Who are we? What does being Irish mean? What is Irish Culture? Part 1
These are all big questions. They have been in my mind for some time now. I have been reading two books with respect to these questions. (1) Inventing Ireland by Declan Kiberd and (2) Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002 by Terence Brown
To answer the question “Who am I?” is a cognate philosophical question of deep relevance and consequence which I have discussed before in these pages. The question “Who are we as a people?” is equally as complex and no less relevant. We can look profitably, of course, to history and even to prehistory dating ourselves back to the ancient Celts who came to this small island some thousands of years ago. Today, quite often, to quote Humpty Dumpty, the term “Celtic” can mean what those who use it choose it to mean. As Dr John Davies points out, the word “Celt” was first used by the Greek writers in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. and they used it to refer to a people or peoples inhabiting the region to the north of the Greek colony of Massalia, that is, today’s Marseille. (See The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day, Cassell and Co., 2000, pp 6-7).
Then there have been many other peoples (I was almost going to say races, but the definition of race is very complex indeed so I’ll omit referring to race and instead use the word “peoples” or “nationalities” as they are less loaded words.) We Irish as we are today have been formed from the mixing into our Celtic blood of Danes and Vikings, Normans and Anglo-Normans, English (Anglo-Saxon) and indeed Scottish peoples. And without doubt, we are all the richer because of this admixture of nationalities. In short, whoever we are, our identity as Irish has been formed in that melting pot.
Today, as we welcome Poles (150,000), Chinese (60,000) Lithuanians (45,000), Latvians (30,000), Nigerians (28,000), British (25,000), Americans (6,000), Romanians (5,000), Philipinos (5,000) and Pakistanis (4,500) [figures from a recent study in The Irish Times – Who We Are, 25th May, 2006] to our shores, we will in like manner over the coming centuries allow their seed to be crossed with traditional Irish seed as these peoples intermarry with the “native” Irish. In such a fashion will the Irish nation be strengthened and indeed become equally as Irish as we are ourselves. How is this seeming contradiction or paradox true? Well, quite simply, if it is not true then the implication is that we ourselves are not really Gaelic Irish as we have been formed by much cross breeding between the nationalities I have listed above. If we accept ourselves as being really Irish we will have to accord the same dignity to our non-national colleagues or fellow citizens because they will go on to have children born in Ireland who will themselves eventually intermarry with the traditional Irish. Our culture is embracing of all and is indeed truly syncretistic. Our nation and our sense of who we are will be consequently strengthened.
Our nation will be as strong as this great evergreen tree, a picture of which I took in Newbridge House a few weeks back. Though the branches are many, the trunk is one.