What does being 'Irish' mean?

by Jimmy Billings

Originally posted as an Instagram post

What does being ‘Irish’ mean?

‘Irish’ (an English word) is a culturally homogenising colonial identity that was made for us by the British following centuries of our Gaelic ancestors minds being emptied, their way of being destroyed, and the land devastated that Gaelic culture lived in relation with. Becoming ‘Irish’, and thus unbecoming ‘Gael’, was and still is a violent and traumatic process that has removed us from a sense of who we are and from relational connection with the land inherent in Gaelic culture.

‘Irish’ now describes someone or something that exists within the jurisdictions of the modern nation states covering the island, but it doesn’t travel far into the past as an identity. There was a cultural diversity of Gaels (not ‘Irish’) that spoke a diversity of dialects and languages and lived a diversity of lifeways across modern day Ireland, parts of Scotland, and Man.

With the formation of ALL nation states, the first thing the state does is attempt to create a singular national identity which is usually based on the ethnicity of the ruling elite. In the 19th century the new modern nation states established national education systems primarily for this purpose, which would then also bolster their ability to operate capitalist economies. In Ireland, the dominant ethnicity was/is settled (non-nomadic) white Anglophone Irish.

The National School system in Ireland (which still uses this name) was established by the British after the Famine with the express purpose of Anglicising and ‘civilising’ the ‘uncivilised’ Gaels. Even ‘Gael’ was invented as a catch-all identifier to set them apart from the self-fashioned superior white Anglo-Saxon race. Through literally beating the language out of our ancestors, the new ‘Irish’ identity began to be forged. The English language and phenotypic whiteness proved useful tools to leverage in the white supremacist Anglophone-dominant power structures that still shape the planet.

‘Ireland’ (again an English word) wasn’t even the name the state used until 1937. Right up until the Republic was declared in 1948, ‘Éire’ was the name that appeared in official British state documents to refer to the country (until which point Ireland was still considered part of the Commonwealth). Ireland was positioned by Irish nationalists prior to independence as “the only white nation on earth still in the bonds of political slavery” (de Valera) and “the last unliberated white community on the face of the globe” (Childers). Those that made ‘Ireland’ knew what side they were on.

The Irish state, once it broke away formally from the British Empire, chose to maintain all of the same structures, institutions and laws from the colonial state. Not only that, but we maintained a white Anglo way of being in the world, sprinkled with a few shamrocks and the odd leprechaun hat. Gaeilge has been marginalised and the land has been maintained in a state of devastation for colonial industrial agriculture and private property.

Since the inception of the Irish state, the project has been one of self-colonisation, the establishment of Western modernity on the island at the expense of doing any kind of meaningful justice to the disruptions that colonialism caused. In the most egregious demonstration of ‘post’-colonial self-hatred, Irish Travellers have faced a continuation of imperial violence from the Irish state (and Irish people more broadly) that began several centuries ago against nomadic Gaels. Travellers have maintained a Gaelic way of being and knowing in the world, and have been paying the price for that in a society that seems to fervently desire erasure of its own past, to deny its own traumas.

To be able to even conceive of doing any justice in the wake of disaster, where we have been denied and also denied ourselves self-determination for over a century by accepting the way of the coloniser and becoming it ourselves, we have to examine closely the privileges accrued and the cost they have come at. What did our ancestors do for us to exist in the world the way we do? What are we doing to perpetuate and disrupt this (because we can do both simultaneously)?

Throughout the 8 weeks of the Decolonisation in Éirinn: Unsettling whiteness on the road to Gaelic cultural & land revitalisation course, we will make a modest attempt to begin an exploration of some of these considerations in more depth. Course details can be found through link in my bio. Please get in touch if interested!

© Tuiscint na Talún & Jimmy Billings 2021