Tuesday 25 June 2019

David Robbins: Identity parade -- why I'm having the full Irish for St Patrick's Day

David Robbins

If past St Patrick's Days are anything to go by, I am now sitting in my kitchen in a sea of green. I am wearing a plastic shamrock which my daughter has pinned to my chest. She is often a little over-eager, but the bleeding usually stops soon enough.

There is a picture of a leprechaun on my tea mug and my morning toast has been cut (or bitten, I'm not sure) into the shape of another shamrock.

On the fridge, there is a magnetic leprechaun, which, if you press it (which my daughter does about every 30 seconds) plays 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'.

The dog is lying under the table. She is wearing a little leprechaun hat over one ear. It's kept in place by an elastic band which pulls her jowls into a sinister smile.

I am thinking, understandably enough, about what it means to be Irish. I am thinking about a day, several St Patrick's Days ago, when I was at a news conference at this very newspaper.

Some question or other was being debated in that joshing newspaper way, in which the holding of strong opinions is deeply suspect. Someone turned to me for my opinion, as someone, he said, "semi-detached from this little Republic of ours".

This remark has stayed in my mind as part of a swirling eddy of thoughts, half-finished sentences and questions about our much-debated national identity.

A little time ago, I interviewed Trevor Ringland. If I thought I had a complex identity, I didn't know the half of it until I spoke to Trevor.

He played rugby for Ireland and was a speedy winger on the team that Mick Doyle told to "give it a lash". He also played for the British and Irish Lions.

Later in life, he became involved in the Ulster Unionist party. He resigned after challenging the party leader to attend a GAA match involving a team from one of the Ulster counties.

Trevor told me he was comfortable switching between his various identities. He could be Irish when playing rugby for Ireland, and British when involved in politics.

And then he could be both British and Irish when playing for the Lions, he said as a clincher. I was interviewing three people for the price of one. Either that, or I had a crossed line.

I understood what he meant. Tribal labels have caused enough trouble in this country, he added. It's nice to be able to move fluidly between them. You choose them, he said, they don't define you.

Then there was my old Uncle Harry. He was "very sound on the national question" as they used to say, yet lived a very Anglified life.

He played cricket and rugby, then moved on to golf. He liked Gilbert and Sullivan, but also quoted poetry in Irish at great length (and at the drop of a hat).

In the great narrative of our country, the Uncle Harrys don't get much of a look-in. The sweep of our history pits the native, Gaelic-speaking Irish against the British.

But what of those middle-class Catholic people who played English games, sent their children to English-type private schools and liked a hand of bridge? They were Irish too.

Then there's my wife's family. Her grandfather was born in Coolock House (I only found out that they were from the Northside later), went to a public school in England and became a colonel in the British army.

He was Irish too. His comrades in Sandhurst certainly didn't accept him as one of them, and yet he wasn't quite one of us either.

I remember going to the funeral of my wife's cousin. It was in the Church of Ireland church in Howth. On the walls were countless memorials to local young men who died in the World War One. There seemed to be hundreds of them.

They were Irish, but they were also British. The question of identity on our small disputed island is so complicated.

It is about this time on St Patrick's Day that the rest of the house stirs to life. My daughter will be dressed head to toe in green and my wife will have bought some shamrock.

"What will you have for breakfast?" she will ask.

"The full Irish," I will reply.


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