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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 25 October, 2014

Column: What does it mean to be Irish in the 21st century?

Rather than ignoring our past, it is more important to know how to deal with it, writes Raymond Keogh, who explores the issue of Irish identity in this Decade of Commemorations.

Image: Patryk Kosmider via Shutterstock

ON THE FIRST day of Back to our Past – the genealogy and family history event held in the RDS in Dublin last month – I happened to attend the end of a panel discussion entitled: “Who do we, the Irish, think we are?”, which was an opportunity for all participants to reflect on Irish identity.

In recent years, and especially during the Decade of Commemorations in which we find ourselves, the issue is particularly relevant. The flavour of the debate in the RDS highlighted the historical dimension of our identity and our need to grapple with our hybrid legacy as we emerge out of our past.

Many feel that our history is best left alone because of its tendency to open old wounds. They contend that it is better to begin a new chapter in our development without old baggage. The difficulty of this approach is that history happened – it cannot be ignored. Renewed public interest in the 1913 Lockout, for instance, has demonstrated just how easy the events of a century ago trigger a general fascination to know more. So, rather than ignoring our past, it is more important to know how to deal with it.

Approaching the past

There are two ways to approach the past in the context of identity: the first is to be careful not to intrude on the sensibilities of the ‘other’. This is a more-or-less politically correct process but has the disadvantage that everyone ends up tip-toeing around egg-shells; it fails to deal with the deeper but very real underlying mental and emotional cultural landscapes we possess, which are often starkly at variance with one another. The second way forward is to candidly open up our internal dialogues to each other and work through the challenges that arise, with the objective of achieving a fresh definition of who we are. The potential for conflict in this undertaking make us reluctant to engage.

However, avoiding the complexity of crafting a satisfactory identity as a people, postpones the process.

Written material and media comments over the last decade confirms a widespread acknowledgement that an identity vacuum exists and that there is a growing desire to grapple with the issue in order to move beyond the present impasse. But when we ask the question ‘who do we think we are?’, we often end up going around in circles.

Exploring our cultural make-up

I believe that the entire nation of Ireland would benefit from a candid self-examination of its cultural make-up. If sufficient numbers of representatives from different cultures openly examine their pathways out of the past and make these public, we will come to interesting new conclusions about who we are as a collective people on the island of Ireland and beyond. Descendants of Ascendancy Protestants, Orange Unionists, non-national newcomers, and other competing or conflicting cultures must have an opportunity of expressing their points of view alongside everyone else.

Each of us will become more enriched by getting to know the deeply-felt views of alternative or – especially – opposing cultures, providing that there is a mature will on all sides and an acknowledgement that stark and radical differences actually do exist, rather than be insulted by them or try to eliminate or ignore them. Frankness, a growing respect and a willingness to learn from each other’s traditions become a collective challenge. But, interconnectedness between cultures has, possibly, the greatest power to change us for the better.

I cannot imagine a more appropriate way to face the anniversary of Irish independence than by implementing a self examination of this sort throughout the whole of Ireland, North and South. With a wide range of cultural expressions to hand we should reach a better level of cultural understanding, at which stage new possibilities will begin to appear on the horizon. The Decade of Commemorations offers an ideal timeline in which to begin this process.

Read: Martin O’Neill on what it means to be Irish

Column: Why Ireland should look to Europe as well as America

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