For the first sixteen years of my life, being Irish was less a question of identity as much as simple fact. The sky- on those rare days of sun- was blue, the grass a shade of green I have yet to find abroad, and I was Irish.
Saying that I had never thought about what being Irish meant would be a lie; one doesn’t grow up just shy of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic without being at least peripherally aware of the cultural, social and political differences between our neighbours and us.
I knew, intellectually, what being Irish meant. I could talk for hours on the topics of our stolen language and half-forgotten traditions and forbidden faith; on the gorgeous landscape and rich history embedded in every town and county; on the food and music and art and all those features we typically ascribe to that thing we call ‘culture’.
Yet it wasn’t until arriving in Canada, thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic, that I experienced a rather unfortunate aspect of my Irish identity for the first time. I would find myself in conversations wherein, once my own nationality and identity was introduced, many of the North Americans around me were quick to claim Irish influence, heritage and ancestry in response.
I’ll readily admit to being sceptical. I was well aware of the North American propensity for claiming Irish identity even before I experienced it myself, as it’s something of a shared joke in Ireland that tourists come and expect special treatment because of an ancestor long dead.
I wish I could say that I was proven wrong.
It seemed to me that for the majority of the people I spoke to, their Irish link was nothing stronger than an immigrant five generations back and vague recollections of childhood stories.
These people seemed largely unaware of the intricacies of my home, my Emerald Isle, beyond St. Patrick’s Day and leprechauns and the colour green, drinking Guinness at pubs to seem cultured and declaring excitedly that their great-grandfather was Irish, implying that this fact somehow gave them a deeper understanding of the country than your average North American.
At first glance, this seems innocuous, almost flattering. I could understand why people felt the need to claim Irish identity like they did- it was an honouring of one’s ancestors and their culture, and a way to feel close to those that came before.
In a country such as Canada, into which millions of Irish people have emigrated and fled over the past four centuries from famine and persecution and poverty, there’s hardly anyone that can’t find traces of Celtic blood in their family tree.
But genetics do not identity make; the reality of Irish identity now is far different to what it was twenty years ago, let alone two hundred. Identity is influenced by factors I couldn’t even begin to list, and even people who live five minutes away from me across an arbitrary border define themselves as something other than Irish.
For them, the side of history they stood on and from where their laws come are sufficient differences in creating a separate identity. Why is it that those in a culture far less similar and further away feel comfortable in claiming the term, ‘Irish’, when those with arguably more of a right to do so do not?
To say that you are Irish simply because of the Irish influence in your culture does a discredit to both my identity and yours.
My ancestors never crossed the Atlantic. They didn’t have to forge a home in foreign lands or live with the extreme racism and discrimination that Irish people in North America had to.
Long before the current refugee and immigration debate, it was the Irish that people hated and sneered at and feared. Their identity was changed because of this, in both conscious and subconscious ways, and their arrival in the Americas often meant assimilating into the already present culture rather than attempting to create their own entirely separate communities.
The Ireland that those same people fled from, the Ireland that they carried with them and passed on to their children, no longer exists. It has been altered forever by independence and war and the passage of time. When North Americans say that they are Irish, they are identifying with the culture of their ancestors. That culture doesn’t exist in my country anymore.
There’s a difference between acknowledging how another country and culture has influenced yours and pretending that they are the same. For those Irish people who fled from the famine and the British, they developed a sense of identity that I do not recognise. It is the not the one I was born to.
I am Irish. That is all I’ve ever been, despite there most likely being some British or Central European in my bloodline somewhere.
But I grew up complaining about having to learn Irish Gaelic in school and getting grass stains from playing Gaelic football and Camogie at lunch break. I went to Dublin on weekends and made fun of the accents of those in the rival school and sat through far too many hours of mass to get my First Holy Communion.
I watched RTÉ Junior and switched to Nickelodeon because I didn’t speak the language of my country well enough to understand what was going on. I learned about how the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in the aftermath of gaining independence in 1922 because we had all but forgotten our own culture.
I traced my fingers over the bullet marks in the pillars of the GPO from failed rebellions and walked through the jail that saw the executions of thousands of my country men and women for daring to steal bread for their starving family.
I heard my mother’s stories of driving through riots and bombed towns and listened to my grandfather talk of his father who was in the IRA back when they were only terrorists to the English. I signed my name on the wall in Belfast that separates the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city every night from 9 to 7, because young men still kill each other over something as trivial as faith.
I jumped over Bealtaine fires and sang Irish folksongs and lamented the loss of our oral stories and traditions.
Is that culture? Is that identity?
Perhaps identity is a feeling, a collection of obscure traits, an accent and the way other people treat you. Perhaps it is found in how you view the world and what you miss most when you leave.
But there is comfort in being around those from your own country and culture- in sharing inside jokes and references that are impossible to understand if you didn’t go to catholic school, in complaining about the weather and how the food in Canada can never compare to the food from back home, in the tiny, insignificant moments that add up until you cannot help but laugh aloud at being understood.
Even in Europe, stumbling across an Irish person feels aptly like finding gold at the end of the rainbow- a second of relief like the first touch of your feet to the floor of home after a long absence.
To have that trivialised and claimed by people who don’t know my county and my culture cannot be anything other than insulting.
It would, perhaps, be far simpler if there was a checklist of requirements to meet before you could claim a country.
But there isn’t. And when it comes down do it, cultural identity is hugely personal and individual. But I can’t help but question the motives behind why identifying as Irish now is something common and accepted.
Is it just because of wanting to reconnect with one’s history? Is it because to do so for much of the 19th and 20th centuries in North America meant difficulty finding housing and jobs outside of the designated Irish areas?
Is it because identifying as Irish rather than British or French or Spanish often means a ‘free pass’ from difficult conversations surrounding colonisation and intergenerational responsibility?
Why is it that people only ever talk about the Irish person in their family tree?
In a society that newly places emphasis on the importance of discussing imperialism and indigenous issues, there are definite benefits to choosing to focus on the palatable identities rather than the ones that face criticism. It allows an escape from uncomfortable situations, the continuation of wilful ignorance hidden beneath absolution.
The cynic in me, the one that is newly aggravated at comments from people claiming to be Irish, wants me to believe that this is at least partly the reason.
For the first sixteen years of my life, this thought would never have occurred to me. I was largely unfamiliar with the politics of identity, and never considered how insulting it would feel for North Americans, who may have never been to Ireland, to claim proficiency and knowledge in Irish culture and issues.
That feeling is one I am now unfortunately intimately familiar with.
I expect that comments and statements like these will always be something I have to smile through, just as they will always irritate. My country does not exist for you to find your roots in. My identity is not something for you to experiment with.
If you cannot say that identifying as Irish has had an actual impact and difference on your life and experiences, then you need to re-evaluate. Reflect not only on whether or not you should claim the identity of Irish, but why you feel the need to.
You may feel that having a great-great-grandfather who was shipped across the Atlantic to settle in Canada somehow gave you the inherent right to modern Irish identity… but it didn’t.
And on behalf of my country, we’re tired of hearing you say so.