Is there any point in celebrating being Irish anymore?

IS THERE any point in celebrating ‘being Irish’ anymore? As we approach another St Patrick’s Day, and don our ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish’ t-shirts and our shamrock-bedecked silly hats, what on earth does it all mean? Does taking part in this ritual have any actual bearing on our lives especially since our economic sovereignty is a thing of the past, asks sociologist Ethel Crowley.

Is there any point in celebrating being Irish anymore?

A well-known Irish butter advert shows a young emigrant and his pregnant German wife visiting his mother at home in rural Ireland. Before he leaves, he extracts a sod of earth, placing it in a shoe-box to take with them. He says of their baby, “He’ll be born in Germany, but his feet will touch Irish soil first”. This clever ad touches our hearts and raises many issues that are pertinent in today’s Ireland.

The young man in the ad still sees rural Ireland as his ‘home’, despite living in Germany. Our ‘home’ is a comfortable place where we feel relaxed and happy, giving us a sense of wholeness and stability. We feel naturally connected to our home, based on shared collective memories with family and friends. It is the most significant place in the world for us. Because of early memories, it surpasses all other places in its emotional power. Our home provides us with an anchor in the sometimes hostile and choppy seas of modern life. It’s the place that evokes melancholy in our emigrants after a few beers.

When emigrants return to Ireland after a long absence, they sometimes have bittersweet feelings of confusion or displacement. The place they encounter is both familiar and strange, having changed perhaps quite drastically from the one they left years before. They associate gangland murders and drug wars with the Bronx, not Blanchardstown. They inhabit a grey area between insider and outsider.

Their youth is remembered in random bits and pieces. Salman Rushdie, who left India for the UK as a teenager, says that these fragments of memory become all the more special because they are incomplete. He says they’re like bits of ancient pottery found by archaeologists. These vessels were very ordinary at the time of their using, but acquire great significance years later.

The experience of emigration is apparently part and parcel of being Irish. Serving as pawns on a global economic chessboard is nothing new. We are a nation on the move, with emigration serving as our socio-economic safety valve. For those who emigrate, the economic pressures to leave conflict with emotional and social pressures to stay. For the parents and loved ones left behind, their sadness is only partly relieved by Skype.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently suggested that emigration was “a free choice of lifestyle” for young people. Opposition politicians and the media lambasted him for his insensitivity to the feelings of the thousands who are forced to leave by the recession. Between April 2010 and April 2011 alone, official statistics say that 40,200 Irish people emigrated. This compared to 13,100 in 2007. The social effects of this recent deluge are very apparent all around us. Here we go again.

The butter ad also undermines any closed definition of Irishness. The baby that is to be born soon will be of mixed German-Irish parentage. His back-story will resemble that of Kerry actor Michael Fassbender. He might grow up experiencing his two cultures as either harmonious or conflicting. This might make him feel different, and so not fully at home in either setting. However, he will negotiate both these worlds, strengthening his coping strategies and enriching his life. He will also have the advantage of bilingualism, thereby opening up more options in later life.

Narrow national identities are based on myths of sameness between people. The cultural purity upon which these are based is a myth, as mixing has always occurred. Diaspora communities, whether of the Irish abroad, or of English, Polish or German people in Ireland, develop new cultural forms, mixing their old and new worlds. Love it or hate it, we have no choice but to live with cultural difference, transition and displacement.

The green fripperies of St Patrick’s Day attribute a sense of comfort, wholeness and sameness to Irish identity. They gloss over any inconvenient differences that might undermine the myth. Especially for those who live in the US, the parades make them feel part of the dominant culture, exercising their ‘soft power’.

Our identities are formed by the ways in which we attribute meaning to the world around us. They are about the cultural reasons why we do the things we do. National identity is only one of a range of identities we can have, perhaps based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality or politics.

While St Patrick’s Day can be tacky and tasteless, it nevertheless gives the broad spectrum of people who identify with Ireland an opportunity to come together as one. In this especially symbolic year of The Gathering, that can only be a good thing.

* Ethel Crowley is a sociologist based in Cork. Her new book, published next month, is Your Place or Mine? Community and Belonging in 21st Century Ireland (Orpen Press).

Good, bad, and ugly of the Irish

I love our:

* Fantastic, incomparable sense of humour

* Fabulously rich musical and literary heritage

* Beautiful, unique landscape

* Generosity to charities and NGOs

* Relaxed attitude to life: “sure, it’ll be grand…”

I hate our:

* High level of tolerance for corruption in Church and State

* Sheep-like complacency and head-in-the-sand approach to politics

* Aping dumbed-down American culture

* Poor civic culture

* High tolerance of loutish drunken behaviour.

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