If Newcomers Can't Be Irish, What Can We Be?

Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is co-founder of Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at [email protected]

Some 21 percent of those of us who live in Dublin city aren’t white Irish or white Irish Traveller. That’s according to the 2011 census. Today, it’s probably more.

We can be Somali or Brazilian or Polish or Vietnamese. We can be “immigrants” or “foreigners” or “non-nationals”.

But we can never really be Irish, because “Irish” is an ethnicity as well as a citizenship, and we can’t change our blood, even if we change our citizenship.

Does this mean we’re not welcome in Ireland? Does it mean we’re welcome here, but only as guests? Or is it irrelevant?

Citizenship and Blood

In many countries, the word for a citizen is not the same as the word for the largest ethnic group.

People who live in India can call themselves Indians, whether they are ethnically Tamil or Bengali or Marathi. People in Pakistan can be Pakistani, whether they are Pashtun or Punjabi or Sindhi.

People in Britain can be British, whether they are ethnically Irish or Welsh or Scottish. People in America can be American whether they are Irish or Tamil or Punjabi.

Yes, people have layers of identity, so they can be both Irish and American, or both Punjabi and Pakistani. And yes, identities are often contested: there are those who will say their neighbours are not “real” Indians or Americans or Brits.

But at least in these — and many other — countries, the language exists to bring everyone together under one linguistic umbrella, if people are willing to use it.

And in Britain, for example, amid this post-Brexit madness when English racists are telling British people with Asian or Polish heritage to “go home”, at least they can say, “I am home. I’m British, you fuckwit.”

This is not the case in Ireland. (Or Germany or France or a host of other countries.)

For someone from Brazil who settles in Ireland and starts a business and becomes a citizen and has kids here, there is no word that marks them as part of the community of Ireland.

They cannot say, “I am home. I’m Irish.” They can never be Irish, the way that identity is now understood.

They’re Brazilian right? Or an immigrant? Or a fucking foreigner? There is no such thing as Irelandish or Irelandan or Irelandi that they can add to their other layers of identity.

“We don’t have the language legally, we don’t have the language politically and I don’t think we even have the imagination to talk about Irishness outside of a very narrow definition,” said Mary Gilmartin a senior lecturer at Maynooth University who has studied migration to and from Ireland.

“There’s no room for hybrid identities, and Irishness is very associated with whiteness,” she said.

This is an issue Abeeha Tariq wrote about in a recent article for the website Headstuff titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (Irish)”.

“I definitely think it’s true that we don’t really have the language to match the changing nature of ‘being Irish’ and new Irish communities,” she told me.

Language and Integration

Some of you may think this is just fine, that this is the way it ought to be, that if we newcomers don’t like it, we can go back home. Love it or leave it, baby.

For those of you, though, who welcome immigration, or at least are resigned to it as a fact of twenty-first-century life, I invite you to consider whether this limitation of our language might cause problems in future. Or whether it is a symptom of a national attitude towards integration that might cause problems later.

Whatever your view on it, Ireland is going to have to come to terms with its growing population of newcomers in one way or another.

In 1990, only 6.5 percent of the people in Ireland had not been born here, according to the UN’s Population Division. That rose to 10.1 percent in 2000, 12.7 percent in 2010 and 15.9 percent in 2013.

That puts Ireland 59th on the UN’s list of 232 places. For comparison, that’s above both the US (68th, with 14.2 percent) and the UK (75th at 12.4 percent), but below Canada (51st at 20.7 percent).

But the share of the population of some Dublin neighbourhoods is much higher than any of these. My neighbourhood, for example.

There were 3,969 people “usually resident” in my neighbourhood around Camden Street (CSO area ED 02146) at the 2011 census; 1,865 (47 percent) were not ‘White Irish” or “White Irish Traveller”; and 1,683 (42 percent) were not born in Ireland.

Or, to put it another way, 47 percent of us (including 5 percent who were born here) are not Irish and can never be Irish, the way it’s currently defined. We will always be reminded, even if in a friendly way, that we aren’t really part of this place: we are immigrants or foreigners, Algerians and Lithuanians.

I believe this has an effect on whether we are involved and engaged citizens, contributing to our city — or minding our own business in case we try to participate in public life and an ethnically Irish person tells us to stop meddling because it’s not our country. (That’s something that has happened to me, and will likely happen again, in response to this column.)

How many of the 63 Dublin City Councillors are not white Irish? None that I am aware of. How many journalists and activists and community leaders in the city are not white Irish? Very few.

This is understandable. If you’re a guest in a place, it’s safest to act grateful and be polite and smile a lot and avoid complaining.

But do we really want such a large percentage of Dublin’s residents to continue to feel like guests? To never feel quite at home here?

If this deters them from rolling up their sleeves, getting involved and making the city a better place — what a waste of energy and ideas and talent that would be.

What’s to Be Done?

“There’s a politics of evasion or erasure in terms of immigrants in Ireland,” Gilmartin says.

There was a time in the 2000s, when there was a concerted push by the national government to recognize and work to integrate the newcomers who arrived during the Celtic Tiger, she says. But then the crash came, and the focus shifted.

Now there’s little being done by government to promote integration, Gilmartin says. And newcomers are either keeping out of the public sphere or being kept out.

Look at our Dublin TDs and Dublin City Councillors. Look at our media, our business leaders, our activists. Do they look like Dublin in 2016? They don’t look like my neighbourhood.

Gilmartin argues that “any national identification, any ethnic identification is always changing”. But with newcomers keeping their heads down, staying out of the spotlight, there’s little need for Irish identity to broaden to include us.

“We need to make immigrants more visible, in a constructive, positive sense,” Gilmartin says.

Antiracism activist Ronit Lentin argues that “racism rather than identity is the main issue” and that newcomers will work out the issue of terminology in time.

“Those who can overcome the racism they encounter, sometimes on a daily basis, will surely integrate,” says Lentin, a former associate professor of sociology TCD, who came to Ireland from Israel-Palestine in 1969.

“Migrants are already filling many crucial vacancies in the medical, transport, hospitality, construction and other sectors, and are very much needed in the texture of life in Ireland,” Lentin says.

This seems to me like an optimistic view, that if we can just keep racism under control, integration can follow. Is not facing racist abuse and discrimination really enough to give someone the space to feel at home? It’s a very important beginning, at least.

In the meantime, Tariq suggests a way forward in terms of language. “I usually just use ‘Pakistani-Irish’, which is fine for me,” she says, “so perhaps identifying like that might be a way to open it up — perhaps hyphenating Irish might open up its meaning?”


Sam Tranum: Sam Tranum is co-founder of Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at [email protected]

Reader responses

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at 6 July 2016 at 10:10

As much as I sympathise with the sentiment of not feeling quite from a place, I disagree with the notion of nicely bracketing people with a fun little name. It actually wont add to inclusion levels.

More people have mixed heritages, especially in Dublin than they let on. I myself come from a very mixed ethnic & religious background-yet I am Irish. I like to think it lends me a little more parity in my approach to life and people, a willingness to understand and comprehend.

A good part of my understanding, and I am being simplistic here (and I dont mean to offend anyone), is that Irish people really only recognise those born in this country, with Irish accents and who are happy to integrate fully as part of the community as Irish. A persons ethnic race or religion come far less into it than I think most foreigners (its not a dirty term to call someone a foreigner) think, or indeed really most Irish people I think realise. Admittedly, it does mean you dont proclaim all the realms of your identity and you go with the flow of being Irish and integrate meaningfully,maybe even marrying into the general population. It is better than youll get in most places around the world, not just in ‘white’ countries, where the chances are you are not allowed to shake off your background fully,even after 3 generations (even with intermarriage and trying to fit in).

To show what I mean, I give you the example of my father-who to all intensive purposes could be classified as more Irish than most (both his father and mothers family hail from the western fringes of Ireland and were native speakers). He was however born in England (at a time being British-and lets be honest Britishness is quite selective when you look at it,even when you try and identify-didnt include being Irish), admittedly he was never allowed to forget he was Irish while there, this was back in the good old days of the troubles when we were called ‘Paddy’ ‘Mick’ ‘Tadgh’ ‘Fenian’ ‘IRA scum’ and had to put up with regular levels of abuse that sometimes extended to being physical (so do remember when your branding people as ‘white’ you are taring with the same brush(pardoning the ironic pun) a broad range of people and personally I am tired and getting to the point of being offended by the term white being waved about as if it was something bad or as reason enough to blame people or try and shame a population (the irony-i know!),dont forget the Irish are pretty low down in the eugenics scale when it comes to 19th-20th century imperialist racism, I point you to two of my favorite derogatory terms (ones which should actually join us more with people who have experienced racism than it clearly does) ‘inside-out niggers’ a term used in the american sticks to describe the irish & ‘indians that were left out in the rain’, a very british term. I think both terms explain exactly what was and still, to a certain extent I’m sure, is the opinion of the Irish as held by certain ‘white’ populations! But I am gon off topic!!!)

Back to my father, London Irish, growing up in effectively an Irish ghetto (ghettos are as you know a dangerous thing, when it comes to integration) not feeling a whole heap british and generally fed up with the entire affair he decided to move to Ireland-like all Irish people born and growing up abroad in his day, he had visions of what Ireland was and could be, pretty thatched cottages, hopes for a better society in the future. He came here to discover, the thatch had long ago rotted off the roofs and a country with no hope ever of positive change (Cronyism is alive and well last time I checked, so is Gaumbeenism, Slibheens still run wild,endemic homelessness,corruption,etc-again another story,so Ill get back to the point) -The point being,is he felt as an ethnically Irish man, he would fit into the broader society,however as Irish born abroad, he has and never will be classified as truely Irish,because he hasnt experienced the totality of it, he is classified as a foreigner by the Irish because he was born and grew up in England. He has only ever held an Irish Passport,but still will always be reminded (sometimes politely as you said you have been, sometimes begrudgingly as Im sure youve been to polite to mention) that hes ‘not really Irish’.

Case study 2
My mother was born in Dublin, while part Irish,she comes from quite a mixed ethnic background( I wont get into it or I’ll just sound like an American tourist,reciting proudly a heritage I dont really know,when in fact all I can really claim is a bigger gene pool), probably because she is mixed she doesnt make a point of it too much and while not ashamed of who she is,she doesnt talk about it (she considers it a dull topic of conversation if I am honest,maybe that has coloured my own approach to the topic). She is regarded by all as being entirely Irish as she sounds the part,acts the part and is from the place.

Gradual integration is key,sometimes it takes more time than can be done in a single generation,but in Ireland it is very possible in two . It means you must treat people as you find them,not show contempt for the general population or sneer at there behavior or habits and encourage your children to be more apart of the place they are growing up in, it is a resignation of certain cultural habits,ways of dressing sometimes language if you wish to subsume an identity, but the Irish will accept, and your children would be Irish.
Of course, if you deem it of such importance to hold on very publicly to your national identity and make your children born here,or young here, feel the same way-give them a new name so they aren’t Irish but not what their parents are either,encourage them to feel an identity they can never truly belong to,that the one they might isn’t good enough for them,or doesnt accept them(even though it is probably nothing than indifferent to their background) then you run the risk of making such a point of their difference that it will mean they may never belong here either, might create a racial or cultural segregation or tension that doesn’t yet properly exist in this country, as we are fairly tolerant (far more than most I believe-though I might be a little biased). Past waves of foreign communities have integrated very successfully, why should not the next?

Again apologies for being a little simplistic, but I do think think the point Im getting at isnt wrong

Peter James
at 6 July 2016 at 11:02

There are some people in the rest of Ireland who regard Dubliners as not quite Irish.

at 12 July 2016 at 09:43

@Peter James Who exactly are you referring to?

Geoffrey Greene
at 12 July 2016 at 12:53

I think one of the best things about this article is that it comes as a surprise to me, an American and 1.5-year resident–even working for a company with a very diverse staff. If Dublin is anywhere from a fifth to a quarter foreign-born, it doesn’t seem to cause much bother or controversy to the native-born or immigrant alike. I’ve never met a non-native resident who had anything but nice things to say about the Irish and Ireland (aside from the weather, complaints about which tie us all together on this island). And, unlike in Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, or the US, there doesn’t appear to be much acrid xenophobia here. I’ve heard some cross words by Irish tax drivers about their Nigerian peers, but that’s about it. Perhaps it’s just a bit of astonishment that, after two centuries of net emigration (which continues today), people have moved *to* Ireland in the last generation. Irish people come from a proud and deep culture–and they can of course be as provincial or nationalistic as in any other country–but on the main they seem very open to other cultures and ways of being. Ryanair has opened up cheap travel to the Irish everyman. Inbound mass tourism has long been a mainstay of the Irish experience–and now Americans and British are sharing more space on the tourbus with Mainland Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians. More intimately, the Irish Diaspora has connected Irish families to relatives across the Atlantic, across the Irish Sea, or even further afield. And, briefly, but enduringly, the Celtic Tiger period sparked a taste for erstwhile foreign luxuries like Third Wave Coffee (3FE), wine, international cuisine, German sports cars, etc. On an island with the youngest population in Europe, school-age Irish continue to look far afield for trends in food (American hamburgers, Tex-Mex burritos, Thai, kebab, Indian, Brazilian, Spanish, etc.), music, fashion, and gap year or J1 Visa experiences. After school, they are very likely to consider work in London, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, Canada, or the US. There is a two-way cultural transmission that has now become just commonplace and mundane. Which is as it should be.

at 25 August 2016 at 11:42

It’s not really the government’s job to promote integration, in my view. Migrants coming to Ireland should know that they need to make an effort to adapt to local cultural norms and to get involved in society. No one is saying this is easy, but it is the migrant’s choice to come here and to undergo this process. There’s a case to be made that the government is better off not interfering in the integration process – in Britain, an official policy of multiculturalism was encouraged for many years whereby ethnic and religious groups were encouraged to hold on to their ancestral cultures as it would be ‘racist’ to get them to adopt the norms and customs of the host society. But this was disastrous, as it leads to balkanisation and segregation. People should be expected to make an effort to integrate by themselves instead – it should be an organic process.

Gael agus Éireannach
at 28 October 2017 at 02:10

Very interesting article Sam, well done. If I may add my two cents, I think the loss of the Irish language really hinders us when we try to understand Irishness. For a start, there is a ready distinction between Irish by citizenship (Éireannach) and Irish by ethnicity (Gael). Two separate and sometimes overlapping concepts. I, like other commenters, find the terminology of the census “white Irish” jarring. I would much prefer to tick the box “Gael” (but no such box is offered). There is a sense among many Irish people that when whiteness connoted prestige and advantages in employment etc., we were cut out of it. Now, when whiteness is being used as a pejorative, we’ve been included in its definition (without our consent). I doubt that my grandparents, northern Catholics, enjoyed white privilege while they were discriminated against in employment and hunted by loyalist murder gangs (Google the Shankill butchers if you want some flavour of what I’m on about). The solution is a two-way process. Newcomers should accept that the Irish constitute a distinct ethnic group, as you have admirably done, but that does not mean that this definition is not subject to change (as it has changed in the past, where for example, Normans were considered non-Irish). By the same token, Irish people, need to open up the definition of Irishness. Ironically, I believe Irish nationalism to be the best vehicle for this, since it was almost entirely founded by people of non-Irish ethnicity (and men who often referred to their non-Irish background). Davis, Emmett and Tone are heroes to hardcore Republicans, and given the non-Irish roots of these patriots, I’d love to see them being heroes to the new Irish too.

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