About Irishness

This is an old post I wrote last year following Lucinda Creighton’s talk at the ICD. Having read a number of newspaper articles these past weeks at confusion amongst Irish youth about their path in life and their sense of ‘abandonment’ of the home country, it got me thinking about being an Irish person abroad and what it means to be Irish. I hope to write a number of blog pieces around this topic but as a starting point I though I would offer you my opinion when I first arrived in Berlin last May.

When Lucinda Creighton, Minister of European Affairs of Ireland, spoke at the International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy two weeks ago, her speech revolved mainly about selling Ireland to the outside world. And there is nothing wrong with that. She spoke of a unified country, a country where everybody had the same cultural outlook, a country so united that it could stand beside another country’s strive for independence and individuality. While a powering speech it may have been, it did not entirely indicate what the Irish culture she spoke of was. There is a simple reason for this. The Irish culture is not as clear cut as our politicians like to make it out to be. Of course there is a high regard for Irish music, Irish dancing, Gaelic games, and the big Irish enjoyment that is alcohol, but this is not a united feeling and many Irish people are now trying to distance themselves from such a culture.

For me, this split in the idea of Irish culture can be dated most specifically to the rise of the Celtic Tiger. The globalization ofIreland’s economy has had major social consequences. Living standards rose quickly. Anybody who has seen an Irish film such as Angela’s Ashes will know that a vast majority of Irish people were living on the breadline. Suddenly people were driving around in brand new cars and living in large suburban houses. Emigration was reversed; the Irish youth had opportunities at home. The Catholic Church lost their stronghold over the people as laws on divorce and sexuality became liberalized. Ireland became an urban society for the first time. In short, the fifteen years prior to the global recession, transformed Ireland from a poor, underdeveloped, ‘sleepy’ country, to a country with a booming economy based on highly educated citizens and high-tech industries.

The Celtic Tiger was praised immensely throughout the country. Suddenly families could be fed sufficiently, there were opportunities for young people, and luxuries were affordable. Ireland suddenly felt able to play ball with the rest of the world. However, what the Celtic Tiger also brought with it was stark inequality and social exclusion. For me the idea of social exclusion was a bigger threat to the country than inequality. Luckily for Ireland, poverty is nowhere near what it is like in other countries. Our social welfare system allows people to live a somewhat enriched life. But what Ireland does not have is a good mental health structure. Going from my own observations, Irish people do not like to talk about feelings and problems can be solved over a good cup of tea!! The image of the Irish man is a strong, sturdy, hard-working farmer who wouldn’t even cry at his own mother funeral based on the premonition that real men don’t shed tears. But there is a new wave of Irish men this generation round who are touch with emotions, who want to live in cities not farms and who want to work as nurses, not farmers! So while the Celtic Tiger brought wealth with it, it also brought epidemics of depression, alcoholism and obesity.

Irish youth strive to go in one direction but are being dragged in the other by their elders. This is not only evident in farming communities but also in working class areas, near the area where I went to school. The town of Middleton in Co. Cork is a prime example of collision culture. Middletown started as a small village but has progressed into a booming, vibrant town. In a town that only has 15,000 inhabitants, suicide rates are high, with figures showing almost 20 per year. Until one family decided to break the taboo and speak about a suicide which happened in their family, almost nobody outside the town knew what was happening due to the stigma placed upon suicide by the Catholic Church, a stigma which many people still adhere to.

There are many other prime examples of collision culture in Ireland. A symbolic favourite of mine concerns Irish roads, which are called ‘bothar’ in the Irish language, which transforms literally into ‘cows crossing’. Another example is the use of the petrol station in Irish towns which are ideally put there for commuters but which locals use as their local shop. It is great fun to see the impatience of high-flying business men when all exists are blocked by locals having a chat.

Coming full circle back to the issue of the Irish government and ideas of Irish culture, I feel they are not doing enough to dispel this collision culture clearly apparent throughout Ireland. While Lucinda Creighton spoke about being proud of being Irish, her party Fine Gael, are proposing that the Irish language should be an optional subject on the Leaving Certificate. Polls have shown that the majority of Irish people are in favour of maintaining the language, and language specialists have argued that if the language becomes optional it will dwindle fiercely. At the same time much money is pumped into Irish sports, sports which are not played elsewhere in the world.

Conflicting interests are not helping the Irish people. The Irish culture, whatever the distinction may be, cannot be used simply as a tourist ploy. We cannot have a ‘traditional’ Irish culture for the tourists and half of the citizenship, and a cosmopolitan Irish culture for the rest. We need a stronger, united, singular sense of Irish identify, a source of confidence, something which will help us rise from our financial situation with the same sense of strength and pride we had during the Celtic Tiger.

While my so-called ‘Irishness’ is not something I have dwelt on whilst living on the Emerald Isle, since moving to Berlin and embracing other cultures it has made me question what it means to be Irish, what is my cultural background. I am certainly not the typical definition of an Irish girl, red, curly hair, freckles, always searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I am also not ashamed or who I am and where I have come from. I will always embrace my ‘Irishness’ even when I don’t agree with the shapes that some may try to mould Irish culture into.

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