Why are Irish people so precious about Irishness?

Our struggle to establish our identity should make us have more empathy for others

I moved to London nearly three years ago and since leaving Ireland I have become more aware of my cultural identity, how the world views the Irish and how the Irish view what they consider to be Irish. In particular, I have become aware of how some insensitive Irish people treat others who identify themselves as Irish, even though they may not fit the criteria to get past being called a "plastic Paddy".

In my own youthful ignorance, I have poked fun at friends and relatives, not realising just how hurtful these comments must be. With a long and troubled history of emigration, we should take the time to be sensitive about family history and what an individual’s Irish identity means to them.

When I was at secondary school in Galway, one of my friends was a boy who had moved from London when he was about 13. He had been born to Irish parents, had spent all of his holidays in Ireland, had only ever held an Irish passport, and had watched hurling and football growing up. Essentially, he was Irish – until he moved to Ireland. Every chance we got we would make fun of his accent, call him a “Tan” and offer him crumpets. We were his best friends, so God only knows what other people said to him in “jest”.

To me it was all in good fun. We were simply having a laugh with our English friend because it never occurred to me, as I am sure it didn’t to the others, that he considered himself to be Irish, though he had every right to. He never really fought back at the jibes or insisted that he was Irish.


Negative connotations

This hostility that second-generation Irish encounter when expressing their Irish identity comes about because Irish people dictate what they deem to be Irish. The term “plastic Paddy” holds nothing but negative connotations towards the person – and it is not used only to describe Americans with no Irish connections who drink Guinness and wear green clothes.

I have heard the term used in “banter” when my English boyfriend watches the GAA. Then he feels that he has to slip in the fact that his grandad is Irish and also his girlfriend. Unfortunately he is not the only one who feels that he needs to justify his reason for taking part in Irish culture and sport, though everyone should feel it is open and accessible to whoever wants to be a part of it.

I encountered a lady in London lately who is half-Irish, was born and raised in London, but spent most of the second World War in Kerry with her grandmother. She returned to London after the war and she told me how proud she was to be Irish but how difficult it was to be Irish in London. Even when it came to looking for a place to rent, some ads would state, “Irish need not apply”.

Warm nation

Hearing what a struggle it was for her, I began to understand why some people are so precious about being Irish. Being second-generation Irish, she had the option to hide behind her accent. Instead she would thump her fist to defend Irish people from those speaking out against them.

Ireland is renowned for being a welcoming and warm nation, but not always to those who want to be in the inner circle of what the Irish consider “Irish”. Now I think that if someone questioned my cultural identity, it would make me angry that they would think they had the right to do so.

So why should this be any different from questioning if someone identifies as Irish, perhaps if they have a non-Irish accent or a mix of German heritage?

A “plastic Paddy” jibe here and there may seem like it’s in good jest, but given our migrant history and the fact that the Irish diaspora is one of the largest in the world, it is not fair for Irish people to decide who can and can’t be Irish.