I am neither Gaeilgeoir nor Catholic - but I am still Irish
RITE & REASON:JAMES JOYCE in Portrait of the Artist says: “When the soul of man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
During my life I have had a sense of wanting to “fly by those nets”, to avoid the constraints of nationality, language and religion.
My family came to Ireland in the early 19th century from Scotland. My paternal grandfather was in the army in Ireland and in India. Having come home from the famous Nile expedition, he was posted to Wexford, where he died in 1909. I was born there 30 years later.
My parents, who were adult in 1922, as citizens gave the new State their full, but not uncritical, loyalty. Since I was a boy I have wanted to free myself from the narrow, self-conscious and extravagant national pride all around me.
I was born just 17 years after Independence, so as I grew up, I heard at every turn the espousal of Ireland and everything Irish, but always felt that self praise is no praise. Some teachers indoctrinated children with a nationalism that amounted to hatred of Britain – and we wonder why violent republicanism still rears its ugly head.
I once heard a language enthusiast on radio say that unless you spoke Irish, you were not a proper Irishman. According to this principle, I am numbered among the 95 per cent or more defective Irish people. However I am in favour of preserving the spoken language as far as possible.
Two native-speaker friends independently told me that sometimes so bad is the Irish on radio and television that they have to turn it off. Having been brought up a member of the Church of Ireland in the post-Independence period of triumphalist Catholicism, I was made to feel an outsider. For so many people, in Ireland and outside, Irish is synonymous with Roman Catholic. Brendan Corish, leader of the Labour Party in the 1960s, went even further and said publicly: “I am a Catholic first and an Irishman second.”
I resented being seen by fellow countrymen as being Irish but not the full shilling. I resented that being Irish, foreigners expected me to sit lightly to the law and to have an ongoing affair with alcohol. How then am I Irish?
I am Irish pure and simple. I am as Irish as the most extreme republican, as the greatest enthusiast for and most fluent speaker of the Irish language and as the most fervent Catholic.
I am neither proud nor ashamed of it. I am glad I am Irish and I know I could never live contentedly outside Ireland.
There are characteristics of Irish people that I appreciate: generosity to the afflicted, welcome to the stranger, relaxed approach to living and a particular sense of humour. However, none of these is exclusive to our people.
We are not God’s gift to the world. We are one of a multitude of peoples on the planet who live together within particular national boundaries. There are characteristics of many Irish people I do not appreciate: for example, the selfishness of being so laid back as to be unreliable and believing that the destructive use of alcohol is funny.
I’m not a Kerry republican, a Dublin 4 nationalist or an Ulster or any other kind of unionist. I’m not a Gaeilgeoir or a Catholic.
On the other hand I am not Anglo Irish in any sense – I don’t possess or ever did possess, a horse! Neither have I an emotional home in England. I don’t want to be other than Irish. I am simply a human being who was born on the island of Ireland – and I’m glad that I was.
Patrick Semple is a former Church of Ireland clergyman and writer. He teaches creative writing at NUIM His website is patricksemple.ie