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?”