What Does It Mean to Be Irish?

By Toibin, Colm | Newsweek, March 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

What Does It Mean to Be Irish?


Toibin, Colm, Newsweek


Byline: Colm Toibin; Toibin's novel "Brooklyn" will be published in May.

Whatever they choose to call themselves, the island's people aren't going to let a few acts of violence disrupt their hard-won peace.

The battle in Ireland over the past 40 years has not been a struggle over territory. No one has wanted to take land away from others and claim it for themselves. It has, instead, been a struggle over identity: a long effort to find agreement over language and symbols, the terms of competing and complex definitions of what it means to be Irish.

It has been clear for some time that the old definitions would not work, that it was not useful to suggest that to be Irish was only to be Celtic in background, have a name beginning with O' or Mac, be Roman Catholic in religion and get drunk on St. Patrick's Day.

It has taken a great deal of argument to establish both in the public mind and in legislation that the island of Ireland includes more than a million people in the North who view themselves as British and want their identity respected and understood. They are also Northern Irish and are mainly members of the Church of Ireland or they are Presbyterians. They do not want to live in the Republic of Ireland, or in a united Ireland. They feel a closer allegiance to the flags, emblems and heritage of the neighboring island, or perhaps even to Scotland.

And yet they will cheer for Ireland when the Irish rugby team plays against England, as there is only one rugby team for the entire island. In soccer, on the other hand, they will cheer for Northern Ireland, which has a separate team from that of the Republic of Ireland. These allegiances in Ireland are complex. And when they have not had tragic consequences, then they have implications that are at times almost comic.

Some years ago I found myself at the Edinburgh Festival watching Wagner's "Siegfried" by the Scottish National Opera. Among the audience that night was my compatriot Lord Trimble, who was at the time the first minister in the government of Northern Ireland. Both Trimble and myself are staunch Wagnerians, and, since it was a wonderful production, we were perfectly happy, as long as we did not begin defining ourselves.

I use the word "compatriot" about Trimble with a degree of irony and mischief. We were both born on the island of Ireland. He holds a British passport and feels his identity to be British. He is even a member of the British Conservative Party. I hold an Irish passport and believe that I am Irish. …

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