‘Am I Irish or British? Or something in between?’
As a British-born Londoner of Irish parentage these are questions I’ve asked for a long time, writes Shane Nagle
Am I Irish or British? Or am I both, or something in between? Does it really matter? As a British-born Londoner of Irish parentage these are questions that have held my attention for a long time. They have recently been thrown into sharp focus by a public conference and discussion I recently co-organised at the London Irish Centre, and of course, the first State visit of an Irish President to the UK last week, a celebration of the cordiality and mutual sense of equal dignity that now distinguishes Anglo-Irish relations in all aspects.
There are millions of people like me – children of emigrants – for who a sense of Irishness is a part of our everyday lives, and it seems fitting to reflect on this in the aftermath of the State visit, also at a time when emigration rates remain so high and Britain continues to act as a magnet for many.
I would describe my background as both “low-key Irish” and fairly representative. My brother and I weren’t made to learn an instrument or Irish dancing. My mum and dad – both from near-neighbouring parishes in Co Clare, which makes things easier when the hurling is on – weren’t involved with the county associations or the Irish centres.
But our Irishness was always there. We listened to Céili House on the radio on a Saturday night, read the Irish Post and Irish World – and of course The Clare Champion – every week, and watched Gaelic games at the Haringey Irish Centre, in the days before this could be done at home. There was no doubt left in my mind that whatever my background or accent, I was (am) Irish, and not English or British.
The sense was that you were one or the other. You couldn’t really be both. This of course is something that has long since marked the Irish in Britain off from those in North America or Australia. It is something I no longer really feel.
The ways in which second-generation Irish “flag up” their Irishness have changed as Irish society and the profile of Irish emigrants have changed. Many Irish clubs and centres, at least outside London, have struggled to maintain a profile and will continue to do so as fewer younger first and second-generation emigrants make much use of them. These days, young Irish emigrants are just as likely to flag up their Irishness by getting involved in political and social campaigning and forming links with members of other communities over matters of common concern than going to Irish clubs and centres and participating in Gaelic athletics or county associations.
An element of conscious choice is of course important: I’ve known people like me whose perspective on Irish heritage ranges from overly eager, to indifference, and even to rejection of Irish roots in favour of a British or English identity.
Fundamentally, for me Irishness shapes my whole way of thinking about the most important things that make up one’s sense of identity: sense of history and place, views of culture and politics, and so on. I find my Irishness rooted in a desire to understand Irish history, an appreciation of Irish music, journeys to see family in Clare once a year, and a desire to know what’s going in in Ireland generally. Is Ireland home to me (in the way that it remains for my mum and dad)? Not really, and it may never be, but I don’t share Morrissey’s sentiment either.
Though Britain is a great country to live in for the Irish today, I feel little if any real sense of emotional attachment to Britain or England. Britain is the country I call home, but Ireland is my nation. Am I part of a diaspora? In its origins that word signifies exile, scattering. What I know is that I do not consider myself to be exiled from Ireland and in this age of instant communication and information how “scattered” is it really possible for me or the longer-established first generation emigrant to feel?
Many months ago, going home from another London Irish Centre conference in a taxi, I was asked by my African driver if I was Irish. I responded that I was a born-and-bred Londoner of Irish parentage and upbringing. I was surprised when he told me that he too was Irish, having become a citizen while living there for 12 years. Perhaps it is time, if only given this lesson in how diverse and complex Irish society has become in more recent decades, to lay whatever remaining reticence I have in me about my Irishness to rest.
After last week’s London Irish Centre conference on the meaning of being Irish in Britain, it’s reassuring to know that there’s nothing unusual about my uncertainties and self-questioning. In fact, given the unending complexity of the entwined stories of Ireland and the larger island, a well-defined sense of the shifting nature of Irish identity is no bad thing.