Why must we be ‘proud’ to be Irish?

Opinion: ‘The ironies that colour the debate on the New York parade are too dazzling to ignore’

 ‘The American St Patrick’s Day parade – and all associated celebrations – offered a template for the sort of identity-soaked festivities that have come to occupy so much of our calendar.’ Photograph:  Brian Kersey/Getty Images

‘The American St Patrick’s Day parade – and all associated celebrations – offered a template for the sort of identity-soaked festivities that have come to occupy so much of our calendar.’ Photograph: Brian Kersey/Getty Images


It’s all about identity politics these days. I’m great because I’m this or that. You’re spiffing because you’re the other. Why, for example, is everyone, at this time of year, required to be “proud” of being Irish? It’s not as if being born in the island constitutes any sort of achievement. Be proud of designing that cathedral or constructing that suspension bridge. You won’t catch me celebrating the accident of my birth or heritage. Then again . . .

A few decades ago, I found myself travelling through west London in one of that city’s popular black cabs. In my experience, relatively few taxi drivers fit the stereotypical profile of racist loudmouth boor. (Come to think of it, such generalisations constitute a class of bigotry in themselves.)

But this particular operative appeared drawn from central casting. The subject under discussion was, somewhat surprisingly, the drunkenness, fecklessness and general uselessness of the Irish. When I pointed out that his passenger was Irish, he neither paused nor apologised. “Oh your sort is all right,” he said. “It’s the uneducated lot that’s the problem.” I ordered the cab to a halt and made my way home on foot.

Actually, the last part is a lie. I was young, cowardly and, let’s be frank, a little too drunk to navigate myself from White City to Acton. But I gave him a jolly angry stare while handing over the fare.

At such moments, even the most fervent sceptics of identity politics will find themselves weakening just a little. Suddenly, one’s Irishness becomes the defining factor in one’s existence. Only football and bigotry can do this to the hardened identityphobe. Lord knows what would have become of me if, rather than enduring 10 minutes of ignorant bilge, I had suffered proper, meaningful discrimination. Why, I may even have come to enjoy awful St Patrick’s Day.

The dispute concerning the ban on gay groups – or, more specifically, those carrying (horror!) banners – marching in the New York City parade has already been examined rigorously in these pages. Writing on Tuesday, Fintan O’Toole didn’t exactly say that the organisers should pull themselves together and stop behaving like Cro-Magnon herders, but that is the implication I decided to draw.

The ironies that colour this debate are too dazzling to ignore. The American St Patrick’s Day parade – and all associated celebrations – offered a template for the sort of identity-soaked festivities that have come to occupy so much of our calendar. Long before the age of cheap air travel and transatlantic phone calls, the parade allowed first-generation immigrants an opportunity to huddle together and nurture shared cultural preferences. Something similar happened in Puerto Rican and Italian neighbourhoods.

Later, the gay community adopted similar strategies. When the mainstream is ranged against any one group, identity politics – the need to embrace one aspect of one’s personality above all others – offer protection, solace and a means of redress.

This seems like a simple enough concept to grasp. Yet it is astonishing how many halfwits fail to get their head around the notion. This day last week saw the latest enactment of an amusing yearly ritual. Every March 8th, insecure men take to their computers and ask: “International Women’s Day? Why is there no International Men’s Day? Or does that make me a sexist? Huh? Huh?” The fact that there actually is an International Men’s Day – it’s November 19th apparently – is not the issue here. An International Women’s Day is still required because virtually every society (yes, even in Scandinavia) is skewed toward the advancement and preference of men. Feminism still has potency because there is much work to be done in ironing out inequality.

Oh, blast it! Let’s ignore all the rules of good writing and reach for the creakiest of creaky cliches. We don’t need an International Men’s Day because (wait for it, wait for it) every day is International Men’s Day. We don’t need a White History Month or a Heterosexual Pride Week for similar reasons.

Still, it is possible to scare up just a little sympathy for those of us whose lives remain defiantly undefined by identity politics. Imagine the horror of being born into a white, middle-class, Protestant home in Northern Ireland. The unconvincing faux-besiegement of the Orange Order – characterised as much by antagonism as self-promotion – doesn’t offer any real relief (particularly if you have no affection for unionism). We are destined to be forever pressing our noses to the window of the Identity Café.

Oh well. There’s always St Patrick’s Day. Each year, we can step outside and celebrate our great accomplishment in maintaining association with one small island at the top-left corner of the Continent. It’s a small thing. But it will have to do.

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