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The State of Us, Part 2: Irish identity is no longer fit for purpose

Ireland’s old markers of land, nationality and religion fail to reflect changes in society

Aiden Harris Igiehon. The Irish teenager was born and raised in Clondalkin, Dublin, and has a basketball scholarship at the Lawrence Woodmere Academy in New York. Photograph: Tom Honan

If we were looking for a single number that would indicate what is genuinely distinctive about Ireland now, the number would have to be 17. It contains a remarkable paradox: 17 per cent of Irish people live abroad; but 17 per cent of those currently living in Ireland were born abroad.

By international standards, either of these figures would be notable. But it is in their co-existence that we can see how extremely porous the State now is. And how ambiguous and complex one of its defining relationships – that between people and place – has become.

We like to think of Irish culture as being marked by a profound sense of place. And in obvious ways it is. Artistically, the urge to map a home territory in minute physical and psychological detail has been the hallmark of so much great work, from WB Yeats’s Sligo to Frank O’Connor’s Cork and from Seamus Heaney’s south Derry to James Joyce’s Dublin.

The invisible boundaries of minute townlands are still imprinted on the minds of rural people. Parish identities express themselves in fierce rivalries on the GAA pitch.


But this sense of place has, throughout the modern history of Ireland, been matched by an equally powerful sense of displacement. A culture of mass emigration has run parallel to a culture of territorial attachment. A belief in rootedness has been wrapped up in a constantly uprooted reality. And Ireland’s extreme relationship with emigration has proved to be remarkably enduring.

When the great economic bubble burst in 2008, the exit strategy kicked in with extraordinary rapidity for a new generation, as if some hidden genetic switch had been flicked.

We are a people formed by an unusually intimate, yet oddly fluent relationship with Elsewhere

Hence, Ireland has the highest percentage of its population living abroad of any developed country. At 17.5 per cent, the proportion is 25 times that of Brazil, four times than that of Turkey, and twice as high as Poland, even though we think of those countries as large sources of outward migration.

If we want to be honest about what makes Ireland distinctive, we have to acknowledge that the most obvious factor is as it was a century ago: our fondness for being distinctively Irish someplace else.

This habit has therefore long complicated the working definition of “us”. Are we still us in Springfield, Massachusetts, in Birmingham or in Sydney? How many generations have to pass before you lose your rights to Irishness? How long does it take for out of sight to become out of mind? These have always been slippery questions. But they are questions we are used, if not quite to answering, then to skilfully evading.

They are deeply familiar, so ingrained that they themselves can be said to be part of who we are: we are a people formed by an unusually intimate, yet oddly fluent relationship with Elsewhere.

More complex

None of this has gone away. If anything it has become even more complex, as Skype, cheap air travel and the relative ease of living between countries has changed the meaning of emigration. But there is a much bigger change too. Historically speaking, it has happened with astonishing rapidity. In 1996, the year the Celtic Tiger boom began, 98 per cent of the population of the Republic was born in Ireland, Northern Ireland or Britain. (And many of those born in Britain were the children of Irish emigrant families that had subsequently returned.)

Two things about this were remarkable. The level of homogeneity was very high. But it was also very continuous: in this regard at least, the population looked almost the same as it did 50 years previously.

And now we have an enormous discontinuity. In 20 years, we’re gone from this overwhelming homogeneity to the other 17 per cent: the 17.3 per cent of Irish residents who were born abroad.

And even this stark statistic does not tell the whole story – many of these people have Irish-born children who are likely to see themselves as having a dual identity. (Seventy per cent of those with joint Irish-Polish citizenship, for example, were born in Ireland.)

These new residents are not, moreover, anything like a homogenous group. In the year to April 2016 alone, people of 180 different nationalities came to live in Ireland.

Home and away

What this means is that the relationship between people and place that defined Irish distinctiveness has altered radically. In broad terms, it used to be two-dimensional and now it is three-dimensional. In the old geometry, there was home and away. The line between them moved overwhelmingly in one direction – from an Irish home to a foreign away.

But now for a very large part of the population, that line moves in the opposite direction: Ireland is away; somewhere else is home. And the point about these geometries is that they co-exist: there are the two 17 per cents.

There is plenty of racism and xenophobia in Ireland but it is, in a deep sense, profoundly unIrish

This co-existence is a good thing. It means, for example, that it is hard to build an organised anti-immigrant party on a clear distinction between Us and Them because "we" are all emigrants. The Polish family who have moved to Cork live next door to an Irish family with a daughter in Australia and a son in London.

That Irish family hopes that their emigrant son and daughter are welcomed as equals – and are more inclined to do the same for the new neighbours.

Obvious truth

It means too that Irish people instinctively understand that it is not right to demand of migrants that they must assimilate themselves to “us” – we know the difference between integration and assimilation because for generations we have been good citizens of our host countries without losing our sense of having another, Irish, identity.

There is plenty of racism and xenophobia in Ireland but it is, in a deep sense, profoundly unIrish. It relies on a denial of the obvious truth that we ourselves are a migrant people, that we are not just Us – we are also, as emigrants, other people’s Them.

Ireland’s distinctive demographics act, then, as a protection against a very negative kind of identity politics. But they do not in themselves create a positive identity. They make a pluralist notion of “us” even more necessary than it already was. But it is by no means obvious that either society or official institutions have even begun to think through what a multi-ethnic, even multi-racial, Irishness looks like. There is a vague and benign commitment to mutual respect.

But what will the Irish “us” be when, as seems certain, more than one-quarter of the population puts a hyphen before or after it, when old terms such as Anglo-Irish and Irish-American are joined more forcefully by Polish-Irish, Irish-Nigerian, Syrian-Irish?

This question is all the more pointed because the Irish part of any hyphenated identity is itself highly unstable. Its old markers – land, nationality and religion – don’t map the landscape very well when society is overwhelmingly urban, when nationalism has become complex and ambiguous and when the dominance of a single church is over for good.

Yet, as things stand, we still have key public institutions – most obviously the education system and much of the health and social care systems – that pretend that none of this is really happening.

Most primary schools, for example, still operate on the assumption that “we” are still universally either Catholic or Protestant and that “they”, the children who are neither, will be tolerated so long as they accommodate themselves to the way things are done here.

This is not, to put it mildly, a formula for the creation of a positively pluralist future.

Tomorrow: What is our nation?