The art of being British and Irish at the same time – by Brian John Spencer

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Saint Patrick’s Day is all about celebrating Ireland and celebrating being Irish. Yet in New York, the March 17 parade is “exclusively and explicitly Catholic”. For the organisers, being Irish is being Catholic. This is the Ireland I knew growing up. Not overt, not explicit, not chauvinistic; just there, silent and subtle. To be authentic, orthodox, pure and properly Irish, you had to be Catholic. A Protestant wasn’t a “proper Irish person”. They weren’t Éamon de Valera’s “Fior Gael” (“true Irish”). You just couldn’t reach the higher state of Irishness of the “kindly Celtic people”.

I’ve shared this experience many times, always to be made light of. Yet this perception has been vindicated by recent events.

My first point, the “Irish” in New York have made the “Catholic-only-Irish” formula official. As Fintan O’Toole said, the 5th Avenue parade “is a celebration of Irish Roman Catholic heritage.”  It was put in stronger terms by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who said that PSNI involvement in the parade represented “a very high-level British plot to destroy the parade and what’s left of independent Nationalist Catholic Irish America.”

A friend and native of New York with an Ulster protestant parent said of March 17:

“It’s one of the few times a year you are reminded of how many Irish immigrants ended up in NYC. The community really comes out in full force [but]there’s not really any concept of non-Catholic Irish in this setting.”

On all levels, Irishness is equated and conflated with Catholicism. This is erroneous and reckless on the part of Irish America on three points.

One, in the land of Thomas Jefferson where the American Constitution guarantees a “wall of separation” between national identity and religion, modern Americans are betraying their founding document by making Irishness dependent on Catholicism.

Two, Irish America is as much Protestant as it is Catholic. Fintan O’Toole said, “Most Irish-Americans are Protestant” and John P. McCarthy of Fordham University said, “The substantial portion of the Irish American population, including many of the presidents… were Protestant.” In Northern Ireland where “parity of esteem” is a hackneyed cliché, I’m saying we need parity of esteem from Irish America.

Three, America is the eminent moral leader in the world. For the world’s leading democracy to have a minority community leadership that is outwardly exclusivist, intolerant and sectarian is incredibly dangerous.

My second point, while things are much better at home on the island, there remains a sizeable number that hold onto de Valera’s Ireland. That being the Ireland and Irishness that is rural, Catholic and Gaelic (and yes de Valera was open to Protestants and appointed them, but they were Protestant nationalists). Closer to home a Facebook user said:

“Protestants shouldn’t be celebrating St Patrick’s Day, it’s our [Catholic’s] holiday.”

Irish America and Irish citizens may hold onto de Valera’s Ireland, but this is a “fantastic description of a land and a people that never existed.” The reality is that Irish identity is not static and fixed. You cannot take a photo Irishness, but with a moving picture you can. Ireland and being Irish is not the preserve of Catholicism. One does not contradict the other, being Irish and Protestant. As W.B. Yeats said:

“We [Protestants] … are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

There’s another problem with the question of Irish identity. Not only do a large number define their Irishness by their Catholicism, many define their Irishness by being “not-British”.

Fintan O’Toole has said, Irish cultural nationalism has created “a prison for the Irish people which [has]crippled their true identity. To be Irish was not enough. To be Irish you had to be not British.” By this formula “the choice was to hate England or to be a West Brit.”

Yet as Michael Kirke said, “The [British] constitute [Ireland’s] biggest ethnic group and vice-versa.” To use the words of Martin Luther King, we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

Going forward, as Fintan O’Toole has said, “[A] new [Irish] identity has to be positive rather than negative. But it also has to find a way to include Britishness.”

And it cuts both ways. One negative has created another negative. Just as for many republicans ‘being Irish is about being not-British’, so it is that for many loyalists ‘being British is about being not-Irish’.

However, just as you can be a Protestant and Irish, so you can be a unionist and Irish. When George V opened Stormont, he addressed a building full of unionist parliamentarians as “Irishmen”. John McCallister said that being British does not exclude or deny his sense of Irish identity. Alex Kane has said, “[this is what]Unionism should be about; Irish people with a Pro-British outlook.”

That’s what a peaceful, settled Northern Ireland needs to be, a people who realise and accept that we possess a multi-layered and shared history and identity.  Nationalists need to accept that the British are part of the island and part of Irish identity. Unionists need to accept that they’re Irish too, and that speaking Irish or playing GAA will not and cannot dilute their Britishness.


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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. brianpatterson47 on

    I agree with much of this; however there is much to be cherished in the Gaelic tradition of Ireland as you implicitly admit in your last sentence. British has lost much of its meaning and ,more and more, is a flag of convenience. It may lose virtually all meaning if Scotland decides to jump ship in September. In the past it was a Juggernaut crushing non-English cultures and harnessing subject nations to its imperial agenda.I was brought up a Catholic but am now a free-thinker and am delighted to see the power of the church broken; it was ever an implacable opponent of secular republicanism and an obstacle to progress.O’Connell was as much to blame for partition as Craigavon and Carson. Nevertheless i think it a bit rich of a supporter of the Tory Party to criticise sectarian exclusivism, given that party’s attachment to inherited privilege, vested interest and a perpetually Protestant monarchy.

  2. Glenn Bradley on

    Recently I attended the funeral of my friend’s father. Their, father and son’s, politic is Irish Republican and I was made totally welcome to the wake and service by the family. However during the eulogy the priest made passionate calls in the mass for ‘the true Irish Gael’ being of ‘the mother church’ with ‘sacred duties’ to ‘Celtic Éireann’ which by no means was welcoming to an outsider like myself or related to the present day Island of Ireland.

    I sat in the Mass actually pondering if I was listening to a form of chronic & subtle old sectarianism?

    The peoples of this Island have diverse origins. We are an Island of immigrants – the only debatable point is who arrived when as more immigrants settling in our fair lands become the modern day version of ancient Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers; Celts; Gaels; Romans; Vikings; Welsh; Anglo-saxons; Scots etc.

    The modern take on ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ as a sole identity is relatively new to our shared history. It started at Partition and has gathered legs with some elements of society since but such propaganda & myth on identity denies realities for example, Carson was an Irish Unionist, never an Ulster Unionist.

    Therefore this proud provincial Ulster-man who is Irish with a heart felt allegiance to Britain largely concurs.

  3. Catholicism is a lot bigger than Irishness and I’m glad it has broken free of that particular millstone which was personified in old films were every priest was portrayed as Irish. The Americans may have a bit of catching up to do and let’s leave them to it. With the likes of Linda Ervine a lot of unionists are more comfortable with their Irishness and most Irish people support premier league clubs so anti Britishness is non-existent except in the context of loyalism which is we’re the real danger lies.

  4. Interesting article Brian. Two thoughts (not to take away from your analysis): 1. Having observed Stateside “Irish” cultural celebration, I’m not sure to what extent the average American party goer on 17th March really engages with or cares about this issue. 2. I was at a Scots Highland games in Orlando recently. Lots of kilts, a few Celtic shirts, a few fish and chips stalls – not a single Rangers shirt in sight!

  5. Ireland has always been a heavily Catholic island. That’s just a simple historical fact. Of course it’s frustrating for the Protestant minority when they feel like their tradition in Ireland completely ignored. But most people assume Israel is a Jewish country, despite being only 75 per cent Jewish.

    If the Protestants of the north had embraced Irishness then maybe the northern Protestant tradition of Ireland would be more recognized. In reality they’ve been in opposition to the majority of people on this island politically and otherwise for a long time; so they isolated themselves. It isn’t feasible to expect Irish America, many of them descendents of famine Irish, to be champions of Protestant Ulster.

    Why don’t the Scots Irish in America arrange their own floats etc.. for the St Pat’s parade?

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