Brexit Irish: ‘Getting an Irish passport was partly about rebelling’
Anger, dismay and confusion were recurring themes among research participants
Vikki Barry Brown: ‘I felt distanced from Britain and thought an Irish passport might make me feel more like I belonged in Ireland.’
Like many second-generation Irish people living in Britain, I applied for an Irish passport following the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. It became clear that I was not alone in this, as the media reported marked increases in British-based people making first-time Irish passport applications.
Being a naturally curious (ok, nosy!) person, I wanted to know how and why other applicants had made the decision to try to obtain an Irish passport. So, when the opportunity arose to carry out research as part of my Master’s dissertation at the University of Leeds, I jumped at the chance to interview members of the “Brexit Irish”.
There are lots of statistics about how many British-born people who have applied for Irish passports since June 2016, but in order to uncover the stories behind the numbers, I needed to find people to speak to me. I mainly used social media to recruit participants and I’m particularly grateful to the Irish Passport Podcast who kindly tweeted my request for new passport-ees to get in touch. Additionally, as friends and colleagues reached out to people they knew who met the criteria, more people agreed to be interviewed.
I was open-minded about what the participants in my research would tell me, especially as they came from broad backgrounds and did not all identify as Irish. I did, however, assume that most would be driven to apply solely for practical reasons, such as freedom to live, work and visit Europe. To an extent, this was the case - movement was important to all of the interviewees, but I was unprepared for the range of emotional responses that participants shared with me.
Anger, dismay and confusion were recurring themes in discussing Brexit, with a participant living in the Czech Republic announcing “I’m looking at Brexit, I’m like ‘Christ what are they doing?’ it’s kind of vandalism essentially of the whole international order.” One respondent was fearful that his Latvian partner might be forced to leave the UK following Brexit, and saw his Irish passport as a way of keeping his family together within the EU.
A respondent from a protestant Northern Irish background expressed surprise as he talked about how he thought he was the only one in his family to have applied for an Irish passport, only to find out that his brother had been using one for months.
“Getting an Irish passport was partly about rebelling a little bit against Brexit.”
Gleeful rebellion was expressed by those who felt they had circumvented Brexit, and pride was heard in voices describing the first time they used their new passport, with one respondent saying “I felt officially Irish and having the passport was a really proud moment”.
Some expressed gratitude: “I’m really grateful for Ireland actually for allowing us to do this, because many many countries wouldn’t.”
For others, it was a way to be less British: “I’m happy now that I’m not British, that I don’t have to say that anymore like, I don’t want, I’m half, I’m half, I’m really lucky, because I’d hate to actually be fully British.”
Some spoke about the complexities of feeling Irish but being reluctant to express that around “real” Irish people for fear of being called a “Plastic Paddy”, explaining how having a passport might help them legitimise their Irishness.
“I think if it’s someone English I was talking to I would happily say I was Irish, but if they’re Irish I might be a bit more shy in saying that I was just cos I don’t want to claim myself fully and feel like it’s annoying to that person,” one respondent said.
“’I’m as Irish as I am British. I put Irish but often if I meet someone, I tell them I’m Irish because… I am, and they are like ‘well you’re not because you don’t sound it.’”
Many felt a new or renewed connection with Ireland; some visited the country for the first time and discovered relatives; others immersed themselves in Irish literature, music and culture. A respondent originally from Northern Ireland, now living in the south of England said, “Lately I’ve been rereading Irish history and even learning a little Irish language.”
A politically active participant from northern England mused “it seems like we’re [THE UK]taking a step back and Ireland’s taking ten steps forwards socially; it’s quite interesting”.
These reactions shouldn’t have been unexpected, as my own motivations for applying were emotional, too. I had wanted an Irish passport for years, Brexit brought it into sharp focus - I felt distanced from Britain and thought an Irish passport might make me feel more like I belonged in Ireland.
Receiving my passport was a great day; it didn’t magically make me feel “authentically” Irish, but it did make me feel a bit more “official”, and I smile whenever I use it - although that might also be because I’m going on holiday!
Vikki Barry Brown is a doctoral student at Queen Mary’s, studying English migrants in Ireland. Originally from Yorkshire, Brown second generation Irish and is currently learning Irish in London. She is among several speakers participating in an Irish in Britan special event called “Brexit through the Green: Interpretation, Identity and Irishness” to explore the challenges that Brexit has presented to the Irish in Britain and, more widely, migrant community interests on Saturday July 13th from 1pm-5.30pm at Resource for London, 356 Holloway Road. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.