In late January each year, department stores across America begin stocking a range of garish green t-shirts of all shapes and sizes. They bear legends like: “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, “Slainte!”, “100 per cent proof”, and “Drink me I’m Irish”. Ordinarily trend-setting outlets put fashion needs and good taste aside to cater for what they consider the natives’ insatiable appetite for Irish-themed rubbish in the build-up to St. Patrick’s Day. No shop has ever gone bankrupt over-estimating how much awful shamrock-flavoured tack the average New Yorker is willing to buy. The market just gets bigger and more cringe-worthy every spring.
These are commercial concerns who we can forgive for their desire to cash in on the cloying American weakness for Hibernophilia. What are we to make though of our own government seeking to carve out its own piece of this awful pie? Last weekend, Micheal Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced his department’s plans to sell a “Certificate of Irishness” to the members of the diaspora (and while he says it’s aimed worldwide we know the people being targeted are the Yanks) so far removed from the country that they don’t qualify for citizenship. Think of it as an official version of the makey-uppy passports kids get inside the secret agent kits they buy at toy shops. Except this one will come with an authentic government stamp, probably a harp.
“There are many in this room whose Irish family connections date back several generations and who may not therefore qualify for Irish citizenship,” said Martin at the Ireland Funds’ Global Young Leaders Conference in Farmleigh. “However, your presence here today and ongoing commitment to this country is a powerful testament to the enduring draw of our common heritage. I believe it is essential that we in Ireland value and affirm the validity of this sense of Irishness felt by so many people abroad. I have therefore decided to proceed with the introduction of a Certificate of Irish Heritage which will be available to those of Irish descent who do not qualify for citizenship. It is expected that this new initiative will be operational later this year.”
What other country behaves like this? Can anybody picture the Germans trying to sell a certificate of Germanness to the fifty million or so claiming that ethnicity who live across the United States? They’d have more class. What about the English, an ancestral grouping nearly as large as the Irish in America. Is it possible to see Downing Street signing off on something as crass and twee as this? No, didn’t think so. We are the only people who cling to this notion that everybody wants to be like us.
Hey, we’re the ones Sigmund Freud said couldn’t be psycho-analysed, the bunch about whom GK Chesterton wrote: “..all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” Who wouldn’t want to be one of us? Sure we might be a tad presumptuous but aren’t we great craic all the same? We might even have a peel-back section on the back of the certificate that offers a genuine aroma of Guinness, like the perfume samples in glossy magazines.
Aside from the arrogance involved in this enterprise, there is the shameless spectacle of a government department basically turning itself into the bureaucratic equivalent of Killarney. For those who don’t know, the Kerry capital is infamous, even among gullible Americans, as the place in Ireland that tries its damndest to part sentimental tourists from their dollars with the most over-priced and kitschy range of paddywhackery. Bad as it is when avaricious shopkeepers and publicans try to take advantage of sentimental old fools trying to get in touch with their ancestral roots, how much worse when the money-grab is sponsored by Dail Eireann?
The idea of a “Certificate of Irishness” (free “Kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirt with the first ten purchased!) was first mooted at the controversial Global Irish Economic Summit at Farmleigh last year. It’s stunning and depressing to think our best and (allegedly) our brightest were gathered at that conference and this is what they came up with. Although, one imagines a civil servant in Iveagh House doing some quick sums afterwards before announcing: “70 million people of Irish extraction around the world, there’s gold in them their hills boss!”
Of course, there is a historical precedent for this kind of thing. In the latter half of the 19thand early part of the twentieth centuries, the Fenians and Eamon de Valera both sold bond certificates in the would-be Irish Republic to Americans willing to buy into the notion of Irish independence. At the time, critics of both those schemes pointed out this type of fund-raising was illegal because they were selling stakes in something that didn’t exist. Not much has changed then.
Ninety years after de Valera raised $5m, some of which he rather cheekily used at a later date to finance the birth of the The Irish Press, a Fianna Fail-led government is trying to get people to purchase a stake in something completely notional that is impossible to access and worth nothing. What will this piece of paper be except the genealogical equivalent of one of those online PhDs you can purchase on the Internet? Except this one will most likely be framed and put on the walls of Irish-America, in between the embroidered blessing “May the road rise up to meet you”, and the wooden family crest (purchased in Killarney).
Nobody doubts this will be a commercial success. Four years ago, a couple of bright sparks in Cork decided to start selling three-quarter pound bags of Irish dirt to Americans. Based on the simple premise that the Yanks will buy anything at all that reeks of Ireland, they shovelled soil into fancy packaging and began catering for those who wanted, among other things, for their families to be able to sprinkle a little piece of home on their coffins as they were buried. Since that business is apparently thriving, there’s every chance of this government-backed certificate of spoofery taking off.
Indeed, Martin has opened up a whole new world of possibilities here. For young Irish-Americans, the preferred method of showing pride in their ethnicity (apart from getting drunk and fighting on St Patrick’s Day) has always been getting a rite of passage tattoo. Normally, it’s a fighting leprechaun, a four-leaf clover, or a Celtic Cross. There’s no reason that the Department of Foreigners shouldn’t be trying to muscle in on that lucrative action. Can’t get a passport? How about a pot of gold tattoo that comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Irish government?
The funny thing is that the department was very quick to claim the venture, which will be carried out in partnership with a private company, was not expected to generate significant revenue. A strange thing to say. By their own estimates, there are 70 million people who will be interested in this. If they charge thirty euros for every embossed sheet of paper declaring the bearer to be 100 per cent (proof) Irish, and even half those eligible buy into the notion, that’s nearly a billion euros right off the bat.
If it isn’t about the money then maybe it should be. At least then it wouldn’t look like one more embarrassing quest for validation of our own perceived greatness.
(originally published in the Irish Daily Mail, June, 2010)