Does the Irish rain make us all Irish? Brian John Spencer looking into his soul

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Protestant-Irish poet Louis MacNeice

“In the beginning was the Irish Rain” wrote Louis MacNeice.

Following the historic handshake between the head of the republican movement and the Commander-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, Fintan O’Toole wrote an eloquent and vigorous article in the Guardian, ‘Ireland is facing its sectarian past – now it’s England’s turn.

The premise: while we Irish are inclined to overdo history, the English under-consider it.

Under this banner came was a subtle, yet more salient observation, a potent comment on the Irish Identity Question. Fintan O’Toole wrote:

“There is a serious, long-term questioning of the notion that Irish identity is coterminous with Catholicism. This is far from an accomplished thing, but even now there are very few Irish nationalists who don’t know that they must, somehow, find a way of expressing what they believe in a way that includes, and appeals to, Irish Protestants.”

In writing this the Irish Times drama critic has homed in on what is simultaneously the greatest anachronism and one of the most contemporaneously pressing matters of today. The question of what it is to be Irish. This is the key question, in this the year of thee centenary, to the future of this and these islands.

The Irish have shown themselves to be uniquely decent people, so Fintan said.

Sinn Fein and nationalism present themselves as a uniquely progressive front, liberal and unremittingly tolerant. Yet this pro-nationalist grouping allows a prescriptive, prohibitive and puritan idea of Irishness that precludes certain customs born on this island.

The notion of being “proper Irish”, as against us planter blow-ins, was a principal plank in my consciousness growing up.

As Heather Crawford said, a narrative existed and exists that said “protestants cannot be quite Irish.”

This is nothing new. Maurice Fitzgerald, an Anglo-Norman wrote in 1170:

“We are English as far as the Irish are concerned, likewise to the English we are Irish, and the inhabitants of this island and the other assail us with equal degree of hatred.”

Graham Norton, a southern Protestant born in Dublin and raised in Bandon, Cork said:

“You’re made to feel like you’re not Irish.”

So tedious do I find orthodox Irishness that I wrote a whole series on how ‘Being Irish is not about being not-British.’

I follow the John Hewitt and Nick Laird dictum, I’m British and I’m Irish. I know republicans who laugh out loudly at such a statement. Each time I defer to David Ervine:

“The first time I ever went to the United States, someone in the audience in the dialogue we were having thought it was ludicrous that I could be British and Irish. Then we asked how many in this room are Irish American and 95% of the people in the room put their hands up. So it is OK to live 3000 miles apart and be Irish American and but is not alright to be British Irish.”

The anti-Protestantism is a reaction to England whose monarch is the head of the Church of England and whose arm of government in Ireland was for so long the Protestant church.

Englishness was seen as coterminous Protestantism, and both as converse to Irishness.

The Catholic Church did much to divide the “native” Irish from the Protestant. Joseph MacRory, Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said in 1932:

“The Protestant Church in Ireland – and the same is true of the Protestant Church anywhere – is not only not the rightful representative of the early Irish Church, but it is not even a part of the Church of Christ.”

Irish republicans of course quickly forgot the ‘Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter’ republicanism of Wolfe Tone, and embraced the Catholic-first, Irishman-second republicanism of Eamonn de Valera.

The irony is that in the eyes of the English and almost every other nation, planter and Gael, we’re all Irish Paddies. As David Trimble said:

“Many Englishmen… seem unable to distinguish between the native inhabitants of Ireland – to him they are all “paddies”.”

The same point was made here and here.

The other grand irony is that many of Ireland’s leading writers, artists and culture makers are protestant, sometimes unionist, establishment figures.

We need to push back and repudiate the emetic Irish Puritanism and create an identity narrative that is in tune with Equal Marriage Ireland, not west-Belfast Celtic Brigadoon Ireland.

Mary McAleese has set the example, when she said, November 27 2008 in an Orange Hall, Baileborough, Co. Cavan:

“It is possible to be both Irish and British, possible to be both Orange and Irish.”

Like Dr Eoin Malcolm wrote, Protestants can speak Irish and still be Protestant.

Monarchists aren’t going anywhere, and as Fintan O’Toole said, Irish nationalists need to help find an Irishness they believe that includes, and appeals to, Irish Protestants.

Using the words of Louis MacNeice, let them pigeon-hole us, into sheep and goats, patriots, planters, Brits and bastards. They can say whatever they want, I’m Irish.

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. If you Don’t feel Irish you should blame people like Lady Brookeborough who, apparently, complained to the BBC for playing Irish Music on St. Patrick’s day.I remember being at a Gaelic football match at which there was a big crowd. I looked out at the surrounding fields and I felt like I was part of a great conspiracy. It was nonsense of course; after all it was only a football match

  2. And, Brian, is being British in the Northern Ireland Protestant tradition, to any extent about being anti-Irish? Or at its mildest, Non-Irish?

    The esteemed Prof John Brewer’s study, “The Mote and the Beam” (I’m sure you know it), outlines a particular set of attitudes among a significant section of the Protestant/ Unionist/ Loyalist/ British people of Northern Ireland which viewed Catholicism, Irish Nationalism, Irish Republicanism and Irishness with, if I may carefully phrase it thus, greater or lesser degrees of asperity; and suggests that these negative attitudes still exist.

    To me, in view of the incontestable fact that Ireland has many, many patriotic Protestant Irish people to thank for Irish nationalism AND republicanism too, this is indeed has elements of loss and tragedy. Then we have (here we go again, but it’s inescapable) the burden of the history of English, later British, rule in Ireland and its effects on us, north and south, Planter and Gael. Are we all still trapped? Do we not all abuse history by picking the bits of it that best underline our existing prejudices, preconceptions and proclivities?

    One can sense that, in recent years in the Republic, it’s become almost politically incorrect – nay, indecent – to refer to this very inconvenient herd of elephants in the corner of the paddock in which Ireland and the UK are now trotting side by side, the best of chums. And, as I’m sure you know, this is a form of denial.

    So, in general, I agree with you, but feel that this particular story has many broader, forgotten and ignored aspects and dusty corners, which St Fintan O’Toole never seems to quite reach into.

  3. Glenn Bradley on

    HRH Charles is Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment, a title given to the honorary head of a regiment in the British Army. He has never, nor will, operationally command Airborne soldiers. The role is ceremonial. Some may view this correction as trivia but if the opening introduction is factually incorrect then by which actual authority, knowledge or experience is the remainder detailed? As we say here: “just saying, like”

    I’m unsure why religion keeps being intertwined in notions or Nationhood or geographical locations of birth, and those who dwell on such do a disservice to the long historical reality of the various peoples who traveled then settled here. There is no such thing as an indigenous Irish person: humans did not spring up out of the sod. 365 million years ago our beautiful island lay under a sub tropical sea. As the island rose, then rested to her present location the first Mesolithic hunter-gatherers arrived and settled here around 8000BC.

    In my humble opinion, as an individual I keep it simple: these small islands within the western archipelago of Europe are largely populated by the Irish, Scots, English & Welsh. I am an Irishman from the Island of Ireland, specifically the historical province of Ulster. I am a patriotic Irishman.

    Constitutionally and nationally, I inherited a loyal Irish identity, I hail from that minority society on our Island that is loyal to Britain and the Sovereign. As such I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, a persuader for the cultural and economic link with Britain none of which diminishes the reality that I am, indeed, an Irishman.

    The Belfast Agreement cemented the rights of all here to claim British Citizenship, Irish Citizenship or both. Already an Irish Passport holder for travel ease in certain countries where carrying a British passport brings risk, I continue to embrace the constitutional citizenship, as is my right, and thus can be construed both a British & Irish citizen, but none of that diminishes the reality that I am, indeed, an Irishman.

    Others, do try diminish the reality I am an Irishman. They use the label ‘planter’ or ‘hun’ or ‘brit’ or ‘orangie’ to discredit my birth right on this Island of ours. Some adopt an air of supremacy in the deluded belief that the celts and gaels who arrived here have some sort of cultural monopoly over all other cultures and traditions that came before or after them….. however, that’s there problem.


    • Glenn, I applaud the honesty, integrity and humanity of your statement of belief, and I think that we on this island could do with a great deal more application of these attributes.

      You have, I suppose, read my response to Brian Spencer’s article. My belief, then, is that we Irish – the Irish as far as I know them – are a damaged, a wounded people. I don’t blame the UK of today for it; I believe apologies (á la Tony Blair’s about our Famine) are neither of much use nor consequence; I don’t think demands for “Brits out” of Northern Ireland are useful, persuasive, productive, or indeed fair.

      I just want honesty, integrity, an humanity á la Glenn Bradley. For instance, I want honest acceptance of past wrongs and mistakes on all sides by everyone. I want the issues that divide us as communities dealt with in a compassionately, with humanity. I want an admission by those in power on all sides that the past was littered with failures, but that recriminations about that past will cause the hopes of those who want a better future to shrivel.

      Finally, 90-100 years ago, we in the south fought under arms for independence. If that independence means anything, it is that my neighbour can call himself British, be an Orangeman if he wishes, fly his flag freely, and do all these and other similar things without threat or abuse from anyone, so long as he in turn neither threatens or abuses anyone either.

      Cruelly, in Ireland, and elsewhere, too, not a million miles from where I sit, religion was and is used as a presumed indicator of allegiance, and this has been so for a long time. Religion has also been shamefully used as a flag of convenience. For example, the injunction that Christians should love one another was (and still is) evaded on the pretext that some who call themselves Christians are nothing of the kind.

      We have had enough on this island of threats issued, and abuse hurled, and injustices perpetrated; and where has any of it got us, or what good has it done anyone on any side, in reality? Truly the past is another country, where they did things differently.

  4. I would echo to a large extent what Tuskar noted below (or will it be above when this is actually posted?); I wonder how much of your piece and feeling that Irish Nationalism/Republicanism allegedly not being ‘inclusive’ to Protestants on the island (I have issue with this, seeing as it doesn’t appear to be the case for an uncle of mine from Holywood) could largely be attributed also to a large swathe of Protestants/British etc. on the island making a very concerted effort to carve out a very unique identity on this island (which is fine) and subsequently putting in place a nation state separating themselves from their fellow Irish men, based mainly on religious supremacy/exceptionalism at best and at worst, trying to make the lives of their fellow Irish men (though at this stage, many were no longer calling themselves Irish) as miserable as possible.

    I further note your comparison with Irish America; the simple differences here of course would be that Irish Americans would consider themselves American first and foremost and second, America has not created a quasi state on the island of Ireland to which so much controversy (to put it mildly) has come from and exists to this day.

    I kind of enjoy reading your pieces Brian, but like this one, I find that you jump to a lot of conclusions which are either not elaborated upon (‘Yet this pro-nationalist grouping allows a prescriptive, prohibitive and puritan idea of Irishness that precludes certain customs born on this island.’) and thus come across as you merely throwing about accusations wildly as opposed to developing a point. I mean, just take the sentence I previously highlighted, this appears to be your own perception which I could tie in with how you were of course raised and what you were exposed to growing up. Am I being unfair? Perhaps, but when you proceed to say ‘The notion of being “proper Irish”, as against us planter blow-ins, was a principal plank in my consciousness growing up’ doesn’t exactly help your cause.

    I am not saying that much of what you have wrote is unfounded or incorrect, after all, you are entitled to your opinions and perceptions, however, I think you seem to omit the inputs that would be your upbringing, your circle of friends, schooling and last but not least, the fact that somewhere along the line, those planters in the North East you lovingly refer to above at some stage decided that they didn’t want to be with or work with the vast majority of the their fellow Irish men and decided that religious difference was too big a deal. Granted, Dev too was a mega Catholic, but perhaps there wouldn’t have been a Dev if our Protestant neighbours had decided that they would make a go of things together.



  5. Can anyone round here get me some smack? I need smack. Like now. If I can’t get any samck there’s no limit to what I can do: arson, murder, jay walking, perhaps even in this order, perhaps not. Oddly enough, before I logged into this webs(h)ite I never before tried smack. I was a straight up pillboy myself and never and I do mean never did I regret it. But now I need smack, two bags a pound.

  6. Now I need H, Gerry A says I can getsome round the block, but I was too busy turning the Maze into a KFC store to care that I made advances, sexual advances on the Queen of England. At least he said he was the Queen, it may have been Marty in that dress I like.
    H me. H me up good yer majesty Marty-man.

    • Tuskar Rock on

      The word Fenian comes from an ancient Gaelic (i.e. Scottish, Manx and Irish) word “Fianna” or “Fiann” who were a band of warrior hunters led by the legendary (or mythical?) Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail).

      The word may be thus related to the Gaelic for “Hunting” which is “Fiach” and also the words for “deer” which is “fia”.

      The word “Fenian” could be therefore conceived of as meaning “The Deer Hunters”.

      Love that!

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