25 April 2016

How Irish do I have to be before I
answer ‘Irish’ on the census form?

How Irish do I have to be before I complete last night’s census forms? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Did you answer all the questions on the census form last night?

Did you continue through to the bitter end?

Did you get stuck in the middle and find you needed a cup of coffee before you continued?

I stumbled when I came to Question 11:

What is your ethnic or cultural background?

The form says: “Chose one section from A to D, then the appropriate – box.”

The options given are:

A White

1 Irish
2 Irish Traveller.
3 Any other White background.

B Black or Black Irish

4 African
5 Any other Black background

C Asian or Asian Irish

6 Chinese
7 Any other Asian background

D Other, including mixed background

8, Other, write in description.

I have problems with what appears to be an inherent presumption – that to be purely Irish one is white, and with no added ingredients.

How could there possibly be such a concept as pure Irish?

Who are the pure Irish?

Do you have to have a surname that begins with “O” or “Mac”?

How far back does one have to go?

Are you not purely Irish if your family arrived here with the Vikings? The Anglo-Normans? The English and Scots? The Huguenots? The Palatines? The 19th and 20th century Italian plasterers and the next waves that opened fish and chip shops?

When does Cassoni, Caffola, Macari, Fusco, Cinelli, Librero, Cervi or Borza become an Irish surname?

Why do some people have to be hyphenated?

Why do some families have to wait for generations when, for example, Pearse and de Valera never had to? Yet Pearse had an English father and de Valera, who was born in New York, had a Spanish or Cuban father – how would they have described themselves last night?

How could Constance Markievicz describe and qualify herself? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

As I walked through Saint Stephen’s Green yesterday afternoon, and looked at the monument to Countess Markievicz, I wondered how she would have answered: Polish or Ukrainian because of her husband? English because she was born in London?

She was already double-barrelled when she was born Constance Gore-Booth, and some of her detractors might have liked to compound that by labelling her Anglo-Irish.

Some years ago, during the 2011 presidential election campaign, Martin McGuinness tried to blame “West Brit elements” in the Dublin media for daring to ask questions about his past.

McGuinness later took the opportunity to try to explain his “West Brit” media conspiracy faux pas, saying: “No, no, I think there is a very tiny number of people who fit into that category, but there are undoubtedly a number of people out there who are very determined to try and undermine my campaign, but I’m not going to get fixated about any of that.”

Speaking to Newstalk’s Chris Donoghue he said “there are West Brit elements, in and around Dublin – some of them are attached to some sections of the media, others are attached to political parties and were formerly involved in political parties,” he said.

Note how he blamed “West Brit elements” in the media and in political parties for the past, and not the IRA.

However, as Miriam Lord asked in The Irish Times afterwards, how could McGuinness reconcile his statements about wanting to be a President for all the people of Ireland when he also used a derogatory term like “West Brit”?

Wikipedia defines the term this way: “West Brit, an abbreviation of West British, is a pejorative term for an Irish person, usually from Dublin, who is perceived by his or her countrymen as being too anglophilic in matters of culture or politics.”

Daniel O’Connell used the term positively in a debate in the House of Commons in 1832 when he said: “The people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire, provided they be made so in reality and not in name alone; they are ready to become a kind of West Briton if made so in benefits and justice; but if not, we are Irishmen again.”

The term “West Brit” gained prominent usage in the land struggle of the 1880s. By the 1900s, DP Moran, founder of The Leader was using the term frequently to describe people he did not consider to be sufficiently Irish. It was synonymous with those he described as “Sourfaces,” those who mourned the death of Queen Victoria, and It included virtually all members of the Church of Ireland and those Roman Catholics who did not measure up to his definition of “Irish Irelanders.”

A sense of how the term came to be used can be grasped from a reading of James Joyce’s Dubliners, published in 1914: “Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke.”

In the early years of the Irish Free State in the 1920s, the term “West Brit” was used to discriminate against those who had a friendly attitude towards the United Kingdom and who were loath to cut ties with the neighbouring island. It seems, though, that by then the term was applied mainly to Roman Catholics because Protestants were presumed to be Unionists by nature – despite the fact that Irish nationalists and republicans had included Charles Stewart Parnell, Sean O Casey, Bulmer Hobson, Douglas Hyde and Ernest Childers.

Similarly pejorative terms include “Castle Catholic” and – in this day and age – “Anglo-Irish.”

Someone I know has tried on more than one occasion to use the term “Anglo-Irish” when he has asked me about my background. But it implies that someone is only half Irish, or half English.

The Comerford family has lived in Ireland for many generations, for many centuries, but I am keenly aware, like many generations before me, of our family roots in Staffordshire and Wiltshire. Why not? It is as sensible as someone with the name O’Neill or O’Donnell being proud of ancient Irish roots – perhaps even more so, in that the link is closer and can be verified.

But I am hardly going to use the term “Anglo-Irish” or “West Brit” on the census form. I have no problem with English friends who think I may be English, but let no-one in Ireland imagine I am less Irish than they are – certainly not less Irish than Pearse or de Valera.

Those who have been keen on rewriting the history of 1916 during the present commemorations, appear to be keen to dismiss the authenticity of the Irish identity of one section of Irish society who disagree with them politically.

But they know they would be stooping to racism if they took the same attitude to “Black or Black Irish” or “Asian or Asian Irish” respondents to the census forms last night.

Perhaps since the failure of his presidential campaign, Martin McGuinness has decided to accept that Ireland is an authentic home for “West Brits,” the “Anglo-Irish,” those who speak Received Pronunciation English, those who enjoy cricket and rugby, those whose parents were born in Rathmines and Rathgar, those whose father or grandfather fought in the British Army in World War I or World War II, those who wear a poppy, those who received part of our education in England or worked there for a while, those who are proud of that part of our ancestry that is English (even if generations ago), or those who opposed 40 years of murderous violence on this island.

But no-one should have to qualify how Irish they are when it comes to filling out the census forms.

1 comment:

lcotter said...

Great article , reminds me of Heather K. Crawford's book - outside the glow; such a revealing book to me.

Sean O'Casey's epic autobiography should be a must read in this decade of centenary's; so insightful with
contemporaneous accounts brilliantly recounted.