernmentalism (Moravcsik) -are you still with me?- and supranational governance (Stone Sweet and Sandholtz). The European Union is described as sui generis at one end of the spectrum to, a personal favorite, a “post sovereign, polycentric, incongruent and neo-medieval organisation” (McGarry)….and amazingly the British did not give one thought to these complexities when deciding to Brexit, just a commitment to put an end to migration, it appears, ‘was what won it’. I am attracted to sui generis as a definition, it appeals.
The Irish, unquestionably, suffer from a syndrome of multiple identities or definitions. Terry Eagleton professor of cultural theory at Manchester University, describes the Irish as, “A mythical folk. There is no single bunch of people called the Irish. Instead there are Gaelic-Irish, Norman-Irish, Anglo-Irish, Scots- Irish, Danish-Irish and nowadays a sprinkling of Chinese-Irish too”(104). He could add to that American-Irish, Australian-Irish, Canadian-Irish and just about any other Irish your having yourself. If you live in Ireland you are either north or south, that is, of the border. Which means you are also either Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British, still colonised, post-colonised, part of the Union, or even a loyalist. Green, white and Orange, or Red, White, and Blue.
Dublin, Ireland’s capital has its own north/south divide, for example, what do you call a northsider in a suit? Answer: the accused!! Northsiders are working class and southsiders are middle class, there are, of course, no jokes about southsiders. There is ‘rural Ireland’ (culchies), and ‘Dublin’ (Jackeens), sometimes referred to as ‘Dublin 4’, or ‘those people in Montrose’ (meaning those people in RTE), who it should be noted are southsiders. There is, ‘The West’, ‘The Kingdom’, and “then there are Cork people. Like God, Cork people are in a class of their own” (Eagleton 105). They live in the real capitol, the people’s republic of Cork.
Whilst the above are wry observations there is undeniably something of the binary, tribal, and oppositional going on. Sometimes I wonder whether we are incapable of seeing ourselves unless it is always in opposition to something or someone else or of accepting we are a mash-up as a result of historical and current events?
Claire Connolly in her introduction to Theorizing Ireland asks the question, “where do you need to be to get a clear view [of Ireland]?” (2). Connolly goes on to question to what extent do history, politics, economics, social, and culture impact on perspectives? and observes that:
“not all of Irish culture arranges itself neatly under the heading ‘Irish'[…] great swathes of contemporary popular culture, multinational capitalism, migrants and refugee seekers all participate in and are moved by global forces that traverse the island of Ireland, blind to the intricate complexities of its past” (2-3).
Maybe the answer to the question, “where do need to be to get a clear view of Ireland?” is somewhere else, anywhere else but here? Ireland has a unique diaspora of millions and millions. In 2001 the UK census recorded six million people, ten per cent of the UK population, with at least twenty five per cent Irish ancestry, the majority of whom arrived before the 1990s (ons.gov.uk). That is a figure greater than the current population of Ireland. Leaving Ireland is, arguably, the thing we excel at most and the perspective of the diaspora is no less complicated or layered.
I am a child of the diaspora, both my parents emigrated in the 1950s. Unfortunately they only got as far as Birmingham, where all my siblings and I were born. In 1970, when I was nine, they had the notion to return to Ireland. Frankly, I thought I had landed on Mars. Even though we ‘speak the same language’, my parents and all my relatives are Irish, and I had spent holidays in Limerick with granny and grandad. Nothing, I mean nothing prepared me for how alien I found Dublin and by extension Ireland. It was crystallized in a most innocent and ordinary event. Not long after arriving my aunt being the lovely woman she is, offered me a glass of lemonade and a pack of crisps, which I duly and delightedly accepted. The ‘lemonade’ was red, actually it was day-glo orange, and the crisps, were the vilest crisps I had ever tasted, Tayto cheese and onion…..I knew there and then that I had entered a very, very different world, which still, on occasion, as I found that day, is hermetically sealed.
I do not feel I belong to either nation, which is possibly a result of my dual childhood, but from the moment I moved to Ireland, and years later back to England, other people have always seen me as one or the other. Maybe I am missing the Irish gene? If so then I am missing the English one too. The concept of nationalism has long held a particular fascination, it is where I may explore next.
Connolly, Claire. “Introduction: Ireland in Theory.” Theorizing Ireland. Ed. Claire Connolly. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. The Truth about the Irish. Dublin: New Island Books, 2002. Print.
Haas, E. B. The Uniting of Europe: Political, Social, and Economic Forces, 1950-1957. London: Library of World Affairs, 1958. Print.
Hillen, Sean. Collecting Meteorites at Knowth. Irelantis.com. 1996. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://www.irelantis.com/gallery/collecting_meteorites.htm
Hoffman, S. “The European Process at Atlantic Cross purposes.” Journal of Common Market Studies 3, 1964: 85-101.
Ireland: Flying Through the Country. You Tube. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iUPb7y0hgE
Ireland. Digital Image. IrelandIncoming. Yahoo. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=irelandincoming+trianess+jpg&ei=UTF-8&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-102&type=default
Ireland census fiqures 2011. Web. 12th October 2016. <http://www.cso.ie/en/census/census2011reports/>
McGarry, Katherine. “Europe post World War II 1945-1957.” ES2029: EU Political and Institutional Development. UCC. Unpublished.
Mitrany, David. A Working Peace System. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1943. Print.
Monnet, J. “A Ferment of Change.” Journal of Common Market Studies 1, 1962: 203-11.
Moravcsik, A. “Preferences and Power in the European Community: A Liberal Intergovernmentalist Approach.” Journal of Common Market Studies 31, 1993: 473-524.
Stone Sweet, A. and Sandholtz, W. “European Integration and Supranational Governance.” Journal of European Public Policy 4, 1997: 297-317.
UK census figures 2001. Web. 12th October 2016. <http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index>