ARE YOU IRISH?
Are you Irish? Of course you are! You would hardly be reading this magazine if you were not. But just how Irish are you and what does being “Irish” mean to you? Were you born in Ireland? Were your parents born in Ireland? Were any of your grandparents? Are you an F.B.I. (Like John McEnroe) ? Are you married to or adopted by somebody Irish ? Perhaps your Irish links go back further to ancestors who left Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine and who worked hard and prospered in the USA of the 19thCentury ? You might also be descended from the Scots-Irish of an earlier period?
Ireland’s recent prosperity and opening up has broadened the concept of being Irish. We have increasing numbers of immigrants, not of Irish origin, but living in Ireland, paying Irish taxes and becoming naturalised citizens; their children will be Irish. So also will children born in Ireland to parents who arrived fleeing political or religious persecution or just seeking a better life. These categories are ones that Irish Americans will be familiar with but they are novel for Ireland. In any event, if you are one of these you are also part of the worldwide Irish family.
For there are many types of “Irish” out there. Should we be surprised? We have around 6 million living on the island and somewhat over one million of Irish birth living elsewhere, chiefly in Britain and the USA. Around this core there are the Irish Abroad. There are no accurate figures on the numbers who left Ireland over the last two centuries alone but their descendents run into tens of millions. US immigration figures show that over four and a quarter million Irish arrived in the century to 1920 (80%, incidentally before Ellis Island was even opened) By 2006 the US Census reported that the numbers claiming Irish descent were over 30 million, and Irish-Americans were the US’ second largest ethnic group.
Elsewhere, during the last century, at least one and a half million Irish emigrated to Britain, where census estimates are that roughly 10% of the population are of Irish origin or descent (I have more first cousins in England than in Ireland). Indeed the Irish are still the largest foreign community in Britain! Australia, Canada, South Africa and Argentina all have large communities of Irish descent. With the possible exception of North Korea the Irish are to be found everywhere. In Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, in the farthest reaches of Central Asia, the first voice I heard in the hotel elevator after my arrival some years ago belonged to an Irishman from Navan, living and working there.
History is festooned with links between Ireland and her exiles and the role of the Irish overseas in developments in Ireland has been at times vital. Cromwell roundly cursed the Irish overseas for their role in his major military setback in Ireland, Clonmel, in 1650.Some of the patriots deported to Australia after 1848 travelled later to Canada and the USA and obviously many families ended up in more than one location (indeed there is a story – presumably apocryphal – that Buffalo Bill was related to the legendary Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, as a result of two sisters emigrating to different continents).
Nineteenth Century Irish nationalism was fertilised and nourished by emigrants. Could an independent Ireland have emerged without the support of the Irish in America ? In recent years also the role of Irish in America in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland was very considerable. Over generations Irish communities overseas have offered hospitality and a helping hand to successive generations of Irish obliged to emigrate. Money sent home from emigrants kept the country going in hard times. Investment by and through the Irish overseas helped employment in Ireland.
The worldwide Irish family numbers at least 50 million (some would say 80 million). The family analogy is a good one and merits teasing out. Why not do so? Take five or ten to reflect on where you stand on being Irish. Clearly you relate to Ireland – the Motherland – but is it confined to a feeling of bonhomie around St. Patrick’s Day? The chances are it’s something more than just pleasant sentiment (everybody empathises with St. Paddy’s Day) but actually defining what may be difficult. Now may be a good time to begin. Probably the intensity of your sentiments depends on the closeness of your links. Those born in Ireland, or the next generation, are more likely to feel strong affinity than somebody whose ancestors left Ireland in the 1850s. Have you traced your ancestors? Or are you close enough to the Motherland to count as an Irish citizen?
There are practical advantages to being an Irish citizen (automatically if you or a parent were born in Ireland; possible otherwise, through a grandparent, marriage or residence). There is no restriction on dual citizenship. An Irish passport can be more acceptable – and safer – in certain situations and countries. It also allows the holder to stay and work in any country of the European Union. Citizenship, which does not carry Irish tax obligations (these are governed by residence rather than nationality) could have tax advantages, in the hands of a smart accountant. Be careful, however; to make it worthwhile the exercise might involve compromising your existing citizenship or some of the rights it carries; so hire a lawyer first. Finally, there is no half-way house; every Irish citizen has the same rights.
The downside of this is that most of the Irish family, particularly Irish Americans, cannot qualify, since their Irish roots go back too far. There’s no half-way house here also; there’s nothing if you don’t satisfy the rules, and Ireland has no system of official recognition for services rendered. This is fine and egalitarian as befits a republic, but for many this is unsatisfactory ( for example, we cannot honour Ted Kennedy or others of his generation). Much service has been done Ireland and the Irish by her extended family – and they know it. While there is talk of introducing an honours system within a few years the first beneficiaries if and when it happens are likely to be citizens. So don’t hold your breath.
There are many, this writer included, who would like to see more official recognition for the worldwide Irish family. Among them is David McWilliams, the young Irish economist, who has advanced the insightful concept of the Mothership – Ireland – as a fruitful starting point for relations between Ireland and Irish communities elsewhere. He has argued that an interaction between Ireland and her diaspora could have a major and beneficial impact, “creating a global network with the homeland at the fulcrum”. He has suggested Israel and the worldwide Jewish community as a possible model. This may be stretching things, but it serves to make the point that our own kith and kin should receive special consideration. And this has particular resonance today, with Ireland exposed to a much changed Europe amid a worsening economic situation. The idea merits and should receive serious consideration. I will return to it.