Citizenship through Secondary History

By James Arthur; Ian Davies et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

Slave, subject and citizen

Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those who it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

(Preface to current UK passport)

As a young teacher in the 1980s I took a holiday in Ireland. I remember sitting in a Gaelic pub near Killarney. Republican posters dominated the walls and irritating Irish jig music rang in my ears. The only good thing about it at the time seemed to be the privilege of drinking real Guinness which just doesn't taste the same anywhere else. My table was shared by a local Irish tourist guide and a female American tourist.

The American was expounding her Irish ancestry with great enthusiasm but also felt obliged to apologise for polluting English blood of which she felt ashamed. Although I didn't betray this at the time, my feelings were outraged. How dare she denigrate her English ancestry? Yet my attitude was also tempered by personal knowledge of the dubious historical record of English intervention in Ireland. The two feelings jostled inside me, a sense of injured indignation juxtaposed with images of the Famine and 800 years of occupation. (In my mind I automatically thought of myself as English first and British second.) Surely the American was right to be proud of her Irish ancestry, identifying with a suffering culture? Wasn't it also understandable that she wished to jettison the unwanted blood of the English oppressor? Yet, in my mind, it wasn't that simple, for my mental baggage, as well as carrying a record of English-Irish relations, was also aware of English national achievements of which I was secretly proud. How was it possible to square those conflicting feelings in one person's head while also balancing the perceptions of two very different individuals? First, I myself, a young Englishman, of confused emotions, proud yet simultaneously ashamed of my identity in that setting. Second, a flag-waving American, identifying with that part of her ancestry linked to the oppressed victims of one culture while disowning the part of her ancestry she deemed shameful. Also a wry and pragmatic Irishman, who confided afterwards that he despised plastic Irishmen from the Mid West. On the other hand, he said, their money was useful.

Issues of identity are intimately bound up with citizenship. However desirable it might be to define the term within legally established and manageable rights and responsibilities,

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