I occupy a strange identity space here in Ireland. I’ve never lived somewhere where the vast majority of people look very much like me, yet lead lives quite different than my own.
I have red hair, a red-ish beard, and a boatload of freckles to boot. I got a sunburn in Ireland… in the land of perpetual-overcast. Both my parents claim distinctly Irish family names (Prindiville/Prenderville and Murphy) inherited from ancestors who emigrated from Kerry and Mayo almost 150 years ago. Similar to many who grew up in the Chicagoland Irish-Catholic milieu, I’ve always had an understanding that my family was “Irish”—a valued and much-loved aspect of our identity.
It would seem that culture shock often occurs in the midst of an overload of dissimilarity—navigating sights, smells, and social mores that are wholly unlike one’s lived experiences—yet my Irish culture shock occurred in a sea of similarity. Navigating what it means to be “Irish” has been one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of my first four months on the island.
On my first day in Cork, a kind woman from Kerry stopped me on the street and asked for directions, assuming I knew my way around. When I began explaining how to get to the local Tesco where she was headed (luckily my only point of reference on that first day), she was visibly surprised at my Midwestern American accent. This has become such a frequent occurrence that my Irish friends now make fun of me for it. I’m Irish to the eyes, but not-Irish to the ears.
The root of the distinction is clear—ethnicity and family cultural heritage versus citizenship, residency, and upbringing—but it still is a bit strange in the moment. Sure, it’s funny and worthy of a little friendly jab from the lads, but it also poses some fascinating questions about belonging.
Returning from Dublin Airport in December, I had a great conversation with my cab driver—John—about this kind of belonging. John moved to Ireland from Nigeria almost 20 years ago. He and his wife are Irish citizens and their children are enrolled in a national school in Dublin. By the distinction mentioned above—citizenship, residency, and upbringing—he, and most surely his children, are Irish.
Yet when I asked John if he “felt Irish,” the question became more complicated. “Of course,” he answered quickly. Then he paused. “I love it here,” he continued. “This country has welcomed me and it’s my home, but I don’t know if I will ever be Irish. Truly Irish…”
John’s hesitation alluded to one of most important questions for liberal democracies in our age—who are “we” and who can belong. For nation-states like Ireland, if you’ll allow me to use the phrase, where the marriage between a distinct ethnicity and the boundaries of the state is so strong and storied, the question becomes even more pronounced.
In a sense, both John and I are experiencing similar forms of half-Irishness: I am ethnically Irish, yet live here while not a citizen; he lives here as a citizen, yet is not ethnically Irish. Half-Irishness is a confusing and strange identity space for both of us.
The Irish State has determined that citizenship—one form of Irishness—is a broad construct that applies to many different kinds of people. How Irish society moves to adapt to new understandings of what it means to be “Irish,” however, will offer a fascinating study for questions of belonging and identity in the twenty-first century.
When I asked John if he had taken a liking to Irish stouts, our conversation took a more jovial tone. “Oh yes! I’m a Guinness guy,” he responded. I’m becoming a Murphy’s man myself. Maybe that’s all it takes to make a half-Irishman whole.