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Column The day I had to prove I was Irish – and failed

Both my parents are Irish, I live in Ireland and I hold an Irish passport. But that wasn’t enough when I was called interview for America’s coveted ‘greencard lottery’, writes Stephen Collins.

THE AMERICAN EMBASSY in Dublin called me for an interview in March 2010 when my number came up in the “greencard” lottery. I took proof that I was a qualified solicitor, had no criminal record and a clean bill of health. All I had left to do was prove I was Irish. Both my parents are; I live in Ireland and hold an Irish passport.

“Your case won’t be straightforward,” an elderly woman said, when I paid a €1,000 non-refundable fee and presented documents for inspection. “You were born in London.”

Natives of Great Britain were ineligible for the greencard lottery in 2010, having sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the States in the previous five years. However, I’d reviewed the application form, and concluded I was eligible. I expected some questioning; I did not expect the interviewer to hand my passport back, and suggest I submit documentation to prove I was a native of Ireland.

In danger of losing something I’d always taken for granted

Despite a career in immigration law, I’d no idea where to begin. The statute books and Constitution were strangely silent on the subject of who was a native of Ireland. It was probably self evident once, before the era of mass transit and migration. The Irish government had recently started issuing certificates of Irish heritage to the diaspora, so I contacted the (then) Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Martin TD for information. Surely he, a fellow Corkman and Coláiste Críost Rí alum, would recognise one of his own.

“Dear Mr Martin,” I wrote, “I wonder can you help me prove I’m a native of Ireland.”

Perhaps at a loss to know, his office contacted the American Embassy without my knowledge, which as an immigration lawyer was the last thing I wanted. The Minster communicated the feedback in a letter:

“How they categorise nationals is a matter entirely for the American authorities and it is not appropriate for the Department of Foreign Affairs to get involved (…) I am informed (by the US Embassy) that “native” ordinarily means someone born in a particular country, regardless of the individual’s current country of residence or nationality.”

Never mind that I agreed it certainly was inappropriate for his office to get involved, or that I wished they hadn’t, the news that it was up to the American Embassy to decide who was a native of Ireland came as a surprise. Far from getting a greencard, I was in danger of losing something I’d always taken for granted: my Irishness. I went into lawyer mode, and got to work.

Who – or what – is Irish?

The question of who, or what, is Irish has never been more open as Ireland nears its hundredth anniversary of independence. Bill De Blasio, the Mayor of New York, boycotted this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, explicitly rejecting a vision of Ireland that did not include the LGBT community. Major drinks companies withdrew sponsorship of the event for the same reason. Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the other hand did march, proclaiming the event an opportunity to express solidarity with Irish America, if not the LGBT community.

Were Irish Americans therefore somehow more Irish, more deserving of the Taoiseach’s support than their gay cousins? Who was deciding all this? Maybe Dáil Éireann had some kind of colour-coded chart, a pH scale in green that showed up shades of shamrock. For a while it seemed that what lay at the end of the rainbow might not be a crock o’ gold, but a bill o’ rights.

Other developments suggested the squabble was a symptom of malaise in Irish culture. Back in the old country, where three quarters of the population support gay marriage, the Lord Mayor of Dublin accused the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival of being “soulless”, as if the essence of Irishness was absent from the bumper cars, fireworks and tat that festooned the capital on our national day. Elsewhere, the Council of Europe warned Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly to promote the Irish language. Having once endured a physical partition, Ireland’s people were in danger of a psychic split.

I did not have the luck of the Irish

Back in 2010, I submitted affidavits, original correspondence and educational documents in support of my claim to be a native of Ireland. As if to confirm the American Embassy’s suspicions, I did not have the luck of the Irish. The Consular Section rejected my DV2010 application on the grounds of ineligibility and worse, for a lifelong Irishman, said that I was not only British, but a native of Britain; British to the core.

So when the Irish government presented US President Barack Obama with a certificate of Irish heritage in 2012, I greeted the news with weary resignation. O’Bama, whose administration considered me British, was born in Hawaii to an American mother and African father, yet he was Irish whereas I, despite living in Ireland and having been born to Irish parents, was not. It was all a bit Irish, as we British say.

I was well-placed to watch Irishness change in the early 2000s. The law offices I worked in represented clients from 163 different countries. I won refugee status for persons fleeing persecution on the grounds of nationality and LGBT identity, among others. I processed citizenship applications and attended court to see clients become Irish citizens. It was a privilege to represent people whose offspring might one day become what I can never be: a native of Ireland.

I know I’m Irish

The thing is that they need a sense of belonging confirmed, whereas I don’t. I know I’m Irish, because the idea of a foreign embassy telling me otherwise is surprisingly offensive. I know I’m Irish, because Obama’s wry smile on receiving a certificate of Irish heritage troubles me. And I know I’m Irish because my friends and family find the idea of a British me hilarious. Look at my name, for feck’s sake.

But refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants require documentation to prove a right to reside. Children born in Northern Ireland can hold Irish passports although they’re not natives of Ireland, having been born in the UK. Children born on the island of Ireland before June 24th 2004 were automatically citizens of Ireland whereas those born after the 27th Amendment to the Constitution are not, unless one of their parents is. And so a child born of American parents in Dublin today isn’t automatically entitled to an Irish passport, even though she is a native of Ireland.

Nobody tells you who you are

Policing Irishness is complicated. Someone’s always more Irish than you, even if only Saint Patrick (who was, of course, Welsh). If the Irish American organisers of New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade want to play the “more Irish than you” game, they should abide by their government’s rules, and allow only natives of Ireland to march. Let’s break out the birth certificates to see who gets a float in 2015. They’ll find themselves on the sidelines with me, cheering Irish-born LGBT persons as they pass by.

Nobody tells you who you are. The right to self describe is a freedom that no government, embassy and certainly no parade event takes away from you.

A group of children at this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Cork said it best. Beautifully dressed and looking a little overwhelmed by the occasion, they carried a message on placards past City Hall to the start of the parade. The three words printed on colour cards attached to sticks might have been a slogan for the day, a description of the event and a watchword for our country: UNITY IN DIVERSITY.

Stephen Darcy Collins qualified as a solicitor and practised immigration law for several years before completing an MFA at Columbia University, where he was TOMS Scholars’ Fund Fellow. His work has since appeared in The Irish Times, Irish Independent and Dublin Quarterly. He won the From the Well and Lonely Voice short story competitions, and was nominated for the Hennessy Literary Award. He lives in Cork.

Follow Stephen on Twitter @sdarcycollins

Read: These are the 13 things you can ALWAYS rely on in Ireland

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