But the concept of Irish identity is an entirely complex one. Not only is the island fragmented along the much mulled-over socio-religious split, its border and the political loyalties within, but also the long-standing heritage of regionalism and provincialism. There is no easy answer to, ‘where are you from?’, and while people usually provide a simple, and indeed satisfactory, response, regardless of their official geopolitical tag, the truest description of Irish personal identity is highly developed and often impossible for outsiders to grasp. And that’s before one even considers the influence of the EU on both Dublin and on Belfast.
Ireland the island, both the Republic and the North, can be divided into six key descriptors.
- The smallest, and most ancient marker: townland (from tuath, denoting an enclosure). Unique to Ireland. For example Cahermaclanchy , County Clare and Shillanavogy, County Antrim.
- Towns and cities might follow, if living in an urban environment.
- The next largest divider (dismissing Borough Councils) is the county. For example Louth or Waterford.
- Then comes one of four provinces; Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht.
- Following this is the geopolitical decider of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
- Then, and perhaps the most tricky for those in the North, is whether the individual is Irish, Northern Irish, British or a mixture of all three.
But this is all purely academic, for in reality, few people will rattle off all six. Most will opt for point two, five or six, occasionally three. Even here, however, the concept is hazy, as nobody will say the same thing as the next. And herein lies the crux of the issue. What does it actually mean to be from the island of Ireland?
In ancient times it was a strictly provincial concept, further subdivided by local kingdoms, clans and ruling families. Not that this mattered to the common man, as the daily life and cultural behaviours of each region was closely related and family would have been the primary marker of identification for the masses. And so it remained until 1541, when the single Kingdom of Ireland was created by the occupying politics of Westminster, once and for all forcing the Irish to subscribe to the heretofore alien notion of nationhood. Not that this meant that the island as a whole was its own ruler under a single, accepted government; it never has been. Nor was it ever a united country, much to the dismay of modern romantics.
And so Ireland moved into the early modern period and beyond with scrambled and uncertain concepts of identity, largely dictated by the divisive legacy of conquest. Further confusing the issue was the notion of post-Reformation Christianity. From the early medieval era until this point, Ireland had been Christian, if in a unique form in many ways foreign to accepted Roman Catholicism. But the advent of Protestantism and the forceful policies of Tudor and Elizabethan planters gave rise to a cultural divide still being negotiated to this day; the labelling of people as Catholic or Protestant, as opposed to simply Christian.
But it would be erroneous to accept that the sectarian divide of the modern day has been continuous since the Plantation. One has only to point to the highly popular and nationwide United Irishmen movement that attracted supporters on both sides of the religious divide.
If the current social ghettoisation is not down to continual, if habitually recurring, sectarianism of the kind that finally undid the United Irishmen, nor is it the result of social incompatibility. The Scots and Irish share more than many in the current day are willing or able to acknowledge (see ‘Shared Origins’ article for more information). On the contrary, it is largely due to confused and desperate attempts to forge security out of the ruins of conquest.
Ireland has never been the golden chalice of promise as believed by some, and those who point to the Battle of the Boyne as a way to sure their argument are grossly misinformed. As Winston Churchill tellingly put it, ‘we have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.’ In the rawest evaluation, the modern problems of identity are the direct result of external influence.
These conflicting ideas of nationalism, regionalism and identity are highly tangled and largely contradictory notions that fail to see the bigger and more important picture; the inhabitants of Ireland are culturally and genetically the same, and share the same linguistic origins. This is largely ignored, forgotten and dismissed, and as Conor Cruise O'Brien observed, ‘Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it.’
Inhabitants of the island are torn and confused by the situation, and the scholar must look no further that the highly romanticised notions of pan-Celticism and the idea of a pure Celtic race, made popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These notions were the construct of desperate idealism, born in a climate of frustration and uncertainty due to the political machinations of Ireland being torn apart by various claimants, and given weight by the poetic musings of the likes of William Butler Yeats. Yeats, a Protestant, reflected fondly on the idea that Ireland should cast off the constraints of external rule and forge a modern interpretation of Celtic identity. The fact that ‘Celtic’ in this sense was a recent fabrication seems not to have entered into his thinking.
Indeed not all were convinced, not least of who was Yeats' contemporary James Joyce. Joyce, a Catholic, viewed the Irish as a people who had never known a singular, all-encompassing identity, and argued that its fluid state was well suited for pragmatic evolution and development. In his work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce criticises the notions favoured by allies of Yeats, and instead invites the Irish to consolidate the notions of identity and in doing so move forward for the first time in a singular notion of pan-Irish identity.
One must be careful not to dismiss Yeats as a dreamer, nor Joyce as a shamefaced cultural critic. Both men present important interpretations of identity upon which an enduring and all-encompassing notion of modern ‘Irishness’ can be built. The Yeats camp encourages the consideration that the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and ‘Scots-Irish’ share a singular cultural and historical heritage, while Joyce reminds us that Ireland is a modern country, an Old World melting pot which must adapt, learn and settle before it can progress.
While the tricky political condition resulting in the border must not be taken lightly, people of this island need to learn to transcend political reckoning with social cooperation. So where does this leave us? It leaves us without a single, identifiable voice; a petty and embarrassing construct born from invasion, divide and conquest. Indeed, if the island is to move forward, it is time for the people to reconsider their history with a fresh perspective and rethink what exactly it means to be of this island.
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