Friday, October 31, 2008

Irishness and Identity

I've spoken to some people over recent weeks who have been out to the USA during this autumn to the big Scottish Games festivals that are held there every year. Tens of thousands of Scottish and Ulster-Scots descendants attend these. Among the Ulster-Scots-American diaspora in the USA, at least on a popular level, there seems to now be a trend away from the historically-used term "Scotch Irish", to "Ulster-Scots". The explanation given to the folk I've spoken with was that these Americans said "we're not Irish in any way - Irish is not who we are". The term "Irish" creates an impression, sends a cultural and historical signal - a signal that these people feel no affinity with.

So, are you Irish? It sounds like a simple question, but in fact is deeply complex. Identity - your sense of who you are, and of your origins - is not cut-and-dried, especially in a contentious and multi-cultural place like Northern Ireland in 2008. Our sense of identity has been pulled apart by violence, politics and a fair degree of purposeful social engineering.

Without getting into a definition of what "Irish" means (faaaaar to big a subject for a blog post, or for my wee brain) I see "Irish" being generally used today as a description in four main contexts:

Geographically Irish - ie belonging to the landmass referred to as the island of Ireland, which comprises the two separate jurisdictions of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland;

Politically Irish - ie a citizen of the Republic of Ireland (because if you're from Northern Ireland, you're politically British, whether you like it or not. But of course the edges on this are blurred - for example people in Northern Ireland can apply for Republic of Ireland passports);

Culturally Irish - ie embracing of Irish traditional culture, from bodhrans to the GAA and a lot of things in between;

Linguistically Irish - ie a user (reader or speaker) of the Irish language

There are probably other contexts too. However, most people I know feel no sense of connection with political, cultural or linguistic Irishness - it's not who they are, or where their family heritage lies, or where their aspirations take them. As a result they are reluctant to describe themselves as being Irish, even in a geographical sense, because doing so would send a completely false political, cultural and linguistic signal about their identity. So some people now use the term "Northern Irish" - a term that has become more commonplace over recent years.

Which are you?

(With apologies to my many overseas readers who are no doubt bewildered by this post!)