‘Who would pretend to be Irish – a nationality associated with terrorist violence and economic crisis?’
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‘Who would pretend to be Irish – a nationality associated with terrorist violence and economic crisis?’

I WAS in the kitchen and on the radio they were talking about the recent death, at his home in Westmeath, of the writer JP Donleavy.

They talked about how he was an Irish-American who had been born in New York but, after first moving here in 1946, had lived in Ireland permanently since at least 1972. They talked about his identity as a son of Irish immigrants who had moved to New York.

It was interesting stuff, especially to someone like me, who is so interested in identity and who, as the son of Irish immigrants, has lived in Ireland for nearly two decades.

The segment then ended and as is the way with all Irish broadcasting on radio and TV, which has no commercial-free outlets at all, the adverts came on. 

How ironic then that the first advert should be this gem from Love Irish Food which begins with this comic dialogue. ‘Oh, please don’t go, Mick. But I must return to the old country, Mary, tis my duty as an Irishman to take over my gran uncle’s farm. No, Mick! But I have to for my roaring Irish spirit or my name isn’t Michael Flannyius Lynch O’Flaherty McMurphy.’

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That was followed by a sober voiceover stating ‘Some people will say anything to convince you they’re Irish, but at Love Irish Food we get it. That’s why all our brands are made right here in Ireland.’ 

Now as you can see this is just a typically shallow piece of advertising trying, not particularly hard, to be humorous. Yet, I couldn’t help but hear very loudly, straight after a discussion about a man’s Irishness, the line, ‘some people will say anything to convince you they’re Irish’. 

A silly advertisement, I know, but for me that hung in the air. It did so because as someone whose Irishness is often questioned I thought those words in the silly advert hit a nerve.

They did because, let’s be honest, there is a massive problem as to how the Ireland-born Irish perceive the Irishness of those born elsewhere.

Not only that but it made me realise that for too long the second and third generation Irish have been made to be apologetic about their Irishness by a culture that lacks an understanding of its own history.

The idea that people will try and persuade you of their Irishness is not a notion confined to the limits of a silly advertisement. For as long as I have expressed my Irishness others have viewed it suspiciously. Seen it as an aspirational thing, as if I wanted to be Irish rather than simply was.

That, of course, is ludicrous in many ways but on two counts in particular. 

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Firstly, why would I ever have wanted to be Irish?

Why, out of all the identities available to those born and growing up in the big urban cities of Britain, would anyone be so desperate to be Irish?

What kind of strange illusions do the Irish born linger under? What do those, whose only achievement is place of birth, think is so appealing about being a member of a nation that for most of my life has been associated with terrorist violence or economic crisis?

Why, in God’s name, would you pretend to be Irish if you weren’t?

Secondly, and most deeply, the notion of pretence undermines the very real experience of the Irish in places like Britain.

It shows a stunning ignorance of an experience that very much defines the experience of being Irish.

What is Irishness, after all, without the experience of emigration? What Irish family remains untouched by it?

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In fact the more you think on it, the more you think of the Irish house in England you lived in, and the schooling and the social life you had, the idea that someone else, someone who’d never experienced it, someone who knows nothing about it, would deny that is laughable. Far more laughable than any cheap advert.

Would someone do anything to convince you that they were Irish? Really?

I’ve never met anyone like that.

I have met second and third generation Irish with a whole range of identities, but I have never yet met anyone who wasn’t in any way Irish who was desperate to persuade me they were. 

I’ve wondered a long way, I know, from listening to a daft advert in the kitchen, but I nearly always arrive when I do wander through Irish identity at the same place.

And that is that those Irish-born so eager to deny it simply have no idea what they are talking about.