What it means to be Irish

17th March 2016

Born in insurrection, raised in turmoil, Ireland emerges into the sun.  

I sat in the National Concert Hall in Dublin last night, in the presence of our president – a man of poetry, politics and a defender of human rights – and listened to a 16 year old girl sing the plaintive words of Pádraig Pearse in haunting, mesmeric fashion: 

Mise Éire: Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra

Mór mo ghlóir: Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.

Mór mo near: Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.

[I am Ireland: I am older than the witch of Beara.

Great my glory: I who bore Cuchulainn, the brave.

Great my shame: My own children who sold their mother.]

This performance was also a live broadcast, and the camera cut to the young girl’s face. Her youth and beauty filled the massive screen on stage. As she sang, I felt a tear well, deep from the inside. Ireland. My beautiful country. 

That tear has been a long time coming. 

I grew up during the 1970s and 1980s in a hardscrabble nation, down on its luck. ‘That’s a bit Irish’ was a common expression used by us back then to describe a scenario which was either incompetent, or laced with bullshit. We generally held a poor opinion of ourselves. Economic emigration was a rite of passage, whilst bombs and bullets from the North whistled through our quotidian lives, diminishing a communal sense of security and self-belief.

All this while, a casual racism engrained in British media spilled through our TV sets, affirming what we implicitly suspected: being Irish was not the happiest of occupations; being Irish came with a dose of woe.  

I recall an episode of John Cleese’s iconic Fawlty Towers in which the haughty, trumped-up Sybil assaults a bumbling Irish builder, named O’Reilly, deriding his handiwork with racial slur upon racial slur, because he is “nothing but a half-witted, thick Irish joke”.

Cue uproarious laughter, on both sides of the Irish Sea. 

The Irish government ran a tourism campaign at that time, to entice its citizenry to holiday in Ireland and discover the place. The core message of the ad’s accompanying jingle made it clear why they should bother: because it’s cheap. That jingle, which I can still sing, went like this:

‘We’re rolling out the red carpet all over Ireland. We’re holding down the prices for your best holiday yet”. 

Being 14 years old, I was writing breathless poetry on the state of chassis, O’Casey-Irish for chaos, in our nation. [It is for sure that my poems should rightly have been about love – but that’s a different story]. We had just suffered the closure of the famous Youghal Carpets; industry was falling apart; and now the government wanted us to vacation here as well. My teenage rhyme reminds me of how I felt about Ireland once: 

‘No red carpet, plant closed down. Discover Ireland? No such clown!’

That was then. And so here we are, now. Some 35 years later. As it happens, we are without a government at the moment, the capital city has narrowly escaped a transport strike, homelessness and inequality are still a feature of our daily lives, and yet something fundamental about who we are has shifted. 

Ireland, long on her knees, in the shadow of bullies and gunmen, is emerging into the sun. We see ourselves differently because we have learnt a new vocabulary; told ourselves new stories. We have faced assault upon assault as the architecture of our culture has been rent asunder. And we have, for the most part, overcome. 

The Catholic Church is fallen by way of unspeakable crimes against children, and a disgraceful meddling in our political processes. The mantle of true community has passed to a more vague and interesting mishmash of the GAA, of live music and of social media performance, as we continue to reinvent how to properly commune, now that we no longer meet at the chapel gates, of a Sunday. 

The banks have been found out as chief villains of greed in our recent economic emasculation, and its associated humiliation. The medicine of recession was borne by an angry, yet liberated people far more willing to call things as they are – willing to express rage when its government betrays them, and when these financial charlatans walk free, or negotiate leniency where no chink of mercy should see light. 

Our political leaders, for such a long time a manipulative and patronising set of semi-talented, deal-making gravy trainers, are locked in a phase of painful and slow reinvention. They are the lagging indicators of a nation committed to renewal. We are impatient. But many of us remain hopeful. 

When I talk to young Irish men and women in their twenties for my work, I observe a galvanising pride in their Irish identity. They talk to me in fresh and sincere tones of a kind of neo-patriotism. They express a genuine pride in the quality and texture of our Irish culture, our talents, our produce, our heroes, our successes, our connections with Europe and the world. 

Yes. To be Irish is an identity rebooted. I see in us a small, old country which has walked a long, hard road. We have collected a certain wisdom and self-respect on that rutted trail. 

We are a nation which has fallen in love not with the idea of what we could be, but with the reality of who we are. 

It is a love hard-fought. It is no starry-eyed infatuation. I am a deeply proud Irishman. I have inherited my identity and traditions ‘from the dead generations’, as Pádraig Pearse declared in his Proclamation of 1916. In my pride, I own my nation’s strengths and her failures too. 

All of this passes through my mind as I sit in the National Concert Hall, the strains of beautiful music rising, and that young girl’s voice lilting clear: “Mise Éire. I am Ireland.”

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