Conversations about Irish identity activate my gag reflex

Though I read ‘Peig’, appreciate Red Lemonade and say ‘fillum’, national identity means nothing to me

Brian Boyd

I've been reading the "Neighbours: Britain and Ireland" series in The Irish Times over the past week, and have to admit I'm feeling a bit lost.

I was born in London of a Catholic Northern Irish Mother and a Protestant Northern Irish Father and I grew up in Dublin. I tick quite a few boxes in the British/Irish debate.

But whenever anyone from either of the two countries talks about their “sense of identity” it activates my gag reflex.


All my “mixed” background ever means to me is that I am eligible to play for three international football teams. And that’s where my “identity” starts and finishes.

Windsor Park terrifies the life out of me; Wembley Stadium has nothing remotely to do with me, so it’s a brisk walk down to what I will only ever call Landsdowne Road when the big day comes. As it still might.

I triggered the leave button on the Catholicism of my birth at 14 when it seemed to me that the religion was at best nonsense, at worst pathological. I know next to nothing about Protestantism and have no pressing desire to do so. I’m as happy to attend a Synagogue or a Mosque as I am a Christian church.

(I do admit I’m not the sharpest on the Catholic/Protestant thing. This struck me a few weeks ago when I was talking to someone I’ve known well for almost 30 years. He mentioned a term I had never heard before and had to explain it by saying it what was Protestants call a certain part of their church service.

We’ve been close friends all this time and I had neither known – nor cared – what religion he had been brought up in. We moved on to talking about the shock and awe of Wayde van Niekerk which had the benefit of being of interest to me.

On the last Census form back in April I put my religion as "The Church of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon" (The Clash). I could equally have written "The Church Of Marvin Gaye". Or Brian Wilson or "The Church Of Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street" (which I did in the last Census).

I did not put The Clash as my religion to be facetious. I did think about what religion is supposed to mean to you, and I concluded that most of the truly devotional moments in my life have been as a result of the music of The Clash.

I had to be talked down from adding in to the Census form that I view that the traitorous line-up of The Clash from 1984 onwards as Apostates.

The only time I have ever felt what I presume religious people here feel when they go on a pilgrimage was one beautiful summer evening in Liverpool some years ago when I walked from John Lennon’s house to Paul McCartney’s house. This very much moved me. Later that evening, by the gates of Strawberry Field, I sat down and wept at the importance of it all.

When people are banging on about their Irish identity, I sit there silently, wondering if they know anything about Don Letts and would they able to sustain a conversation on his role and importance. This would matter to me greatly.

I’m sure having a palpable sense of an Irish identity is a wonderful thing – not least for picking up pay cheques from the Summer School market – but I still haven’t forgiven God for not making me Paul Simonon, so I’m a few rungs down this ladder from everyone else.

Though I have studied Peig, believe Red Lemonade to be the Eighth Wonder of the World and can't pronounce the word "film" properly, I speak better Spanish, Italian and Portuguese than I do Irish.

My identity – for what it’s worth, and I could be wrong – was forged by my time working in Times Square in New York and later cycling around Madrid giving private English classes to the children of the Spanish aristocracy.

By contrast, I learnt nothing of any use whatsoever from ten years with the Christian Brothers

My opinions about quite a few important subjects were informed by listening to Bill Hicks bootlegs.

I sincerely believe that anyone flagrantly using the term “cultural identity” in a public space should be locked up for a “cooling off” period of 24 hours, but if a gun were held to my head I would offer up my all-consuming love and interest in the works of Miloslav Mecír, King Tubby and S. J. Perelman.