Being Irish – A Personal Reflection

I suspect that the Irish are more emotionally attached to a sense of their own nationality than most others. I certainly am. Standing in Stade Francais after the glorious rugby match last year, basking in the international recognition of a figure such as Seamus Heaney or even hearing someone sing Danny Boy, particularly when abroad I am intensely conscious of what I am. Perhaps it is a misplaced pride (indeed perhaps all national pride is misplaced) but there is no denying the feeling. Nor am I alone in this. A recent survey in the European Union established that we are the proudest people in the European Union. I suspect that this is not a transient phenomenon. Even when things were less good than they appear to be today the results of a survey might well have been generally the same.

Of course other nationalities certainly are not immune to similar sensations. No doubt they are accentuated by simplistic images of the history that binds people together but often divides them from others. We are told that the nation state is a modern phenomenon but, for better or worse, the sense of ones own place and the relationship with it is as old as the human race. No doubt having a perception of a shared past as well as the present increases a sense of national identity even if the facts are very much more complicated.

I cannot claim to be comfortable with much of this. Indeed one of my strongest convictions is that nationalism has generally led to division and, ultimately, conflict. For me, the most noble political movement in modern times has been the attempt to combine democracy with sharing sovereignty through the process of European integration. A passionate belief in breaking down barriers and borders does not sit comfortably with a sense of identity which, in the last analysis, often stresses a belief in particular national virtues. By implication this stress on the relative strengths of ones own people often suggests that others do not share them. There is essentially something triumphalist about patriotism.

Much though one might like it to be otherwise, the fact is that one’s nationality often does create a starting point for relationships. Of course the image of historic events shape the perceptions held by other people of us and not merely our perception of them. The fact is that stereotypes exist in the minds of people everywhere, often subliminally, and they influence reactions. People see others, initially at least, as products of societies with certain characteristics and traits and seek, in interpreting their words or actions, confirmation of their conformity to the stereotype. For the moment at least being Irish seems to be fashionable. Whilst images of being feckless and amusing rather than responsible and profound are sometimes associated with us, our successes in various fields in recent times have left a positive legacy in our current image.

In Britain in particular, where the appalling events of recent history might have been expected to leave a negative image of us, we are treated with a generosity that is sometimes surprising. We are seen as close relatives rather than as more distant ones. Elsewhere in the developed world the diaspora generated over the last couple of centuries has created not merely a network of people who feel an association and loyalty to Ireland but also, amongst those with no family connection, a certain affection rather than antipathy. In some places, for example in Austria, France and Spain, educated people know of longer associations underlined by the Irish family names that have distinguished histories such as MacMahon in France and O’Donnell or O’Neill in Spain and Portugal. Who can walk down Calle O’Donnell in Madrid and not be conscious of past and positive associations?

In the developing world, insofar as there is any recognition of our small island, reactions to us are very positive. We are perceived as being a unique post colonial State in Europe. Furthermore, through the highly visible contributions made by our missionaries and by those involved in aid agencies we have acquired an image that is incredibly positive. I had first hand experience of this because when I was proposed for the position of Director General of GATT, and later the first Director General of the World Trade Organisation, the most positive reaction generally came from the developing countries. An Irishman was not seen as a representative of the industrialised states of the northern hemisphere.

A further positive element abroad is the impact of our young people. In general they seem mercifully free of hang-ups and display a self confidence and a capacity to relate to others that is truly distinctive. Through my children, I know, for example, that of all the parties given each semester by the young stagiaires in the European Commission the best, and most popular, is the Irish one. It was always thus. This trivial anecdotal evidence however is not without relevance. It is no more than we would expect.

I am proud of being Irish and, although I hesitate to express it, I think that I have good reason. One criticism that I do have is related to how self absorbed we are. In a way this brief essay is evidence of an excessive focus on ourselves. I often find in conversations involving a group of foreigners that the Irish speak a great deal of domestic Irish issues assuming that their interlocutors can somehow see our experience as relevant or important for them. At the end of the day we need to remind ourselves that we are a very small place in a very big world.

This article first appeared in the anthology, Being Irish (Oak Tree, 2001) ed. Paddy Logue