Are ‘we’ ‘indigenous’ in Ireland? Part 2 & 3

by Jimmy Billings

Originally posted as Instagram posts

I suggest reading my earlier post from last year on this first, plus the ‘What does being Irish mean?’ post for added context. All posts will also available to read on my website.

This series of posts comes as a partial response to Manchán Magan’s recent Irish Times article (19/11/22) about his interactions with “a group of indigenous elders from the Cree nation”. The article broadly suggests that it is okay for “the Irish people” to call themselves ‘indigenous’, because living Indigenous people from somewhere else said it was okay. Preemptively, I want to address the idea that this might be ‘arguing semantics’ or is solely an ‘academic’ discussion. It is neither, and the idea of an ‘academic’ discussion as some pointless or elite thing needs to be challenged. All peoples that ever existed always theorised, thought, conceptualised, and intellectualised to understand their existences and experiences. Neither am I trying to police language or action (how could I even attempt that?) but to add a critical perspective and complexity to this conversation that is broader than just one article, because the obsession with the term and the romanticisation of living Indigenous people happening is problematic and a distraction from the varied, multi-faceted, and expansive work that we all need to collectively do to ‘decolonise’, ‘rewild’, rebuild ‘right relationship’, or however else we work to respond to modernity’s violence.

To even begin answering this question we have to ask: who is the ‘we’ that would be ‘indigenous’ in Ireland, and why? Magan tells us the ‘we’ is “the Irish people”. This is a problem. There are many different kinds of people and social groups on the island we currently call Ireland. Irish Travellers, Settled Anglophone white Irish, Black Irish, asylum seekers incarcerated in Direct Provision, native Gaelic speakers in Gaeltachtaí, migrants of many different backgrounds, to name a few – these all in part make up who and what can be considered ‘Irish’ in different ways, each ‘category’ pointing to specific historical ruptures or processes. They are only historically legible within colonial systems that created the basis for such categorisations to materialise. Not to mention townie/rural divides, Dublin belt/rest of the island divide, class divides, religious divides, the existence of two states on the island, and settler descended populations (and mixing therein!). There are many diverse broad social groupings, and none of them are internally homogenous (no group can ever be). They aren’t discretely enclosed either (they overlap). The fact that we could begin from a place of imagining a coherent “Irish people” at all points to a major issue with thinking ‘we’ could call ‘ourselves’ ‘indigenous’ in Ireland, particularly at this historical juncture.

What is generally imagined as “the Irish people” is the national identity of the dominant ethnicity enshrined and represented in/by the Settled-Galltacht nation state (the Republic of Ireland) and the ways of being & knowing it enforces, cultivates, and enables. When we account even slightly for the internal diversity of the island, who and what is thought to be ‘indigenous’ and why? How does and can the term function within the geohistorical positionality of a financially wealthy modern global minority nation state that is a proud card-carrying member of a political union of the most powerful, violent and destructive empires in history? ‘Irish’ is a national identity that only crystallised historically following the Tudor conquest of the island, most significantly from the 18th century onwards. National identities are historically artificial by definition, and only gain social coherence through violent institutional enforcement on human bodies. ‘Irishness’ is no different. Even as recently as the 1930’s when the Ráth Chairn Gaeltacht was established in Co. Meath through families from Connemara being re-settled there, they were derisively called ‘immigrants’ by local people. This island and parts of Scotland were tribal, diverse, and in various ‘internal’ conflicts. There were a slew of different dialects (and still are), to the point that people might even struggle to understand each other. There was no culturally unified ‘Gael’ as we imagine ‘the Irish’ to be now, and that is because of colonisation/modernisation and subsequent cultural homogenisation. Diverse Gaels have been flattened to form the basis of a more homogenised ‘Irish’ identity.

The creation of a coherent ‘Irish’ identity is reflected in the violence of an bata scóir, the many gortaí, plantations, systems of private property, na Péindlíthe, or ‘clerical abuse’. ‘Irishness’ is exactly what separates ‘us’ from the ‘indigeneity’ many people are now legitimately feeling a yearning for in the existential and cultural voids created by modernity/coloniality. ‘The Irish people’ no longer belong to or exist within a cosmology of relationality with the land (or each other, for the most part). ‘Irishness’ is who we are when we’ve been colonised. ‘Irishness’ has been and is continually forged through colonial violence and erasure of cultural ways of being and knowing that could actually be analysed as being ‘indigenous’. Modern Irish culture is not a natural evolution from Gaelic culture, so if we attempt to claim ‘indigeneity’ based on Gaelicness, or cultures of the island even older than that, we’re simply ignoring our present and stepping over centuries of history because it’s inconvenient to what we ‘want’ or feel entitled to lay claim to. Imagine if an ‘indigenous’ Gaelic group survived colonisation somehow – they’d quickly find themselves on the receiving end of Irish state violence, and probably a lot of derision and maybe even hate from culturally modern Irish people for being so different or ‘backwards’. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s already been happening to Travellers/Mincéirí.

If we imagine ‘indigenous’ Irish people as just Settled Anglophone white people, that is clearly problematic when you consider it’s based in an ahistorical position supported by racist ideas that lend well to fascisms and ethnonationalisms. The idea can be extended as J.P. Mallory suggests in ‘The Origins of the Irish’ (2013), to include anyone that might find their home on the island, since there is no single ‘origin’ of ‘the Irish’ and the mythohistorical text Lebor Gabala Éirinn tells of various successive waves of migrants and settlers as the origins of people on the island. This is getting closer to the point but it’s still explicitly missing the crucial elements of cosmology (cultural worldview) and relationality (with the land), which are likely the most substantial elements at the heart of what ‘indigeneity’ gestures to, and the void of which people acutely feel in desires to be ‘indigenous’. ‘Irishness’ is underpinned by a Eurocentric colonial cosmology and a denial of relationship with the land – the land is treated as an object for human exploitation. Claiming ‘indigeneity’ does nothing to disrupt that, but actually retrenches in it.

In a 2015 essay, ‘Tracing the Crater with Fingertips at Nighttime’, Tad Hargrave challenges us to question what is behind the desire to claim ‘indigeneity’ as a body socialised/conditioned within whiteness. He writes, “white people tend to want to claim the beautiful aspects of indigeneity (often from other cultures or from our very distant past) but not to claim the poverty which drives us.” Using the metaphor of a crater to portray the cultural impoverishment that whiteness has created for us, and the resultant effects/affects of that on our bodies, he powerfully conveys that Indigenous cultures are like old growth forests, while modernised cultures are like clearcuts or tree farms inside a crater – so what would it mean to trace that crater with our fingertips in the dark of night? ‘Irishness’ is our crater in this context.

What if we were to see our cultural position the same way many people are now coming to see the land in Ireland, because culture and land aren’t actually separate things at all. That is, in need of deep healing, a fragmented shadow of what once flourished so readily..and what still desires to flourish but for certain human cultural practices blocking the way. How, from our current culturally/cosmologically impoverished position, do we navigate towards relational cultures with the land again, to open to the “‘possibility of possibilities’: the sense that other forms of existence, not yet legible at this stage of the process, can indeed exist” (Machado de Oliveira, 2021)? Hargrave continues, “The impulse towards indigeneity can be trusted but I suspect that..most of our efforts towards it can’t because they are happening inside of the urgent momentum of our already running.”

The term ‘Indigenous’ is not this sexy thing to wear or casually claim like it’s made out to be. Indigeneity for actually living Indigenous peoples means active marginalisation of one’s traditional cultural ways of living, knowing, and being, where the consequences for living it or even being a body that can be read as belonging to it can mean death or worse. Safe to say for Settled Anglophone white Irish people in Ireland, that is not the case. It may have been for many of our ancestors, but they were living a different cosmology; what has happened since then and what we’ve largely done to ourselves is something we have to account for and reckon with. 

Indigenous people don’t have ethnically dominant nation states where they actively marginalise their own traditional lifeways, and those of other groups. States based on national identities are colonial structures, and when people decide to go that route of political and social organising, they are playing the colonial game, as has been happening in Ireland for the past century. Any serious appraisal of the reconcilability of ‘indigeneity’ and modern Irish society needs to account for what being ‘indigenous’ means for living Indigenous people, not just hang off vague, romanticised and exoticised notions of ancientness and nature connectedness. I recommend Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book, ‘Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples’ (1999) for some nuance.

Indigenous people are far from being a monolith. ‘Indigenous’ is an enormously broad catch-all term. It comprises hundreds of different cultural groups around the planet. Each group just like any other will have its own internal conflicts and individuals who will speak and think differently. People within this catch-all can’t give ‘us’ permission to use the term by virtue of it happening to apply to them. The actual action the word calls for is something that has to be worked out here in this place amongst the people and land it actually affects. This doesn’t mean ‘outside’ perspectives can’t inform what we do (they directly inform the basis of everything I do). 

It is a problematic line of thinking as per Magan’s article that Indigenous people from somewhere else can somehow give ‘us’ permission to be ‘indigenous’. This idea is not only intellectual laziness (well if ‘they’ said it that sorts it), but the appeal to complete authority retrenches in viewing Indigenous peoples through a colonial lens, where everything ‘they’ say must be profound and ineffable wisdom. Taking this opinion from a small group of Indigenous people who may not actually fully understand the complexity of Ireland’s historical and social context, and pedestaling it uncritically as wisdom because it’s an appealing thing to hear, is engaging in romanticisation.

If it’s engaging in the erasure of the realities of lived indigeneity to claim indigeneity in this context, what do we use? Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen (2021) points out that the usage of ‘indigenous’ has political implications some of which I have highlighted, and instead suggests the use of the word ‘traditional’ for white Euro-descended bodies in ethnically dominant jurisdictions, which also involves a reclamation of that term from weaponisation by conservatism and fascism (see his video, link below). All of this doesn’t mean there isn’t mountains of work to do within what the word is actually pointing towards (eg. land re/connection). It isn’t a case of just finding the best terminology, because there are no ‘perfect’ words and the pursuit of them amounts to going in circles, particularly while using the colonial English language which structurally facilitates relational breakdown.

There is much work to be done that isn’t wholly ‘cultural’ either, so long as the two colonial nation states on this island exist, they will continually reproduce and enforce one particular way of being in the world which is at odds with being able to live what people might think of as ‘indigenous’ ways with the land/eachother again. These states will continue to enact white supremacy, settled supremacy, human supremacy, capitalism, Anglophone supremacy, class division and heaps of other harmful structures that drive us further into oblivion, away from anything recognisable as actual ‘indigeneity’. They will continue to make it difficult or impossible to practice the things desired from ‘indigeneity’. Yes ‘we’ need to be reminded of what ‘we’ have, but, as Hargrave warns, “the unwillingness to be in the crater, to feel that grief and be guided by it is to become less human and ensure that those to come will inherit even less chance of real humanity than we did. All of our quick fix, hope addled, relief giving solutions aim to mend and close up a heart that should, properly, given the times we are in, be broken open; our short term tactics satisfy our wants but numb us to the deeper yearnings we feel and can trust.”