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Posts Tagged ‘Bertie Ahern’

The annual Saint Patrick’s Day meeting of the Taoiseach of Ireland and the President of the United States took place this morning in the White House as Brian Cowen presented Barack Obama with bowl full of shamrocks – the traditional gift from the people of Ireland on this day. The water in the White House’s north and south lawn fountains was dyed green – under the direction of Michelle Obama, and America prepared once again to celebrate…to celebrate…to celebrate just exactly what?  It seems on Saint Patrick’s Day that almost everyone claims to have at least a bit of  Irish blood, and that in itself is cause to go out and have a pint.  The question that one must ask though, at some point, is why do we celebrate this day? Why celebrate the Irish, and why is it that it seems that almost everyone considers themselves to be at least a little bit Irish on this day?

It might surprise many American Irish to find that if they visit Ireland and ask the Irish people, they will find that most of them do not consider the American Irish to be Irish. They consider them to be Americans, because, these days, in Ireland the thinking is that you can only be Irish if you were born in Ireland.  Except, unless you immigrate from somewhere in the European Union, places like Poland or Slovakia, or if you are a refugee from Nigeria or Rwanda. Maybe, then you will be considered Irish. You will be called the “New Irish”.

Of course many Americans of Irish descent feel a bit left out by this line of thought, but it’s all quite rational.  In America, people consider themselves to be Irish because their DNA. In Ireland you are considered to be Irish by the legal rulings of the State. If the State declares you to be Irish then you are, and if the State says you are not, then you are not.

The problem with the State’s way of thinking is that it disregards history and genetics. It is also fickle.  Twenty or so years ago, you had a valid claim to be a citizen of Ireland if one of your great-grandparents had been born in Ireland. In this way many Americans, whose ancestors arrived in America as famine refugees, were eligible for Irish citizenship and Irish passports.  Then, for who knows what reason, the government of Ireland changed its mind. This was about the time that Ireland was beginning to really feel the boom in its economy known worldwide as the Celtic Tiger.  Ireland soon went from being the poorest country in Europe to being the second wealthiest country in the world.  Until recently, there were more millionaires, per capita, in Ireland than in either the U.S. or Saudi Arabia.

So the Irish government decided that the great-grandchildren of Ireland’s famine refugees were no longer Irish.  Zap!! They changed the law and said you could claim Irish citizenship if your grandparents had been born in Ireland, but not great-grandparents.  Sorry.  Thus, they disenfranchised millions of American Irish, Argentinian Irish, and others around the world who, sadly, had never been aware that they even had a claim to Irish citizenship.  A few years ago, the then Taioseach, Bertie Ahern, made a speech on the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and he talked about the difficulty of defining what it means to be Irish. He said, “We must begin a great national conversation on what it means to be Irish, on the values that we hold and the hopes that we cherish”. Note that he said “national” and not “international”.

At the same time, another voice in Ireland, David McWilliams, a columnist for the Irish Independent newspaper had a different take on the concept of Irishness.  He thought that Ireland should use the example of Israel, where anyone who is Jewish can be a citizen of Israel, the Jewish people all over the world  know that despite war or dislocation they always have a place to go, a home when no one else will take them in: Israel. McWilliams called upon Ireland to emulate this policy with the Irish diaspora, noting that this could also provide a massive economic stimulus to that tiny island nation.  Unfortunately, the Celtic Tiger was still in full roar and his words were ignored by everyone in the government.

Today, the roar of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger is barely a meek meow.  Ireland is facing a dire economic future because of the worldwide recession.  Some say that’s Ireland’s plight is the worst of any country in the world. So, it is interesting that only a couple of days ago, Taoiseach Brian Cowen declared that it is time to rethink the definition of Irishness and that he plans to reinstate the provision for the great-grandchildren of people who were born in Ireland to also be allowed to claim Irish citizenship. That is welcome news indeed, I suppose, to many of the disenfranchised descendants of the famine Irish.  Yet, I can only wonder if Ireland’s economy were still the envy of the world, would Mr. Cowen still be so anxious to welcome the Irish diaspora “home”?

Mr. Cowen and President Obama joked today about the fact that they both have roots in County Offaly.  Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be related. Even so, the people of Ireland have eagerly claimed President Obama as one of their own. Perhaps there really is no one as Irish as Barack Obama. But then we have to face the question that Bertie Ahern posed: just what does it mean to be Irish?  Is someone Irish because some politician in Dublin says he is?  Is someone not Irish because another Dublin politician says he isn’t?  And what, if anything does DNA have to do with it?

It’s a great day for the Irish.  It’s also a great day for the Americans and others of Irish descent to pause for a moment and reflect on the lives of their ancestors. It’s also a good day to reflect on their own values, and their hopes for the future, and, at least for a day, just what does it really mean to be Irish?

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