1916 centenary: Eight diverse people discuss Irishness and their identity

In this centenary year, Joyce Fegan asks eight diverse people about Irishness and their identity

Maria Walsh: Something has always called me home

For many, Ireland is a changed landscape. Even as we celebrate our 100 years as a nation, Ireland year in and year out is forever growing, changing and redeveloping. I can see it and I can feel it. I myself am a product of that change.

Maria Walsh (left), the 2014 Rose of Tralee, was born in Boston but raised in Shrule, Co Mayo.

As an American by birth but Irish by heart, I made the conscious decision to return once again to the landscape that my parents wanted me educated by and memories created in.

Thousands of miles away, something has always ensured I came home. And with certainty with many of our Irish living away, I am not the only one feeling this way in 2016. For me, being Irish provokes many feelings. It means celebrating the individual, honouring the ages, those who have gone before and the many who will come after.

It means pride in all the colours of the rainbow across our lands. It means waking up to watch heroic women and men proudly wear our country’s colours on international stages in few defeats and in many victories.

It means rainy days but bloody great green fields to roam free on. I was a child once and playing in the tall grasses will always remain a novelty.

Being Irish in 2016 to me means always choosing a window seat on my return home. For how else will you catch the glimpses of the small communities and stone walls that hold us together and often creates divides.

Being Irish is not a choice and it is certainty not an identity you want to lose nor forget. For those away, and I too was one, being Irish in 2016 means always ensuring to connect and reconnect. Indeed, being Irish regardless of the year has always and will forever remain conversations about our weather, or our local Gaelic teams, or the ongoing political rises and demises.

As we celebrate those who have fallen, may we forever celebrate the education in those continuous streams of conversation with the generations before us.

And continue the country’s fight for our youth to roam in those tall grasses feeling safe of pressures and insecurities.”

Maria Walsh is a businesswoman and was the 2014 Rose of Tralee

Umar al-Qadri: I embrace Irish culture and want to be embraced

Umar al-Qadri’s children were born here.

First and foremost, my family, my children, were born in Ireland. They were born Irish. They go to an Irish school, our local national school, and they play GAA. I hope, one day, they’ll be wearing the Dublin jersey in Croke Park. That is my family, and my children are part of the new Ireland. My wife and myself are introduced to the Irish culture through our children, and we are embracing it and we want to be embraced by it.

The community that I represent, the Muslim community, has had a wonderful experience of being welcomed. The country is known for its hundreds of thousands of welcomes. It is known for its ‘Cead Mile Failte.’ The experience is very positive.

The freedom that the Rising gave to the Irish, 100 years ago, it has now been extended by the Irish nation to the new Irish, to the new communities. The Muslim community, we don’t feel that we can’t be Muslim and Irish at the same time. We can be. I believe we can be very much Irish, and practising our faith, at the same time.

What does it mean to be Irish in 2016? Well, Ireland is a country known to build bridges, not build walls. I think that is very important. Even when there have been grievances in the past, it’s a country that has been known to build bridges and promote peace.

I think it’s important that we continue to embrace other communities, especially after events like in Paris and in Brussels. Terrorists commit atrocities in the name of our religion. It’s a war between the peaceful majority of people, from all backgrounds, and between extremists. And if the Muslim community would be victims and marginalised, because of these extremists, it means it would not be positive for the experience of integration. Therefore, it’s important to continue to embrace them and not hold them responsible for actions of a very small, extremist minority. Muslims in this country have been doing our best to prevent this radicalisation taking place, and we will continue to do so, because, at the end of the day, this is my country, this is the country of my children and my grandchildren, please God.

Imam Shaykh Dr Umar al-Qadri is head imam of the Islamic Centre Ireland

Fr Peter McVerry: We have lost our sense of outrage

Fr Peter McVerry and his faithful dog Jack. ‘People have begun to take homelessness as a normal thing,’ says the campaigning priest

I’m very proud to be Irish, Ireland has a long and very rich history. I feel very disappointed in 2016 that we gained our independence from the British and yet so many people continue to be oppressed by our own system. People are left in poverty, or are homeless or are marginalised in 2016. I feel that the fruits of 1916 have not been spread evenly within Irish society.

When I do travel abroad I am happy to say I am Irish.

What is Ireland? Ireland is a country where the people still have enormous compassion, continue to be hospitable and yet we have lost our sense of outrage at the marginalisation and the major social problems that affect a minority of Irish people today.

When something exists over a long period of time, such as homelessness or poverty, that becomes the new norm and we judge things according to that norm, rather than according to an absolute norm, where those things should not exist.

People feel powerless to address problems like homelessness. They don’t know what to do. So I think rather than have a guilt trip over it, people’s attitude is: “Look there isn’t much I can do about it but I will give my own children the best possible start in life that I can.”

That may look like a selfishness but it is more a sense of powerlessness to address the other social issues.

We have the most centralised government system in Europe. Everything comes down to a few cabinet ministers, even minor decisions are made by a few cabinet ministers and local authorities have been virtually obliterated so I think that all creates a sense of powerlessness.

Fr Peter McVerry is a Catholic priest and a homelessness campaigner

Cathy Kelly: We have a lyricism to everyday words

Author Cathy Kelly says ‘the world saw us as peasants for many years and I am still proud of my peasantdom’.

It took travelling away from this beautiful country for me to see, with clarity, what it means to be Irish.

Away from our beautiful mountains, wild seas, and pubs with undertaking businesses attached, I saw other lovely places, but without my people.

Away, I understood, finally, that we do welcome people like no other nation, that we have a lyricism to our everyday words that is simply unknown anywhere else. In other countries, few strangers ever catch my eye and laugh with me at random happenings.

In big cities, the sea of people moves like a great river reaching a rock when they see pain: we do our best not to, even though we don’t always succeed.

Yesterday, I caught the eye of a homeless man on the street, stroked his hand, gave him money, hoped it wouldn’t go on drink. Hoped the money and the touch would help his soul, even if I could help little else.

We have our failures in our land but as a people, we have always understood kindness and the word of warmth. We lost it, a little, to the Tiger but it is still there. We give to the world — have a history of philanthropy and not just because we remember when we needed it.

It goes back to our ancient warriors and poets, women and men who kept love of the land, fairness, and their determination to be their own people in the same high regard as the beautiful tales of old. The world saw us as peasants for many years and I am still proud of my peasantdom. It goes hand in hand with wisdom. I can milk a cow like my ancestors, as well as discuss any topic with anyone. My mind and my hands can both work.

Cathy Kelly is an international bestselling author and Unicef ambassador

Joanne O’Riordan: We need to get rid of that first judgment of others

Joanne O’Riordan: Young Irish more accepting of difference.

I go around giving talks to a lot of young Irish people. They are probably way more open than it would have been in the ’50s or ’40s.

They’re a lot more open to what’s going on in the world, they have the internet, they have social media. They’re ridiculously in tune to what’s going on and they’re not afraid to accept difference. That’s the beauty of it now. Young Irish people are way more accepting of difference and I think that helps society.

They look into personality nowadays. I see it all the time. Everything I see is just more and more young people being more accepting of disability or anything that’s different.

The things that I champion the most are disability and mental health, and nowadays my peers are more than happy to talk about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world, from South Africa to Japan, and every time you mention you’re from Ireland you get a warm reception. There is a pocket of Irish people everywhere you go. When you say you’re from Ireland you don’t even need an introduction. You always get a nice, happy reaction; it shows what we’ve done across the world.

To me, to be Irish, we’re funny, you don’t get our sense of humour in any other country. We are a breed of our own. We inspire a lot of people. For a small country we pack an almighty punch. It’s something to be really proud of.

We should, though, get rid of that first judgment that we get when we see difference. Irish people could focus on themselves instead of looking at what the next person is doing, there’s not a lot of people that do it but first judgment is something we should get rid of.

Joanne O’Riordan is a student and a disability and mental health activist

Mark Pollock: Mark helping to push boundaries of research

Mark Pollock in the exoskeleton a at Trinity College in Dublin.

In 1998, Mark became the first blind person in the world to race to the South Pole and also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Common Wealth Games. In 2010, he was left paralysed after falling from a second story window and is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery.

He’s already taken hundreds of thousands of steps in his Esko Bionics robotic legs. To be Irish in 2016 means he has helped to create a ground-breaking paralysis research hub in Trinity College Dublin that he hopes will impact not just Ireland but the whole world.

“The challenge is that I, like so many, do not want to be paralysed. And up to this point in history it has proven to be impossible to find a cure for paralysis. But history is filled with accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour. The same human endeavour that allowed explorers to reach the South Pole 100 years ago and saw astronauts travel to the moon 50 years ago.

“And, inspired by those stories of exploration, I began searching for a new wave of pioneers who are focused on creating a cure for paralysis, those people working in the field of exercise physiology trying to maximise what remains intact, those people working in robotics creating exoskeletons to help people like me stand and walk and those people workingto reignite the nervous system using electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.

“In pursuit of this global collaboration we have created a hub for ground-breaking paralysis research in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin. We are excited about the impact that this will have for paralysed people in Ireland and the rest of the world over the coming years.”

Mark Pollock is an explorer and innovator

Padraig Ó Ceidigh: Being Irish is in my DNA, it’s part of what I am

Padraig Ó Ceidigh of Aer Arann. Picture: Maura Hickey
I think about it (being Irish) all of the time. It’s in my DNA, it’s part of what I am, it’s like when you get up in the morning and you wash your teeth and you have a shower. I feel very privileged and proud to be Irish.

When you’re abroad, people look at it slightly differently. I’m over here in Chicago now and as I drive around I see Irish names all over the place in relation to buildings, developments, restaurants, bars, legal firms, accountancy firms and so on. The Irish name and the Irish diaspora travels very well in relation to entrepreneurship and industry, particularly so in the last 25 years or so.

In Ireland,I’m very involved in community activities that would be very Irish. I’m on the main GAA board in Croke Park for example and that means an awful lot to me. Looking at that from an international point of view, roughly one third of the GAA clubs that are registered with the GAA are outside of the island of Ireland. When you see that type of a thing happening, Irish people when they travel they want to have their homeland with them when with their sports, with their culture, it’s extremely powerful.

We’ve a huge entrepreneurial spirit from an adventurous point of view, if you go back to the days of great Kerry adventurer Tom Crean and his exploits in the Antarctic. We’ve done those things in a whole lot of different ways. We’re a small island and the only way to grow is to look out rather than looking inwards.

But we need to open up a lot more, we need to be a lot, lot more flexible to facilitate opportunities for Irish people in Ireland to develop their entrepreneurial skill.

Padraig Ó Ceidigh is an entrepreneur, Senate candidate on the NUI panel and founder of Aer Arann

Thomas Barr: Our sports supporters are the best in the world

Thomas Barr winning the men’s 400m hurdles in the 2015 World University Games in South Korea. Picture: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

A large part of being Irish is not taking ourselves, or anything, too seriously, and meaning no harm. I’m proud to belong to a group of a few million people who, across the globe, are warmly welcomed and renowned for being good craic.

Our slang is second to none and confusing outside of Ireland (‘I will yeah’ contradictorily means there isn’t a hope of what you have agreed to actually happening).

We have the best sports supporters in the world; sure, we became famous in Poznan during Euro 2012 for it.

No matter the sport, the team, or the athlete, the Irish will always get behind their own green soldiers, out representing the country against the world’s best.

I feel like we are respected for being tough, respectful, and competitive, and, for a small country, we do pretty well internationally, across the likes of rugby, boxing and athletics, etc.

We’re unassuming competitors and are often the underdogs, but that won’t knock our confidence; we are still in it to win it. Win or lose, there’ll be a celebratory pint or a drowning of the sorrows. Overall, really, we’re just a sound bunch.

Thomas Barr is 2015 ‘Athlete of the Year’ and World University Games champion in the 400 metre hurdles

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