Shared Culture, Shared Identity?

The construction of a supportive community and integration into the local population are two sides of the relocation coin that migrants to any new destination must learn to handle. In thinking about how it is possible to balance these efforts, I keep coming back to the issue of constructing identity, and how one’s identity is shaped by and informs their perception of the world around them. Specifically, What is Irishness? Who claims this belonging? And how does our construction of an Irish identity impact the integration process for migrant populations?

In our orientation meetings with historians, public servants, and social scientists, a frustrating but exciting common thread has emerged: there is no definitive answer to any of these questions, but we should keep trying to answer them.

As a starting point, some have made a link between Irish identity and ancestry. Ireland’s unique history is an immense factor in this association. This island has long been fairly homogeneous, leading Irish identity to be confounded with an ethnic typecast. Due to the Irish diaspora – a scattering of the population across the world following the great famine – approximately 17 million people across the world have Irish heritage. Irish is said to run in people’s veins. So much so, in fact, that the concept of an Irish-American identity is very present in the United States – the sense of community has been preserved. A focus has been placed on creating a global Irish connection, by creating online portals for families with Irish heritage to connect with one another, or prompting initiatives for individuals to discover their Irish heritage.

Yet, I am not sure that a purely ethnic or ancestry-based framework encompasses enough of what it means to be Irish. It seems to me that this point of view would make integration for migrant communities nearly impossible. Furthermore, Ireland is facing strong immigration flows from within and outside the EU: in a country of 4.7 million residents, 79,300 immigrants a year is a staggering number (a net immigration total of 3,100, with very significant emigration flows at 76,200, according to the Central Statistics Office’s Population and Migration Estimates from 2016). With approximately 12% of the population comprised of foreign nationals, it seems absurd to rely solely on ancestry to determine belonging.

So, perhaps a shared culture is the key to a shared identity? In just a week here, it has become clear that my outsider’s perception of Irish culture – beer, leprechauns, shamrocks, and hurling – has been wildly misguided. These symbols appear to be fondly regarded, but are understood to be more of a capitalist venture for Irish tourism than markers of identity. Here, the British colonial past will have a much fiercer influence than this constructed mythology. Colonial symbols still line the streets of Dublin, the King’s crown prominent in various monuments, and the letters VR (for Queen Victoria Regina) frequently seen around the city. The buildings lining O’Connell street were built in the 20th century, but appear much older as they were reconstructed from the rubble left in the wake of the anti-colonial Easter Rising of 1916. The largest political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gail, emerged from opposing sides of the civil war between post-colonial pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces. As such, one conception of Irish identity could be largely based on the ideas of conflict, independence, and colonial tension (this will be interesting to explore as Ireland is currently trying to determine its place in the EU and in relation to the UK post-Brexit). Furthermore, this is a form of community construction that is significantly more welcoming to migrant families: when children are integrated into Irish schools, this historical perspective will be passed on to the second generation.

However, this must be tempered by the recognition that we live in increasingly complex and multifaceted societies. Ireland’s net positive immigration, particularly the strong refugee flows from areas in crises, will be bringing in a huge variety of culture, religions, historical perspectives. In fact, the sense of colonial tension may already be shared by a number families who emigrated from former colonial nations. Perhaps this sense of Irish identity, which is so vibrant and tangible amongst the proud population yet so difficult to define, is evolving to signify an accepting multiculturalism. It has been thrilling to witness how Dublin itself is constructed around a blend of cultures – a Catholic Polish church is built next to an Anglican one, and they confusingly share the same name, and a small but vibrant polish community resides right by the Millenium Spire. Dublin is home to the second largest mosque in Europe, and the senior staff member I spoke to emphasized that the Irish were very welcoming, likely due to their own experience with mass emigration. The challenge ahead for the organizations we are placed in this summer, working in resettlement and integration, now seems to lie in how to aid migrants in their transition to Irish society whilst promoting a culture which will, in the end, broaden its definition of community rather than restrict itself to a difficulty defined national identity.