Wednesday 18 September 2019

Mary Kenny: 'My advice to all those Brits who now want to be Irish? Be careful what you wish for'

Widespread appeal: ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, starring Brendan O’Carroll, is a huge hit in England
Widespread appeal: ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, starring Brendan O’Carroll, is a huge hit in England
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's St Stephen's Day and I'm happy to offer tutorials to all those Brits I know who have successfully received their Irish passports over the past year: It's not Boxing Day, it's Stephen's Day.

This is to commemorate the first Christian martyr, I'll explain, and the tradition derives from the time when Ireland identified as a Christian country. January 6 is also sometimes known as Nollaig na mBan, the Woman's Christmas, although to be honest, that could be a re-invented tradition, like the Scots suddenly re-inventing tartan in the Victorian era.

When I was a youngster, January 6 was celebrated as the Epiphany, as it still is in France, Italy and Spain: yes, you could say it would be more 'European' to celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings, but Nollaig na mBan has been revived as a feminist fiesta, and feminism is more in vogue in Ireland these days than Christianity.

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Yet explaining to those Brits who have dug up an Irish granny (there have been 45,000 applications from the UK for Irish citizenship in the first half of 2018 alone), the cultural differences between Ireland and Britain, or at least Ireland and England, can be somewhat confusing. Because paradoxically, in some ways, Ireland has grown more British, while England has aligned itself with values that were more traditionally Irish.

Big British retail brands are everywhere - Marks & Spencer, Tesco, WH Smith (a monopoly at Dublin Airport), Boots. Television has always been a transmitter of popular values and much of the popular TV culture is shared: the Irish watch all those ridiculous British reality shows, while 'Mrs Brown's Boys' - well, is it English or Irish, being produced by the BBC, and featuring an Ireland that is now only seen on... 'Mrs Brown's Boys'? Few modern Irish kitchens now feature a garish picture of the Sacred Heart, and the 'Irish Mammy' largely exists in comedic or pastiche form, being a figure of fun.

In modern Ireland, 'mum' is replacing 'mammy' - RTÉ, the national public service broadcaster, has a parental adviser who regularly counsels 'mums' and 'new mums' in childcare lore. A few 'mams' are still around, and also appear in fiction, but are fast losing ground, I'd say.

Yes, a lot of things that used to be Irish are now, contrarily, English. Take 'nationalism'. Brexit, which has driven you guys to take up what used to be the little green passport, is universally denounced, in Ireland, as nothing more than English nationalism. Quelle horreur.

There was a group of young folk from Derry on BBC Radio 4 just before Christmas giving out yards - yes, that's a nice Irish expression for the art of the reprimand - about this. How dare the English be such nationalists? It's outrageous. You will of course agree with them, and you would never suggest that the Irish State was itself built, brick by brick, by dedicated nationalists.

Even Sinn Féin - "Ourselves Alone" could well have been adopted by Ukip - seems to be more focused on gay marriage and abortion rights than in outdated ideas like 'nationalism', a concept so deplored by our masters in the EU.

The Irish granny who transmitted the entitlement to Irish nationality may well have been a woman of faith attending the famed Quex Road Catholic church in Kilburn back in the day. But, piquantly, you may find now more evidence of religion in England than in Ireland.

A British Christmas begins with the shared experience of that boy soprano opening the carol service from King's College Cambridge, and then features Queen Elizabeth and her entire family attending church (Prime Minister Theresa May, seldom misses a Sunday church service either). Queen Elizabeth always makes it evident, in her Christmas broadcast, her personal commitment to her Christian faith. By contrast, I have no idea whether President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina are religious believers or not. It's not regarded as any of our business whether the head of state is a person of faith: the emphasis, in Ireland, is to separate church and state, to embrace more inclusiveness of those of other faiths and none.

This is nowadays considered more appropriate for a republic, and the Irish Republic seems as keen to delete any residue of faith from its past as it is eager to repel any manifestations of 'nationalism'.

But it is, surely, a droll role-reversal of history when you consider that, nearly a hundred years ago, when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith went to London to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty, all the power was on the side of the British Empire, and a fledgling State had to take what it could get.

Now London has to take what it can get, and the power is with the European Union. That's why you've chosen to be Irish: but be prepared to be surprised at what this might entail.

Irish Independent

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