On Being Irish, Maybe

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

I first visited Ireland in 1984 in the summer before my senior year of high school. We stayed in County Cavan with my mother's parents, my grandparents whom I'd met only once in 1976 when they visited America. Among many memorable firsts was the pleasure of meeting my four uncles on that side of my family.

One evening my uncles took me out to a pub in Cavan town for a few pints. In the dense smoke and din we started talking about what comprised the "true" Irish look. When asked, I suggested red hair and freckles. They dismissed it good-naturedly. I clearly remember my uncles Patrick and Phillip saying they thought that people in the west of Ireland had the "real" Irish look, like my father's mother who came from a fishing village in Galway—jet black hair, alabaster skin, and luminous blue eyes.

I've always cherished that conversation with my uncles, an experience in which I see myself moving from adolescence to adulthood. It was also the first revelatory chapter in my understanding of what it means to be Irish.

When it comes to being Irish, I'd like to think I have better credentials than the next guy. My mother emigrated to the United States in 1959. Her native Cavan sits landlocked on Ireland's east side an hour's drive north of Dublin. Like me, my father was born in New York City's borough of Queens, but his parents left Ireland in 1922; his dad hailed from County Mayo, his mother, as mentioned, from Galway. I've visited Ireland many times. I earned a Master's degree at Trinity College, living nearly two years in Dublin. And to put the shamrock on the cake, I was born on St. Patrick's Day.

But am I Irish? What does it mean to be Irish? Is it solely a matter of genetics? Must one be born there or is ancestry enough? Is it a question of citizenship? Does it mean holding an Irish passport? Do you have to speak Irish?

When I began studying for my Master's degree at Trinity, a required course was "Contexts of Anglo-Irish literature." It was Irish History 101. Very quickly, the notion of Irishness—of who exactly are the Irish—became as clear as a pint of Guinness.

There's a certain kind of Hibernian nationalist who'd have you believe that the Irish sprang from the earth and that Ireland's "isolation" on Europe's western fringe kept it pure in some way. (Certainly the Romans didn't think it pure; in Latin, Hibernia means "the land of winter"—no term of endearment.)

But look at the map. The Irish Sea separates Ireland from England; I wouldn't want to swim it, but it's no barrier. On a clear day one can see Scotland from the shores of County Antrim. For eons people have sailed their boats over to Ireland from England, Scotland, Wales, and various points on the Continent.

While I attended Trinity College in 1996 and '97, Dublin celebrated its founding by the Vikings a millennium prior. Look at the map again. Now Denmark to Dublin is a serious swim, but the distance hardly fazed the Danes and their big coon cats. A long trek for those boys was Greenland.

Irish tourism goes back thousands of years. The earliest human visitors showed up around 9,000 years ago. Waves of migration, conquest, and settlement have lapped the shores of the Emerald Isle almost as regularly as the sea itself: Celts, Vikings, English, Scottish, Welsh, Normans, Norsemen. Isolation? The fact that it's an island only made Ireland more accessible; until the Romans built their marvelous roads, travel by sea was always easier than over land.

So much for genetics.

The more I learned, the more I saw that the notion of Irishness is incredibly complicated, a tangled thicket of western European peoples further ensnared by the thorny coils of antagonistic variations of the worship given a young charismatic Jewish man who spoke Aramaic and lived and died 2,533 miles as the rook flies from Dublin.

To the casually familiar (or the highly prejudiced), Irishness might seem a matter of religion. They say of the Irish flag that the green represents Catholics, the orange Protestants, and the white bar sits in the middle to keep them apart. And the same Hibernian nationalist posits that the "true" Irish are Catholic while conveniently ignoring that Christianity is as foreign an import as Toyota Corollas or, dare I say it, the sacred spud.

In James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom reminds The Citizen—central casting's Hibernian nationalist: "Your god was a jew. Christ was a jew like me." To an impartial outsider, his remark seems as obvious as saying that the sky is blue, but it sends the already frothing one-eyed bigot into cycloptic rage. Bloom later muses to himself about the likes of The Citizen: ". . . they appeared to imagine he [Jesus] came from Carrick-on -Shannon or somewhere about in the County Sligo."

With the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1937 and the long reign of Éamon de Valera as its Taoiseach, that parochial mindset (summed up in the name of the political party Sinn Féin: "ourselves alone") became national policy, crippling the country economically and consigning it to stagnation as a third-world European backwater. Sadly, de Valera's Ireland achieved both independence and isolation.

Call me old-fashioned, but Ireland was Ireland before Christianity corrupted its shores and set its people—whoever they are—at each other's throats with an ideological savagery to make the feuds between the old pagan chieftains look like schoolyard tussles. Ironic, isn't it? I'm named for St. Patrick, but Oisín has all my sympathy.

Clearly, being Irish means different things to many people, all of whom consider themselves Irish. Few have articulated a more poetic understanding of Irishness than Jimmy Rabbitte, the fictional impresario of the short-lived Soul band The Commitments in the 1991 film adaptation of Roddy Doyle's 1987 novel of the same name: "Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the Blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the Blacks of Dublin, so say it once, say it loud: I'm Black and I'm proud!"

More than anything, it comes down to cultural identification—what aspects of one's background and upbringing one chooses to revere. As much as Irishness might reside in my genes, it's seared into my cultural DNA. I grew up in an Irish family in a heavily Irish community. As a kid in 1970s Woodside, I thought almost everyone had a parent with a brogue. Beyond upbringing, I've devoted much of my life to actively exploring this component of my identity, from traveling extensively around Ireland to studying its mythology, history, and literature both as a graduate student and on an ongoing basis.

Like the moon's influence on the sea, St. Patrick's Day always exerts its pull, drawing forth in me the tides of memory and cultural heritage. My birthday is inextricably linked to this annual celebration of things Irish. It's a heady dose of nostalgia, pride, melancholy, and wonder to feel that deep connection to a vast tapestry in which one's life is interwoven.

Am I Irish? 100%


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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