“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.”
“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”.”
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.