Canadians don’t love to be described as Americans, the Japanese hate to be confused with the Chinese. Slovakians don’t take too kindly to being called Czech and New Zealanders don’t want to be mistaken as Australian. There are lots of nationalities obscured by neighbouring countries. Proximity, and often history, cause that country to have its national identify blurred. But what is national identity? Is it written in your passport or on your face? Do you feel it in you heart? And do other people have the right to challenge it?
In a political discussion this week, I was told Ireland is not an independent country. I almost laughed, thinking the guy was being deliberately obtuse. He wasn’t. It’s another common misconception that Ireland remains part of Britain, despite Michael Collins signing over the six counties in the North in exchange for independence of the other 26 counties. That happened in 1922 and prior to that, Ireland had a tumultuous relationship with Britain, often trying to break free. We had an indigenous people dating back to the Stone Age, with the Celts, and later the Vikings, arriving to the isle. The Vikings, in fact, were often described as ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ because of the way they embraced our culture.
The Celts were an interesting bunch who had influences not only on the Irish and Scottish, but the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons in Britain. They migrated across much of Europe, including France, Poland, northern Italy, Spain and Portugal. The Roman Empire then decided to expand its reach and targeted England. After a number of attempts, Caesar’s army finally achieved success. He never bothered with Ireland, thinking it too wet and barren to be of any real use.
This description of the past hints at the distinction between the Irish and the British. We didn’t have a Roman invasion and today, the Irish still learn Gaeilge. But that’s not really the point. Have you ever wondered why the English don’t get confused with the French? After all, they spent a lot of time invading each other and making peace again. The Vikings came from Norway and Denmark, but no one mistakes the Irish or British for Scandinavian. The whole of Europe has, in fact, experienced plenty of cross border migration and inter-marriage. Every continent could say the same. Despite this, we still have ideas of national identity, culture and heritage. We fight vehemently not to be forgotten or blended with another culture.
National identity says something about who we are. It’s not only caught up in geography and politics, but economy and religion. The majority of Irish would be classed as Catholic, with Protestants often thought to be the remnants of the British invasion. However, a lot of Irish converted to Protestantism to keep their land during the occupation so it’s another misconception.
The man who told me Ireland is not independent argued this was because our economy relied too much on the UK. The EU makes up 60% of our exports (UK 16%, Belgium 14% and Germany 7%), with the US in second place at 23%. The EU also accounts for 60% of imports to Ireland, 34% of which come from the UK. So we sell a lot more of our products to the EU as a whole and the US than we do to the UK.
At the same time, we buy a lot more from the UK than the US. Ireland is among the seven European nations that account for 40% of all UK exports. However, China is the UK’s main import partner (8%). It’s not the cut and dry picture that this man supposed. Balance of trade is a complicated subject but would it have been as fair for me to say the UK is not independent of Ireland, or indeed, of the EU?
When people talk about national identity, they need to respect that it’s not about geography, history, economics or even politics. As my mother always says, it’s an accident of birth. She was born and raised in county Antrim but married a Catholic from Cork and moved to Wicklow. Her sister, who has lived in Northern Ireland her whole life, closely aligns with the crown. My mother is most definitely Irish. They are of the same blood but their relationships with their national identities couldn’t be more polar. Plenty of people across the globe identify differently to what is written on their passports. Mine says I’m Irish and I am. But by accident of birth, it could have said I was Russian when I felt Lithuanian before its independence in 1990. The superficial measures of national identity are what cause the debate. What should end it, however, is what you know to be true in your heart.