Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What do you mean by 'Irish?' (defining your terminology)

I had a very stimulating conversation tonight. Maybe I will say more about that later. As always with a conversation like that I came away with ideas rattling about in my head on the road home.

I remembered a tv programme I appeared in called 'Twa Lads O Pairts' which I think was around 2003. In it I was asked a series of questions by the producer about culture and heritage, and was eventually asked if I was Irish. Now in context of the whole series of questions it was clear to me at the time that what was meant was 'Irish' in narrow cultural terms (ie, 'green', Nationalist, Gaelic, Catholic), not in broad geographical terms. There is nothing wrong with those things, and I have learned much from talking with friends for whom those things are very much them, but they are not me. So I said 'no'.

I don't believe it was a set-up or deliberate trick. I got on well with the producer and we stayed in touch for a good while afterwards. The programme was broadcast, but that one remark really stuck out to me.

Shortly after it aired I took a call that same evening from a prominent Ulster-Scots figure who was absolutely thrilled by this remark. I was a bit confused by the call, and their enthusiasm, as that person had never spoken to me before, and seldom spoke to me after. I expect I had served some kind of a purpose.

A wiser, older, me would be less inclined to assume what the questioner meant, and would ask for a definition of 'Irish'. Did they mean in a broad, inclusive and geographical sense? Or did they mean what a friend from County Wicklow called a narrowed exclusive cultural Irishness. Defining your terminology really matters.

Sometimes this wordplay can be sneakily sprung like a trap. You can hear it on phone-in debate shows now and again. It usually goes something like this:

Q: "So are you from Ireland?"
A: "Yes"
Q: "So you're Irish?" (there follows a silent "gotcha")

There's a kind of entrapment there, a kind of exclusion. But Ireland is an island of cultural variety. Every country on the planet has local and regional cultural variety. We are no different, and we would all be better neighbours to each other if we understood that better, and allowed each other to express that in our own way.

Instead of our 'three stranded identity' - of shamrock, rose and thistle - being three separate community threads, maybe every one of us has traces of all three.