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Comment & Opinion

What will happen to Irish identity as the world becomes smaller?

Irish emigrants from cities including Dublin (left) have settled abroad in places such as New York (centre) and Birmingham.
Irish emigrants from cities including Dublin (left) have settled abroad in places such as New York (centre) and Birmingham.

WHAT is going to happen to Irishness? What will being Irish actually mean in the decades to come?

For instance, if you were to talk to any of the 1950s generation of Irish emigrants who went to Britain, I believe they would nearly all tell you that they arrived in what was essentially a foreign land.

They will tell you that if they had never felt particularly Irish before, they certainly did once they washed up in Birmingham, Glasgow or Leeds.

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Being Irish then meant coming from a completely different country and carrying with you a completely different set of cultural values.

Somebody coming from rural Mayo, for instance, would have very much felt they stood out when they walked the concrete streets of Birmingham even to the extent that they would have noticed that city boys from Dublin got by better and more quickly.

They had a city gift of the gab about them. Those were times when the difference of miles meant something substantial.

Now we all know that this has changed, that transport is such now, that going to Australia means being able to come back, never mind going to London.

My late uncle didn’t come back from Birmingham for decades and my New York uncle was only a legend when I was a child, not someone who now spends a part of every summer in my mother and father’s Cork house.

But, at least in logistical terms, that has all changed.

I still think there is an emotional and psychological side to emigration that runs far deeper than some people seem to think and that coming home is not always just a case of getting a flight. There is no denying though that coming back is easier.

What will be of more interest though is what going away is going to mean in the first place. Not so long ago somebody leaving the hills and fields where I now live would have actually been going to a different world.

I still occasionally meet an older person here who has never been to Dublin and in one case someone who had never been to Cork city even though it was only about 50 miles away. Going to an industrial British city then was nothing short of a culture shock.

But now?

Anyone who is ever around a younger generation will clearly see that they have a facet to their existence that largely consists of electronic communication and social media.

With that comes a whole raft, literally a territory with global reach, of references and cultural meeting points that exist way beyond the streets or fields that surround them.

A kid in London and a kid in Kerry may well share many of the same experiences in terms of this ever-growing aspect of their life.

They may well find that, in this context, they come from virtually the same place. West Cork towns and New York boroughs may find that they converge in many, many ways.

Now I realise that much of this is a gross oversimplification but it carries more than a grain of truth, doesn’t it? So where does this leave Irishness?

If, for future generations, leaving Ireland becomes no more than a hankering after Tayto and red lemonade, won’t leaving be just like a Geordie going to London, but with a different accent?

And isn’t even that accent itself changing? Hasn’t the spread of communication and television meant that we now have a generation whose accents are nowhere near as dense as their predecessors?

It is a long time since I met anyone whose accent I struggled to understand and certainly nobody under the age of 60 ever has quite the accent of some of the older generation who still have accents that sound as if they were formed by the very fields and rocks that surround them.

So less of an accent, fewer unique cultural references, less logistical difficulties coming and going. Where is Irishness amongst all of that? Where is it now and where will it be in 20 years time?

Come to think of it, could it be that for all its faults, for all its parochial bitterness, for all of its ‘cute hoorishness’, for all that it clearly embodies some of the worst petty corruptions of Irish life, ask a cross-section in any Irish street if you don’t believe me, could it be that the GAA will be the standard bearer of distinctive Irishness?

Which even this dyed in the wool football fan would have to admit doesn’t sound so bad when the hurls are clashing and the sliotars flying. Who knows?


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One comment on “What will happen to Irish identity as the world becomes smaller?”

  1. Seán Flynn

    Good article. However I still think that if you come -- for example from rural Mayo -- then leaving that kind of community is always going to be a paradigm shift in terms of cultural readjustment; whether you're going to Dublin or Vancouver, even if you've grown up accessing the latest HBO shows on Netflix.
    I also agree that the world has been made smaller by advances in information and communication technology and this certainly makes it easier to be a savvy emigrant but I think in the end, one's identity and its unique cultural reference points are things we internalise and the idea of feeling more acutely Irish when away from home is never likely to wane in the leaving generations. It is after all a powerful and attractive identity that clearly travels well! I would also say that even now, when living in Britain, many people will still be aware of and strive to hold onto their identity and values, which may only be subtly different from those of our cousins, because it's those little wrinkles which have always made the difference between the 'home nations'. Two cultures that manage to be simultaneously divided and united by a common language.


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