Who are the Irish? Review: Outside the Glow by Heather K. Crawford

By Kevin O’Sullivan

For the majority of individuals in this country, the concept of being Irish, of what ‘Irishness’ means, remains an elusive concept. Is it defined by religion? Sport? Music? Language? The written word? Is it based on identification with the land or the island of Ireland? Do the Irish share a particular concept of culture and politics? Do we see ourselves in terms of our postcolonial identity – i.e. not being British? Or, as Tom Inglis hinted in his excellent Global Ireland: Same Difference (2008), is it in fact hypocrisy that emerges as the defining trait of the Irish character? (Not that we are unique in our fealty to the hypocritical, but simply that we are better at it than everyone else.)

In attempting to answer those questions we’re led to another, equally vexed and elusive: just who are ‘the Irish’? We are happy to embrace the 70 million or so who claim Irish ancestry across the world, those for whom Mary Robinson lit a candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin. But what of the millions of others who love Riverdance, Yeats and U2 and drink just as much in Irish pubs in Shanghai, Dubrovnik and Boston as south Dubliners manage on a Leinster weekend in Toulouse? Closer to home, what of our Polish and other central and eastern European neighbours, of the Chinese-Irish communities in Dublin’s city centre, groups of Nigerian-Irish in its western suburbs, or the large Brazilian-Irish community working and living in Gort, Co. Galway? How do these communities, families and individuals view their role in Irish society and sense of identification with their adopted home? And what of Ireland’s religious minorities and their relationship with the overwhelmingly (if declining) Catholic ethos of modern Ireland?

Based on one hundred anonymised interviews with members of both Protestant and Catholic confessions, Heather Crawford’s new book, Outside the Glow, examines the lives of Protestant Irish men and women across rural and urban communities since the foundation of the state. Their histories and the identities they assumed are unsurprisingly diverse: separate in many ways from the dominant Catholic and nationalist culture, but no less part of the consciousness of the newly independent Ireland. Together they offer an alternative view of the emerging state, challenging the widely-held assumption that ‘there’s no such thing as a poor Protestant’, and exploring the construction of the country’s dominant stereotypes, including knowing and unknowingly derogative stereotypes like the land-grabbing ‘planter’, ‘English pig’ and ‘Protestant bastard’.

But this is not a straightforward history of marginalisation among an oppressed minority. Instead, the strongest narratives come from Protestant efforts to define and protect community and individual identity and their consequences – positive and negative – for understanding their place in modern Ireland; see the self-isolating attitudes of one Methodist farming family, for example, who refused to allow their children to mix with their Catholic neighbours. In the process of relaying their own histories, the interviewees also have much to tell us about the dominant Catholic and nationalist culture: attitudes to church-led education, inter-church marriage, the use and misuse of the Irish language as a signifier of identity, the role of religion in small businesses across Ireland, and the insecurities that mark the creation of the dominant nationalist culture.

There is much to admire in Crawford’s historical narrative of the Protestant experience and, more importantly, what it meant to be Protestant and Irish in the twentieth century. But the concept of Irish identity ultimately, if predictably, remains elusive. Her references to Protestant involvement (or lack thereof) in the GAA or to the unifying role played by the Irish football team in the 1990s, for example, are important in the construction of identity, but also raise numerous questions of class structures where they overlap with religion. Why is religion a stronger signifier in some areas of society than others? Is there a visible rural/urban divide? And could we learn more about the Irish case from studying the comparative experience of religious minorities in the construction of national identity elsewhere – the Catholic Quebecois in Canada, the experience of ethnic Hungarian minorities in central and eastern Europe, or the experience of religious minorities in other newly-independent states where large proportions of the population are of a single faith and whose histories – like Finland’s – follow a similar trajectory to Ireland’s?

Answering these questions may help to illuminate some of the myriad strands that build a particularly Irish identity, but the difficulties of pinning down such a fluid concept remain. As the words of one elderly Dublin Protestant interviewed by Crawford suggest, it is often difficult for individuals to understand their own character, even before they can relate to it as part of a collective national identity: ‘I’m Irish. I am Irish, but I’m not Irish to the extent where I’d have to talk about the troubled times, and all the things that went on in those olden days, while I’m Irish. I know I’m Irish. But I’m not Roman Catholic Irish. I, I can’t describe it any more than that.’

Heather Crawford, Outside the Glow: Protestants and Irishness in Independent Ireland (Dublin: UCD Press, 2010. Pp 256. €28 paperback).

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11 Responses to “Who are the Irish? Review: Outside the Glow by Heather K. Crawford”

  1. Frank Says:

    I know someone born in England of Irish parentage who seems embarrassed about her English background and tries too much to be Irish by constantly bringing up the centuries of British tyranny in conversation. There is a marked reluctance among greener than green nationalists to recognise anything positive in the Anglo-Irish relationship. Unlike those folk who refuse to ever countenance a British state visit, I look forward to the day when the Queen visits the Republic of Ireland even though I’m not so naive as to ignore the negative aspects such as the cruelty which accompanied the stamping out of various rebellions and the dreadful events of the Great Famine. However, our ambivalent attitude to the British/Irish relationship is clear when we look at all the monuments around the country marking this link alongside those honouring Irish rebels. Recently, I was walking around Dun Laoghaire and admired the refurbished fountain which was erected to mark the visit of Queen Victoria in 1900. I am Irish but not so narrow minded as to ignore the positive things that British involvement brought to Ireland. Observe all those wonderful Big Houses and sprawling estates, sadly much depleted during the 1919-23 period as a result of the activities of militant republicans. Also, while we may have almost lost our language, our splicing of the two results in the very interesting Hiberno-English speaking evident throughout Ireland. In terms of Irish hypocrisy, there was a breathtaking example of this in the shape of those SF/IRA members who bombed and shot Protestants during the Northern Troubles while following British football, watching British soaps, buying British products, etc.

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    Frank,

    Thanks for the comment. I think, however, that what the interviewees in Crawford’s book reveal is a rather more complex construction of identity than simply equating Protestantism with being British (although that is, of course, part of how their identity is formed by both themselves and others). In the main, her book explores how Protestants who saw themselves as Irish, to varying degrees, viewed their own role in a dominant Catholic and nationalist culture, where that nationalism was constructed often in opposition to Protestants’ own identity. The result is extremely complex and nuanced, and a very elusive concept. And, as I said in the review, and I think you hinted at, is that the interviewees’ stories often reveal more about the dominant Catholic nationalist culture than Protestant identity itself.

    Kevin

  3. blackwatertown Says:

    Just picking up on your comment Kevin, that nationalism was often constructed in opposition to Protestant’s own identity. It’s that which makes this area of study so interesting. Stretching things a bit, but when I think of Protestants in the south 1900-1950, it reminds me of the Mitford sisters – all attitudes are there, from one end of the spectrum to the other. (Stretching things a lot maybe.)
    The book sounds interesting.

  4. Dublin Protestants - Page 23 Says:

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  5. kmackenz Says:

    Didn’t the Protestants move to Ireland to confiscate their lands by decree of the British government?

    • malabs@btinternet.com Says:

      No they did not. Heres a few pointers. Not all planters were Protestant. Not all greedy landlords were English. In fact many English & other landlords were very generous. Ask yourself a few questions before making a blank and in reality an ignorant statement. Irish Protestants also suffered much in this island and Irishmen of both religions often divided regards their relationship with rest of British Isles. How long must man live in a Ireland before being Irish ? Must Irishness be restricted to that of Roman Catholicism ? St Patrick himself was not Irish nor Roman Catholic. The ancient Irish Church was not Roman Catholic either. The Scots came to Ulster in plantations, yet the Scots originated from Ulster therefore were just coming home ?

      At what point do you take a nations identity from from? Afterall Strongbow & his Normans Knights ( French) were invited to Ireland by an Irish King during an Irish civil war. Celts, Vikings, Normans all settled on this island as they did in England. Ironically Brian Bru is the name given with pride to the Irish Wolf Hound mascot of the Royal Irish Regiment. Brian defeated the Vikings.
      The construction of Irish identity as being exclusively RC has been a deliberate one by those pushing a Papal republican agenda. Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen volunteered and gladly fought and rose to high prominant ranks in British Army. Indeed since history began in the British Isles the peoples of Britain and Ireland have had a shared fate. As the Scots are different from English so the people of Ulster are so very different from South of this Island and have been for thousands of years.

      I could ask you, did not Catholic bishops move in force to confiscate ? Ireland under decrees of Papacy ? But then the brutal often murderous testimony of Roman Catholic Church is on a par with Hitler & Stalin. Rome should set Irish people free ….

  6. T. Says:

    “Must Irishness be restricted to that of Roman Catholicism ?”

    “I could ask you, did not Catholic bishops move in force to confiscate ? Ireland under decrees of Papacy ? But then the brutal often murderous testimony of Roman Catholic Church is on a par with Hitler & Stalin. Rome should set Irish people free ”

    You exemplify the infuriating pig-ignorance and intolerance of a British populace who still define themselves from the fact that their monarch refused to be of the same religion of other European countries … in the 16th century!

    Ireland, like other Johnny Foreigners, eg France, Spain, was defined by Britain as “Catholic” and that remains today. Because Britain proudly defined itself as Protestant, or of it’s own state religion, Ireland must still suffer it, and hear about it.

    “The construction of Irish identity as being exclusively RC has been a deliberate one by those pushing a Papal republican agenda.”

    Oh gosh, hopefully one day you (and British authors) will be able to abandon a “Regal imperialist agenda”, tolerate and define others in a way other than their religion.

    And might the author of the book not be so condescending and learn some Irish history through British religion-based eyes.

  7. weebrits Says:

    At present the Union of UK is the free choice of many Irishmen. Is it surprise that most of these Irishmen are protestant ? I am well aware of protestant movements such as united Irishmen. I am also aware of Irish protestants part in the American Revolution against British rule. And a 100 years ago another resistant movement called UVF who at that time prepared to use force against British forces should home rule be dictated to them. A united Ireland is something perhaps one day Irish protestants will feel comfortable with. But the Catholic Church remains to have such powerful influence in the Irish Republic over state policy, culture and education the Irish protestant feels alienated in his own Island. Still under siege remains a mindset that needs to be tackled as well as the poor victim card republicanism feds on. Reality is Irish protestants are are not equals in the present Catholic Irish society. Those Irishmen living in the north whos convictions are protestant and whos politics ( AT PRESENT) are unionist are very aware of full cultural onslaught by militant and often murderous Irish Catholics seeking to eradicate their legitimate and very original belonging to Ireland. I seek to challenge the simplistic view that Catholics are Irish and Protestants are not. This has been and remains a view many republicans are prepared to kill for. Why the Catholic church even refuses to acknowledge state education system. Determined to brainwash children into the catholic view of Ireland. Hopefully the Irish people will unite to through of the shackles of the Roman Church and be free to forge a new dream a balanced equal identity, who knows maybe Irish Protestants once more will seek to break the often strained and at times unequal union with Britain. Irish protestants just seek to live in liberty , equality , just society and have proved at times when that is under threat regardless who is responsible for this threat they will resist be it British or Catholic Irish. Perhaps USA makes us a state ? joke, but seeing both Irish communities hold USA dear to their heart you never know ? God knows both sides have failed to achieve a true equal society by themselves. I just cant put up with blind ignorant anti British tripe, based on narrow republican hate. Irishmen have migrated the world over including England their suppose foe ? Get rid of narrow hate filled republicans like IRA Sein Fein. They may get what they want politically ? but they will never bring a harmonious society. Too much blood on their hands for a start.

  8. T Says:

    . “Reality is Irish protestants are are not equals in the present Catholic Irish society. Those Irishmen living in the north whos convictions are protestant and whos politics ( AT PRESENT) are unionist are very aware of full cultural onslaught by militant and often murderous Irish Catholics seeking to eradicate their legitimate and very original belonging to Ireland. ”

    “I seek to challenge the simplistic view that Catholics are Irish and Protestants are not. This has been and remains a view many republicans are prepared to kill for. ”

    According to who are Irish seen as Catholics. Lord Haw Haw, or just moronic British people along with the other evil Europeans.
    Coming from a country where Catholics are still discriminated against being the head of state, along with rising levels of xenophobia I suppose I should not be surprised.

    As soon as I saw “weebrits” I had a feeling I’d be reading the diatribe of either another British “expert” on Irish history, someone from the tinfoil hat brigade or a person who wears tattoos and reads tabloids. I guess I got all three.

    “Hopefully the Irish people will unite to through of the shackles of the Roman Church and be free to forge a new dream a balanced equal identity, who knows maybe Irish Protestants once more will seek to break the often strained and at times unequal union with Britain. Irish protestants just seek to live in liberty , equality , just society ”

    I suppose you would prefer if the whole world was the church of England, but alas it is not. You may wish to know that “the shackles”, “balanced equality” and “liberty, equality, just society” tended to arise (not that this should be news to you) after British rule in the Republic and continued in NI due to British rule.

    (It would appear that Britons had no problem emigrating to Ireland, despite that they seem not to like the place. Odd that?)

    Your views sound like something a drunken Daily Mail columnist would spout out.

    Get rid of the hate filled neo-imperialists and educate yourself.

    Not taking the, again, “expert” views of British nationalists,
    too much blood on their hands.

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  10. Who on earth is he talking about? | The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

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