Turf, plastic Paddies and exaggerated alcoholism: Donie O’Sullivan asks exactly what it is to be Irish
“What does it mean to be Irish?” a foreign journalist might ask an Irishman on the street. “Ah sure, you know yourself,” might be a typical reply. While the journalist might be bewildered at the answer, we Irish would know perfectly what the response means. Irishness is a club – a club with a secret technique of communication that involves a series of nods, winks and expressions like “there or thereabouts” and “gas craic altogether”.
80 million people across the world claim to be of Irish descent, but in reality – as they might say in their apparent homeland – most of them are “no more Irish now”. Just last week, an English union rep with Irish heritage was paid thousands of pounds in compensation by the Kent local council after his Councillor told him a ‘racist’ Paddy the Irishman joke. Are these types of ‘Irish’ really the ones we want to claim as our own? Spotting the fakes is easy: they’re the ones who come to Ireland looking for their long-lost great uncle’s house in the depths of Cavan, asking if we know ‘John’; who carry a sod of turf back with them on the plane home and call it peat; who buy Aran jumpers in the gift shop and think it’s “traditional Irish dress” (all Paddies run after sheep on mountain-sides in €100 jumpers. Obviously).
Our use of the English language is something that makes us quite distinct. We fought for 800 years to be free, and for the right to speak our own language; it was undoubtedly a disappointment to all of us when we finally got freedom but found out that Irish was too bloody hard. Since then, we have done everything we can to make English our own. Take the adverb ‘now’: to the rest of the English speaking world it means ‘at this moment in time’, but to us it means ‘here you are’. If you present someone with a cup of tea, you say ‘now’.
We’re also very fond of ‘enough’ (“ah, ‘tis bad enough”), not to mention the numerous meanings of the word ‘mad’ (“sure he’s a mad fella altogether”, “he’s mad about her”, and a personal favourite, “the price of houses in Dublin are gone mad altogether” – a favourite during the property boom).
The property boom, incidentally, was the one thing that almost put a dent on the true meaning of being Irish: the Celtic Tiger allowed us to become cultured, a thing Irish people were probably never meant to be. The bit of brown bread with a slice of ham, half a block of cheese and a lump of onion was replaced with deluxe paninis filled with parma ham, goat’s cheese and caramelised onion with a dash of relish. No longer are there families with four daughters, named Mary, Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary-Catherine-Elizabeth (the youngest), now they’re calling their kids ‘Fuschia’, ‘Fiachara’ and even “Protestant names” like ‘Oliver’ – mad altogether, to be sure.
We Irish are genetically programmed to be poor; it gives us something to complain about. We didn’t know what to do with the money the Celtic Tiger brought us. Now the bubble has burst we have gone back to our old ways. Where else in the world would the majority of the public still have a soft spot for a politician who has been proven corrupt? The reason people still like Bertie Ahern is that just like all of us, he’s a chancer: he replies to questions with ambiguous answers, he accepts the odd payment that he’s not entitled to by law (“but sure, what harm?”), he’s into the GAA and he’s fond of his pint – a role model for all of us.
Bertie Ahern is the embodiment of Ireland: he became our leader for being a nice lad, the kind of fella intending to do a FÁS course but who became Taoiseach instead. A hallmark of his popularity is that he’s known by a single name, spoken in the same breath as Bono, Gay, Pat and Dev as if we knew them personally. Our small population on our small island allows us to get to know public figures in a unique way.
Ultimately, what it means to be Irish is difficult to explain. It’s really about all those little shared traits that collectively make us a nation: loving tea, standing at the back of Mass, having “a cousin in Australia who is doing very well”, saying ‘the Gaeltacht’ and expecting people to know which one you mean, having fish on a Friday, having a fascination with converting attics into “spare rooms”. No amount of cappuccinos or rice will change that: we’ll always be mad characters who are up for the craic.