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.’