Identity Ireland? Xenophobia Is Not My Irish Identity.

Twenty-five years ago the phone rang. I’m a little hazy on the details- you have to remember, I was only seven at the time. I remember that I’d been excited, because my dad was going to see my uncle John living in America, and that uncle always sent me on the best presents. Toys you’d never get here- polar explorer play sets, a gorgeous illustrated hardback Hobbit that I wouldn’t appreciate till years afterward.

There was always a kind of glamour to our overseas family, wasn’t there? You’d only see them once or twice a year at most. Their visits were filled with drama- the excitement of meeting them at the airport or in a house stuffed with family, a few days or a week to fit in months worth of experiences, and before you knew it you were saying goodbye again.

I say ‘were’, of course, but the present tense would be just as appropriate, wouldn’t it?

Of course- this won’t surprise you, since I led with it- that phone call twenty-five years ago was different. The details I’m gonna keep to myself, but my uncle- less than a decade older than I am today- had died suddenly.

It happens. It was horrible, of course. Of all my childhood memories- almost all hazy- the feeling of walking into my Nana’s house later that day, the silence of the aunts, uncles and cousins filling the living room lives in sharp, full-colour contrast.

I don’t know the details. I was only a child. But I think that it took days to bring his body home.

Let’s fast forward a few years, shall we?

I’m.. eight or nine or ten, I’m not sure. I’m in a hotel in Killarney. Our extended family- the other side, this time- has booked out a function room for a reunion. It’s the first time in our lives that we’ve all been in the same place at the same time. Cousins closely related, scattered around a small part of Ireland and a few handfuls of US states.

Does anyone else remember the boxes? Showing my age here, but: the boxes that you’d get from your American cousins every so often. Full of clothes and toys and treats. In fairness, I mainly remember the clothes. The kind of stuff you’d never get in Penneys or Dunnes, right?

Fast forward again. I’m an adult now. I lived in London for a summer. Who doesn’t, right? In my case it ended up being the worst situation I’ve ever gotten myself into. But a couple of bright points in it? I tried my damnedest not to work with Irish people but the bar that ended up hiring me (and that I loved) was run by a woman from a village where I lived as a kid. And I knew that if push came to shove, my uncle- the little brother of the uncle who died so long ago and so far away- was just a Tube trip away.

And again. Another few years pass. After the disaster of my summer in London, I’d decided to give it another go: this time on a J1 student summer visa to the US. Me and thousands of other kids, right? Now, I didn’t quite do my J1 the way I was supposed to. You’re supposed to work for the summer. Me? I had some savings stashed away. I had family in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, small-town Oregon.. between them, making beds in hostels full of other J1ers, friends I’d met off the internet and, well, a wee bit of U-haul syndrome towards the end (queers: you get me, right), I think I paid for three nights of board in that whole summer.

I could go on, you know. Couldn’t we all?

You see, this story isn’t unusual.

There are twenty diaspora for every one of our four million residents. The overwhelming majority of people of Irish descent live scattered around the world.

This is who we are.We all have loved ones all over the world. We have all made decisions: stay or go is in the back of all of our minds.

A new political party was launched in Dublin yesterday. Called Identity Ireland, they oppose multiculturalism, immigration and the EU, and advocate a “zero tolerance approach towards demands to alter national life, culture and traditions to accommodate minority held beliefs and cultures”.

I remember Ireland before immigration.

I remember an Ireland whose ‘national life and culture’ included incarcerating women with no trial and no hope of escape for the crime of being pregnant, or opinionated, or being born too pretty. I remember an Ireland where one of my parents’ closest friends had to die in London, because life as a gay man with AIDS in his home town was inconceivable. I remember the Ireland where people who were different had to leave.

And I am grateful that they had places they could go to.

I see Ireland today- one where more of us (but not enough) can stay, and one where people from around the world want to make their lives. I see how we’ve changed. How we’ve opened, both to others and to ourselves. I see the Ireland of the Magdalenes turning into the Ireland of #hometovote, and I know that for every Irish citizen who travelled home, there were new Irish, people who’ve immigrated to our country knocking on doors and asking their community to vote because they couldn’t.

I don’t know what Irishness is. Not really. But I know that a culture that can survive being 20/21 diaspora is one that can handle- can grow and learn from and celebrate- diversity among us. Looking at Irish history, the common thread- the only common thread- is that people have always come here. Our culture and identity survived Christianisation, absorbed the Vikings and assimilated the Normans. We carry those differences around in everything from St Patrick’s constant cameos in our pagan myths to our very names.

And I know that the decades where we attempted purity- the twentieth century of Catholic Ireland- were some of the darkest in our history. They were the times when we turned in on ourselves. When our xenophobia towards others became a hatred of difference among us, and where that difference was punished, imprisoned, beaten, abused when they were too young or too vulnerable to escape.

What is Irish identity? I don’t know. But I would hope that as a country we remember that it can be one of welcoming, and that while we should never welcome for our own benefit, that from that welcoming we nonetheless gain more than we ever could have hoped.

And I hope that the thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia of Identity Ireland go the way of the Magdalenes, where they belong.

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4 thoughts on “Identity Ireland? Xenophobia Is Not My Irish Identity.

  1. 1

    If you think 20th C Ireland was one of the darkest centuries in our history you must not read a great deal.
    The Irish population expanded in that time and we were in a great position in the last decade – the 90s.

    Emigration and Invasions of Vikings and Normans were bad things. We are still living with the legacy of unwanted immigration today with more then 900,000 in the north of Ireland not wanting to have anything to do with “assimilation”.

    Condemning those who question immigration is the current liberal position of gnostic holiness but its not really a great position to take if you care about the future harmony of Irish society. I would really urge you to have a think about what makes a decent society to live in.

      1. Fox

        Well it doesn’t matter what you call it is the results are the same, ie eventual surpassing and dominance over the native ethnic people. The Irish state was set up for the right of the Irish Nation to as James Connolly said “control its own destiny from the plough to the stars”, because we as a small people of never more than a few million have toiled, sweated and died over the millenia to create the Ireland we have now . We should not be flippant to dismiss any concerns of protecting our “way of life” through arrogant moralism of the observe of current anti-immigrant brutality. The examples you quote of assimiliation of the Vikings and Normans are negligable because they were only here in relatively smal numbers, and you do ignore also the massive amount of lost culture as a result of Anglo-occupation in the 8 centureis.

        Let me present the example of Kosovo, it’s the birthplace of the Serb Nation . 200 years ago it was overwhelmingly Serb in demographic makeup, but as a result of political decisions made during Ottoman occupation and Tito’s Yugoslavia, a tremendous amount of Albanians were settled there against native majority wishes, so that in 150 years it became overwhelming Albanian, but this was not colonialism, it was mass migration tolerated by political powers at the time. And we all know what happened, ethno-nationalist tensions that were simmering for so long finally grew to boiling point and ethnic cleansing resulted in atrocity on all sides. Today the Serb poulation there has been all but culled as Western/NATO interests found a mutual interest in supporting the Albanian ethno-nationalist state of Kosovo. Whatever viability for the Serbian nation there is practically dead now, very little heritage of the Serbs remains unmolested. Most Orthodox churches have been burned down, and the few Serbs that do remain live under a government that persecutes them. It’s had a very hard impact on the Serbian national psyche and only serve to reinforce the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

        Germany has chosen to admit 800,000 migrants this year alone. With an additional 500,000 per annum in the coming years. That’s the equivalent of Ireland admitting 40,000 this year and 24,000 every sebsequent year. Research released before this announcement shows by 2050, the majority of newborns in Germany will be of non-German ethnicity. Now whatever Germany does is not my concern, but surely the state of Ireland, the product of nation building here since the time of Brian Boru has the right to preserve the culture, values, heritage and soveignty of the Irish people, because let’s get to the crux here it is the only state of the Irish people on this planet and if we don’t preserve it, no one will.

  2. 2

    […] “I don’t know what Irishness is. Not really. But I know that a culture that can survive being 20/21 diaspora is one that can handle- can grow and learn from and celebrate- diversity among us. Looking at Irish history, the common thread- the only common thread- is that people have always come here. Our culture and identity survived Christianisation, absorbed the Vikings and assimilated the Normans. We carry those differences around in everything from St Patrick’s constant cameos in our pagan myths to our very names.” Identity Ireland? Xenophobia is Not My Irish Identity – Consider the Tea Cosy […]

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