We were asked to consider what we considered to be ‘Irishness’.

A wonderfully relaxed atmosphere imbued this event led by the entertaining and well-informed facilitator, Denis Stewart from the International Futures Forum. Denis, as part of his introduction, quoted from John Hewitt and how Hewitt identified himself as an Ulsterman, Irish, British and European. We were asked to consider what we considered to be ‘Irishness’.

This was a “conversation”, as it said on the tin, and a crowd of up to 100 people were encouraged to sit together in threes and fours. After brief introductions were made, conversations flowed as we each considered whether we felt “Irish” and what shaped our “Irishness”.

Denis, in his introduction, proffered president of Ireland (1959–1973) Eamon de Valera’s definition of being Irish as “Gaelic and Catholic”. In the feedback from groups, it was clear that this did not resonate with those present. They put forward diverse attitudes towards “Irishness” and what made them feel Irish — this in the context of guests from many different countries.

Many guests who considered themselves Irish spoke of the fact that they were atheist and did not speak Gaelic due to a ban on Gaelic when they were young. However, one guest referred to a census done in the 1920s, where the first language of most east Belfast homes was Gaelic.

Nevertheless it was agreed that neither language nor religion, on their own, determined nationality.

Where you were born was considered, but there are many examples of people who were born in Ireland of British parents who would not consider themselves Irish. Equally, there are many people whose families have moved elsewhere, and despite being very young at the time, their sense that they are Irish prevails.

There appeared to be many routes into “Irishness”, and some guests had their own stories of feeling Irish despite coming from “British/Loyalist” homes. One term mentioned was feeling “British-Irish” in much the same way as Americans would describe themselves as Irish-American or Italian-American.

This discussion crystallised into how everyone has their own perception of whether they feel Irish and it is up to the individual to decide. However, this notion was challenged by the idea that very often other people impose a nationality on to you through their own projections. This includes the state defining people’s nationality through which passport they must hold. For Northern Ireland there is the benefit of dual nationality, and citizens have a certain amount of choice — Irish, British or both.

The forum ended with a question to take home, “Does the state have the right to define our nationality?” And with that the session was humorously concluded by John Barrie, Green Party councillor.

This was a most pleasant convivial forum to explore and celebrate “Irishness” in all its diversity and commonality, and I for one hope that these civic conversations will continue for the benefit of all.

Written by Michael Lundy and first published on northernireland.foundation on 17 March 2016.

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