I went to the corner shop today. I often do. They let me bring my dog in so I like them. It’s run by an Indian family. Young son, early twenties asked me this morning did I see the match? No I said. He screamed and clapped and said how amazing the Irish team played and how happy he is “we” won. I blushed.
He is way more Irish than me I thought. Instead of the match I watched the last #brexit debate on Channel 4. Perhaps because of this I considered a scenario of me telling this young man to leave Ireland and not to remain and that he had no right to my culture or identity, or to be happy my soccer team won, or to be friendly to me, or to expect me to want to befriend him back. This was a hideous, stomach churning thought.
I left and thought a bit about being Irish. I love Ireland, mostly for its future rather than its past, but honestly, some days it is exhausting.
I am exhausted living in a country that treats women and children with contempt. I am exhausted watching my friends participate in ceremonies for their children in institutions that still seek to brutalise childhood, simply so their children can be educated close to where they live.
I am exhausted that we cannot deal with the eight amendment and offer women the dignity and respect to make their own decisions without having a weekend assembly with no windows and carpets and squeezy coffee pots, contracted out to some company, politely putting policy out to tender.
I am exhausted by a system that puts fellow Irish men, women and children in hotels and denies them the basic social, emotional, psychological, cultural and political right to make home.
I am exhausted by our silent, collective, complicity in the internment of fellow human beings in caravans and holiday homes while we “process” them, where a mother cannot heat a bottle for her child as she is denied the electrical means to do so, where she is not permitted to leave her child unattended and where she cannot ask a friend to mind her child while she leaves them to heat the bottle in a collective microwave. Imagine that. It will happen in Ireland tonight so you do not have to really.
Being Irish is exhausting. New communities, new arrivals do not erode my identity. To be honest I need help with coming to terms with it all, so all help welcome, and in the last year, I need this help on pretty much a daily basis.
I hope my friend in the shop can see what is good in us Irish, in this place we call Ireland, I hope he has seen it, someone has shown it to him. I hope when I get too exhausted by the bad stuff and too worn out to remember we have a future and not just a challenging present or a revolting past, or when I get cynical about collective identity events like “the match”, his enthusiasm can remind me to not be that person, to not be so tired and to basically cop on. I hope I can be reminded me to check myself.
Of course, with #brexit, ‘identity’ is on many of our minds, but his jolly exchange with me this morning seemed to enable me to question and interrogate what I consider to be my identity, make me account for it, help me to realize when I am prone to using it as a rather blunt instrument to keep people away from me, to shut down, to isolate, to retreat, to consider myself superior or under threat. His offer is to seek my offer in return, social exchange, curiosity, support, to treat each other like we would treat anyone else, with respect and dignity. The expectation is not for me to just simply be tolerant and to ask him to assimilate but for us to try to negotiate our Irish lives in parallel, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not, but sort of side by side. The expectation, reasonably, is also for me to ensure that I do what I can to not let my identity be used as a weapon by myself or others to the detriment of others.
I write this is the full knowledge and insight that I am an individual of immense privilege. I am white, a man, middle-class, with a home and a job, enough opportunity and therefore ample agency to affect change in my life and to sustain it. I instinctively know the rules of the game and I have the capacity to play it. If what I write appears naive or emerges clumsily from that field, I apologise, I do not pretend to know much about this subject apart from what I know but I know I do not know much at all.
Much of my identity is nothing to do with me in particular or the decisions I make – for example, what it means to be ‘Irish’ is currently discussed and debated in the media as our football fans celebrate and sing lullabies to babies in Paris – this is me (being Irish on my passport) and not me (not being a fan of football or being at the match) all at the same time. Some of my identity is in my control, some of it not.
But my insight, awareness and ability to question my identity is firmly in my control. Last summer I, and many of my friends, had our identities savagely, aggressively checked as we campaigned for equality in our everyday lives and, in fact, in our everyday deaths. We sought equality, through the institution of marriage, and to an extent, we got it. Those events irrevocably altered my sense of myself and what it might mean to be Irish, what it means to identify as part of a group of people you previously took for granted as your kin. Feeling exposed and faced with the horrifying prospect of an entire nation rejecting your complete participation in their society was a feeling only partially alleviated by the hug of a complete stranger on a pebble-dashed doorstep in Finglas in the grey, horizontal rain, as you asked them to vote, literally, for you to remain.
Nevertheless, today I hold that horror close, it checks my privilege and I no longer take my ‘identity’, my belonging, for granted. I could have lost it overnight, or rather had it thrown back at me. Who would I be today? Not one of you I wager. And we can be cool and can pretend it does not matter but it really bloody does, belonging matters, or at least the chance to, the opportunity to, and if you wish to, the choice to. Choosing and belonging are reciprocal.
I write all this, of course, not because I went to the shop (which I did) , or am avoiding writing other words (which I might be), but because of the very real prospect that the United Kingdom might leave the European Union. The EU is really not perfect. It is not a social project as it stands, in my view at least, but I do hope, in the future, it might be. The consolidated EU treatment of migrants is beyond barbaric, contemptuous for example, makes me want to burn it down. But being, Still Irish, and tapping into just one aspect of that so-called identity, I know we are a country that buries things, a country that has secrets, hides truths and avoids difficulties. We hide them most often in plain sight. We Irish need outside voices to help us be better versions of ourselves, to develop and grow, not retreat and wither. Not because we are weak or compliant but because we are human. in return, we too have strength and vision to offer. We need to be checked and to be held to account in order to thrive. I do not think we are alone in that, I do not think the UK is much different than us either, although it is a very different place.
For me, identity only has value and merit and is only worth sharing if it is allowed to move, change, bend, resist, develop – it’s a blobby, shifting field in which we all swim, never in lanes, but hopefully with a little bumpy friction and always some civility. A dream of a static, frozen, nostalgia will cripple us, and will possibly lead to the unleashing of an extreme wave of identity terrorists who will stop at nothing to fight for something that has never existed (the good old days) and cannot, ever, realistically be achieved.
Other people are simultaneously the absolute best and worst thing about being alive. There is so much injustice to fight against and justice to fight for, right now and into the future. It is incumbent on us to check ourselves and to make sure we remember that the guy in the shop who claps at the goal you missed is really not the problem. He is, at that moment, the guy in the shop who gave you your water, who rubbed the dogs head and reminded you its in your nature to try to be kind.