Whenever I meet a fellow European, they are keen to assert their nationality and speak proudly of their heritage. Food, dance, language – these are key ingredients for a vibrant culture, or so I am told. They’re often less interested to hear about Ireland, but perhaps that’s owed to the fact I live in London. Europeans in the UK often don’t realise Ireland is a separate country, which is fairly understandable given our size and the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland.
Ignorance aside, Ireland is a beautiful country. Not just in terms of its landscape, but the hearts of its people. We are a distinctly friendly and generous nation, good natured and kind. Today is St Patrick’s Day and I write this from a London office fully aware my family and friends are spending the day watching the local parade, enjoying a few drinks and letting the kids go wild. Sceptics call it consumerism. I call it celebration.
Today’s Irish Times features an opinion piece on national pride, which a lot of people say is nonsense; an accident of birth. But I say eye colour, talent and beauty are also accidents of birth. A skilled rugby player doesn’t shun his ability because to embrace it would be arrogant. If he had, we’d all be deprived of Brian O’Driscoll. National pride is what keeps us on the map in a world where we are defined by labels.
A country of fewer than five million people, it would be easy for us to be drowned out by mammoth voices from around the Atlantic. Instead, New York, Boston and parts of China are grinding to a halt to celebrate the Irish. St Patrick’s Day may have been based on the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, but given the Church’s diminishing role across Europe, it has become a day to celebrate the Irish. That bunch of lively people who have battled through recession, famine and colonialism to mark themselves out in a much greater world. A people who have brought GAA to Dubai.
Begrudging national identity is perhaps the privilege of those who have never had to assert it: a symptom of staying too close to home. But I’m sure all my fellow emigrants understand the importance of national identity, what it means to be Irish, and why it should be celebrated. There’s no greater reminder of the significance of heritage than spending rolling years away from home.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig