What is Irishness? Shaping a cultural identity abroad through cultural activism and the diaspora

On May 17, 2012

Ireland has a long history of emigration, with more than 70 million people around the world claiming Irish heritage. The debate over the effects of this diaspora on Irish identity stretches back many years and continues today (Mcwilliams 2007, Moffatt 2011, O’Keefe-Vigneron 2008 and Ryan 2008), with the diaspora labelled as ‘excessive’ and lacking ‘authenticity’ by those in Ireland. So what effect has the diaspora truly had on cultural identity and defining Irishness?

For the Irish diaspora, common gathering places for cultural activities abroad were Irish Centres, which celebrated Irish culture in its many forms. In London, for example, there were two main centres for Irish cultural expression – the London Irish Centre in Camden, and the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. Both still actively teach Irish culture and host a range of music, dance and literature events. These centres were set up by migrants but were soon seen by later (post-1980) arrivals as ‘excessive’ and inauthentic in their practices of Irishness (Gray 2004, p. 108).

Even so, any excessiveness was evidence that the Irish were becoming more conscious of (and anxious over) their identity. Ireland’s cultural heritage had been commercialised in leprechauns and tin whistles. A country once famously self-loathing now exported all things Irish (Hussey 1995, p. 470). However, as globalisation exposed Ireland to outside influences, the boundaries of what constituted ‘Irish’ became blurred. U2’s success, for example, may lie in their identity as cultural leaders, an example of cultural hybridity or the result of Americanisation and globalisation – or all of the above.

U2 began as a Celtic rock band, with a sound influenced by American icons such as Bob Dylan, but they became increasingly global in their focus (Danks and Kennedy 2001, p. 119). Bono saw America as a catalyst in recreating the band’s Irishness, as Kearney (1988, p. 187) observed:

“Now, as we are rediscovering ourselves through our encounter with others, reclaiming our voice in our migrations through other cultures and continents … we are beginning to realise that the Irish thing was always there.”

A focus on global politics moved the band away from issues in their homeland, although they always kept their Irish base (Cogan 2008, p. 157). With global popularity they became one of Ireland’s largest cultural exports – whether or not people agreed on if or how they were representing Ireland.

Although U2 is one of Irish music’s great success stories, they were part of a wide circle of musicians driving Irishness – many of whom were not born in Ireland. The Pogues, for example, represented emigrants embracing cultural roots, creating a hybrid genre of punk rock and Irish. Born and raised in London, the band members sense of pride sprang from an Irish diaspora upbringing (Nagle 2009 p.166). Where U2 devised a sound that left the politics and traditional music of Ireland behind, The Pogues thrived off ethnicity and punk attitude to political messages.

It can be argued that The Pogues projected a greater musical sense of Irishness than U2, although the former were not based in Ireland. U2’s Irishness is based mainly on geography; to say they are a part of Ireland’s success in rebuilding its cultural identity is debatable (Kearney 1997 p.81). While The Pogues are part of a diaspora affected by nationalist projections of Irishness, U2 represent post-nationalist ‘home-born’ citizen, influenced by globalisation and Americanisation (Dawe and Mulreany 2001).

In 1990, Ireland elected its first female President, Mary Robinson. She took up her presidency with a clear objective – to redefine the meaning of being Irish. For Robinson, the inclusion of the diaspora was key to understanding what the notion of being Irish had become. Robinson’s speech “Cherish the Irish Diaspora” was one of her most famous; delivered to the Irish government in 1995, it highlighted the importance of diaspora to Ireland’s economic and cultural growth:

The more I know of these stories the more it seems to me an added richness of our heritage that Irishness is not simply territorial. In fact Irishness as a concept seems to me at its strongest when it reaches out to everyone on this island and shows itself capable of honouring and listening to those whose sense of identity, and whose cultural values, may be more British than Irish. It can be strengthened again if we turn with open minds and hearts to the array of people outside Ireland for whom this island is a place of origin. (Robinson 1995)

Although the idea of a transnational Irish identity could define a wider sense of Irishness, the thought of an Irish identity inclusive of both those born in Ireland and those born abroad proves difficult to ‘market’. Hostility towards the diaspora is quite common, with those born abroad being labelled “tans” or “plastic paddy” (Gibney and Lansen 2005, p. 324), and their Irish authenticity constantly questioned. The idea of an inclusive Irishness may only exist for those who are not actually citizens. So are there actually two separate Irish identities – in Ireland and outside? Do those born outside the island deserve to be barred from an ‘authentic’ Irish identity? The complexity of Irish culture has caused this rift, but it has not harmed Ireland commercially. With examples of Irish music inspired by liberalism, politics, societal restructuring and the diaspora, is geography becoming a non-issue in the creation and definition of Irish culture (Cleary 2007 p.103)? As long as cultural creativity continues to prosper, the wider debate of “What is Irishness?” may recede.



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