Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mary Kenny: Kiss me, I'm (now) Irish

There are mílte more Irish people to fáilte this St Patrick's Day

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Our St Patrick's Day duties could be more onerous this year: a personal fáilte is surely due to the many individuals who have chosen to become Irish over the past nine months. I'm talking about those people who seldom previously thought of themselves as Irish who have applied for an Irish passport since the Brexit vote on June 23, 2016.

In January, applications from Northern Ireland and the UK were up 77pc and 71pc respectively, compared with the same month last year. The Department of Foreign Affairs has hired 200 extra staff to deal with the demand.

I have relations and friends - don't we all? - who suddenly remember they had an Irish granny, and, for fear of encountering problems after Britain leaves the EU, are obtaining an Irish passport. One of them - a veteran journalist friend in Vienna, Ed Steen - is particularly pleased: his great-grandfather was a hellfire (Unionist) preacher in Armagh and he delights in the neat irony that history unfolds.

Becoming Irish by choice is nothing new. Some of the most revered figures in Irish cultural history were fake Irishmen and women. Maud Gonne hadn't a drop of Irish blood - she was 100pc an upper-class Englishwoman who yearned for a cause, and found one, in Irish nationalism. And why not? She twigged that the British proletariat was far too law-abiding to mount a rebellion - she was appalled at the sheer orderliness of a London workers' meeting addressed by Keir Hardie - and instantly saw, through the influence of Yeats, the revolutionary potential in Ireland. She became Irish by choice, and, as people sometimes did in those days, also became a Catholic to endorse the commitment.

Later in the 20th century, Ireland's finest actor and theatrical personage was acknowledged to be Micheál Mac Liammóir, who entirely reinvented himself as an Irishman. He was born Alfred Willmore in London and the true facts of his identity were only made public after his death. I see nothing dishonourable in what would now be called "living a lie": he chose to become Irish and embraced that identity more thoroughly than many a native. He spoke Irish beautifully and wrote diaries in Irish. He dedicated himself to the arts in Ireland and fully earned his Irish status.

Becoming Irish - or even imagining that you're Irish - has always had an attraction for artistic and creative types. The actor Peter O'Toole always said his roots were in Connemara, and he always identified himself as an Irishman, although in truth he was a Yorkshireman. Saying he was Irish made him feel more at home with himself - it gave him permission to be wild and quirky and feel a sense of brotherhood with those two other Celtic roustabouts, Richard Burton and Richard Harris.

When the actor John Hurt died recently, one of his obituaries claimed that he was "devastated" to find, despite extensive genealogical research, that he had no Irish blood. He always felt he should have had. (His brother became a Catholic monk, in the monastic Irish tradition.)

It was always supposed that the historical novelist Patrick O'Brian was Irish, and when he was described as such he never denied the description. His Master and Commander seafaring novels, set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, reached cult status, and the fellowship between the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, was said to symbolise the relationship between Britain and Ireland - close but conflicted. Only at the end of his life did it emerge that he was an Englishman called Richard Patrick Russ. His mother, who died when he was a young child, did have some Irish ancestry, but the link was tenuous. Yet Patrick O'Brian was Irish by choice and achieved the legendary Bás in Éirinn in 2000.

Some people assert that sexual identity is fluid: if it is, then national identity is surely a lot more so, and the demand for Irish passports post-Brexit seems to show just how fluid it can be. Some people are genuinely finding a sense of heritage in the process of application. "I'm London Irish, and that's a form of Irishness," says one young woman who has duly acquired her new passport. Many more say they are comfortable with multiple identities and, indeed, find it more than useful to have two passports.

Not only can you feel free to visit both Israel and the Arab countries, but two passports can be a hedge against future developments. One man tells me that he's holding both a British and an Irish passport because one will be handy for EU purposes, but the other will give him better access to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which he expects will do favourable bilateral deals with the UK.

An Israeli-Irishman found that his Irish passport was "£10 cheaper" than a British one, although now they're about the same. (An Irish passport is €80; a UK one £72.50.)

Some become Irish by migration, some by choice and some by imagination. For others, it is a flag of convenience. A South African lass with the standard-issue Irish granny said to me, a little vaguely, "I'm now officially Irish - but am I Northern Irish or Southern Irish?" That's a moot question, dear!

It's nice to be popular. And after all, St Patrick described himself, in his own writings, as "a Briton". He's got the passport, surely - symbolically speaking, anyhow.


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