Exploring the two Irelands of “Emerald Isle” and the different hues of identities
After many years in Montreal, I have little sentimental connection to my native Northern Ireland, but as Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, when friends and neighbours inevitably ask me about Ireland, I feel obliged to explain there’s more to it than leprechauns, floppy green hats and ginger wigs. “First of all,” I say, “you should know there isn’t just one Ireland, there’s two. There isn’t just one sort of Irishness, there’s many. And Ireland’s national language isn’t English, but Irish, even though it’s not really spoken in everyday life.”
The two Irelands came into being in 1921 when the “Emerald Isle” was divided into Northern Ireland (NI)—part of the United Kingdom (UK)—and the independent Republic of Ireland (ROI). Once the NI-ROI border was in place, various hues of Irishness bloomed on either side of it. By the turn of the 21st century, ROI citizens saw themselves as “real” Irish, with NI citizens relegated more or less, to the status of foreigners, according to popular weblog Slugger O’ Toole. Evidence of this mindset popped up during the ROI’s 2011 presidential televised debate, when a young female in the studio audience told NI candidate, the late Mr. Martin McGuinness, that he was from another country.
How Mr. McGuinness, the then NI Assembly’s deputy first minister, devout Catholic, and ex Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander felt about this I cannot say. Did he wonder, for instance, why on earth the IRA had tried, from 1969 to 1998, to bomb NI into the ROI? However, despite grassroots ROI sentiments about NI Catholic citizens being foreigners, most of them, like Mr. McGuinness, feel strongly Irish. Now, with Brexit on the horizon, some NI Protestant citizens, who usually identify as British, are applying for an Irish passport. In fact, an increasing number might even support unification with the ROI so as to remain in the EU after Brexit.
Finally, after the ROI joined the European Communities in 1973, now the European Union, its prosperity took off and it became an immigration nation. According to Central Statistics Office (CSO), the ROI was home to 535,475 non-Irish nationals and 104,784 persons with dual-Irish nationality. “So you see,” I tell my friends and neighbours, “there are many different hues of Irishness on the Emerald Isle.”
You might think that, in Ireland, national identity would include the official language, which is Irish, but you’d be wrong. According to the 2016 ROI Census, Irish is spoken daily by only 73,803 citizens—of whom a goodly number live in a Gaeltacht, a rural area that functions in Irish only. Outside of the Gaeltacht areas, in urban settings such as Dublin, an Irish speaker would struggle to order a drink or a burger, call a cab or chat with the driver in the national language. In fact, in Dublin, a Polish speaker would have more chances of doing so in Polish, which is now Ireland’s second-most spoken language after English.
Mind you, Irish isn’t dead; it’s one of the EU’s official languages. You can find it on Google Translate, and Irish language classes are even offered here in Montreal. Comhrá, a non-profit group that delivers Irish language classes exists in Montreal—as does Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies. Meanwhile in my native NI, Irish is gaining ground, according to CBC News. Some NI Protestant citizens are studying Irish which they pragmatically consider to be part of a rainbow of Celtic languages, namely Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Max and Cornish. All of these are woven into the tapestry of Britishness, according to the same source.
“So, there you are,” I tell my friends and neighbours. “There’s very little that’s simple about Ireland and the Irish, but even so, with the Saints Pat’s parade around the corner, I’d like to wish you, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona! Happy Saint Pats! Joyeuse Saint Patrick!”
Graphic by Ana Bilokin