What kind of a nation are we anyway?


When we first heard reports about a small, proud, independent nation on the western fringes of Europe weeping and gnashing its teeth at the loss of its sovereignty to foreign financial institutions, we had to do a double-take. Was this Ireland they were talking about, a people so proud of their heritage that an entire generation from Dublin 4 to Dingle have grown up speaking in a curious, bastardised and absolutely un-Irish accent born somewhere between the mid-Atlantic and the hills of Los Angeles?

Surely they didn’t mean the island where large swathes of the population spend inordinate amounts of their time obsessing over England’s lowest-rent reality television shows, the same place where every Sunday afternoon pubs fill up with men who use the first person plural when referring to Premier League teams in British cities they’ve never visited? How quaint that these very people are suddenly worried about ceding control of a country where the main shopping thoroughfares have long since become cardboard cut-outs of high streets in provincial towns all over Yorkshire.

The most unintentionally hilarious thing about the sorry events of the past month has been the way the word sovereignty has so quickly entered the lexicon. The same people currently hand-wringing about our perceived loss of independence are the very ones who a few weeks back would have reckoned sovereignty to be some sort of gaudy gold ring worn by men of a certain class. Against that unpromising background, the silver lining to this cloud is it might force us all to consider exactly what kind of a nation we are and, more importantly, what kind of nation do we want to be. The results of any such introspection might not be pretty.

Every dictionary definition of nationhood describes a people sharing a common language, history, culture, and religion. How many of those criteria apply to Ireland in the 21st century. Well, there is a common language alright but it’s not our own. The dysfunctional relationship too many of us have with our native tongue, a consequence of decades of poorly-conceived educational policy, is perhaps best illustrated by events in Croke Park on a September Sunday five years ago.

That was the day Sean Og O hAilpin, a man who spent the first 11 years of his life in Fiji and Australia, delivered a magnificent speech as Gaeilge when accepting the Liam McCarthy cup at the conclusion of the All-Ireland hurling final. Most of those listening in the stadium and watching on television couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. More pertinent yet, many of them then had the gall to complain about this fact like it was O hAilpin’s fault vast numbers of Irish people don’t know enough of their own language to comprehend a few basic phrases at a sporting event.

But the language was taken from us by the English, they argue. Well, what excuse do we have for our strange attitude to our own history? Most nations born out of a military and political struggle (not to mention one that endured for centuries) take immense pride in this fact and go to great lengths to commemorate the various landmarks on the journey to independence. In Ireland, many are so afraid of embracing our (admittedly bloody) history that the most they will do is cock a post-modern snook at it, belting out “rebel” songs once they are drunk enough or once they see the IMF coming over the horizon.

Of course, they only sing ironically because it wouldn’t do to have any actual passion for the story of how the nation came into being. Celebrating (or even acknowledging) the events (some good, some bad, as is always the case) that led to Irish independence is perversely regarded as embarrassing and old-fashioned. Over time, it has become largely the preserve of whichever political party lays claim to the person involved in the particular cameo being remembered. Worse again, the fear of being associated with Sinn Fein and the IRA ensures majority stay away from these occasions lest they be branded fellow-travellers.

In most post-colonial countries, the biggest national holiday of the year is held on the date traditionally associated with shaking off the shackles of the larger power. In Ireland, we prefer to celebrate St. Patrick bringing Christianity into the country. All those people currently moaning and groaning about future decisions being made for us by faceless bureaucrats in foreign cities were probably too busy getting drunk on March 17th to ever wonder why, in allegedly post-Catholic Ireland, we never got around to cherishing our independence enough to actually properly celebrate it.

Any country which reveres its nationhood would have a better relationship with its own flag too. Somehow, somewhere along the line during the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, the tricolour was hijacked by the Provos. Beyond soccer internationals and World Cups, when do Irish people ever wave the flag? Upon moving to America, I saw more green, white and orange fluttering from residential homes in New York every March than I ever saw waving anywhere during a childhood in Cork. How many of those so concerned about sovereignty even have an Irish flag in their houses?

In every public school in America, the day begins with students placing their hands over their hearts and pledging allegiance to “the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Every single day for 14 years in the education system, every kid does this. Irish people deride this carry-on as jingoistic but it does explain why the average American loves the flag and honours it every chance they get. Do Irish children even learn the story behind the tricolour?

Of course, America is also a place where every year more and more movies dealing with the country’s struggle for nationhood go into production. If Ireland had any respect for its own evolution, surely the canon of films about the period between the Easter Rising and the Civil War would extend beyond two serious movies in quarter of a century, “Michael Collins” and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”. If culture is an integral part of nationhood, what does it say about us that we can’t even attempt to revisit our past through the cinema, like any proper, mature country should?

The gaps in our culture extend farther than that. In Gaelic football and hurling, we have two of the last vestiges of our own uniqueness, ancient games which remind us we have a heritage all of our own, distinct from the American sitcoms and the English soap operas in which we find nightly solace. Yet, you can thumb through the entire body of Irish literature without finding either of those sports or the GAA (the largest organisation in the country) as the subject of a serious novel. Similarly, not a single movie has yet been made in which the games feature and are celebrated in the manner of say, baseball is in Bull Durham, or English rugby in This Sporting Life.

For all the liquored-up braggadocio and bravado of the Celtic Tiger years, the available evidence suggests we actually lack the self-confidence to celebrate the few remaining facets of our society that separate us from the rest of the world. We would prefer to try to fit into the pan-British and pan-American cultures with which we are so obsessed. This tendency fits the profile of an immature nation. Exactly how immature will be proven again in the coming weeks and months.

Some day soon, most likely during the forthcoming general election a politician in search of a headline and a campaign issue will announce the intention to demand more visas for the Irish from the American government. Everybody will cluck approvingly while conveniently forgetting the fact that during the brief window of our own prosperity, we were about as inhospitable as a country could be to those less well-off than ourselves. We took in those we were forced to by EU law and, ignoring our own tragic history of emigration, treated most others like dirt on our shoes. We even coined our own n-word to describe them.

Aside from evincing a worrying ignorance about karma, our over-reaction to people wanting to come and work in Ireland showed the national self-awareness deficit. Having traded for decades on the slogan “Ireland of the Welcomes”, we were the exact opposite and, here’s the best bit, we saw no contradiction in that behaviour. The same way we’ll see nothing wrong with putting out our hands out now and expecting Australia, England and America to take those we can no longer afford to keep. Just as they did so often throughout our history. Just as we might have done for others if we’d have realised being a nation requires responsibilities and sometimes doing difficult things for the good of the less fortunate.

The manner in which we treat the tens of thousands currently departing our shores is telling too. Every American citizen is entitled to cast a postal vote in every American election. No matter where in the world they are, no matter how long has lapsed since they left their native land, they are entitled to a say in the future direction of the country. In Ireland, the moment the latest generation is herded onto the plane, they will be disenfranchised, conveniently removing the most ambitious and angriest sections of society from the electoral register. In some cases forever. The best and the brightest, gone and soon forgotten.

“Irishmen want their country,” bellowed Eamon de Valera, then priomh-aire of the First Dail, from a stage in Madison Square Garden, New York in the summer of 1920, as the War of Independence raged back home. “It is rightfully and lawfully theirs. Irishmen want their freedom: freedom to live their own lives in their own way: freedom to develop along their own lines: freedom to express their own national individuality in government, trade, art and literature: freedom to raise their own institutions in accord with their own genius: freedom to come out once more into the big world to share its activities, to act and to be acted upon, and to contribute their quota to human achievement.”

De Valera brought the house down with that one but ninety years on, it seems the theory proved much more impressive than the reality.


(first published in the Daily Mail in 2010)

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