When Spain and Portugal began their colonial expansion in the 16th century they found resistance among natives in the Americas weaker than resistance in Africa, because European diseases decimated the native American populations. Over the next few centuries the native populations collapsed from disease, environmental change caused by imported Old World animal and plant species, and war.
When the Europeans settled in the Americas, they were able to begin society again from scratch – the drastically shrunk native populations unable to prevent the emergence of a new culture and polity.
All the first inhabitants of this new culture were immigrants, often from several European and African regions. The New World was to be a mixed-nationality nation, right from the start. There is no American, Brazilian or Australian race today, since these populations are already highly mixed in ancestry. Even in the 18th century when the American Founding Fathers wrote their Declaration of Independence they made no ethnic claim to the colonies, framing their claim to independence only on the tyranny of the British government.
The land of Ireland lies naturally with the Irish people, they said. It acknowledges help given to the independence movement from Ireland’s ‘exiled children in America’, suggesting that what they are talking about is ethnicity. Even American citizens are Irish by ethnicity and therefore ‘exiled children’ of Ireland. The land of Ireland belongs to the Irish ethnicity.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.
So unlike the US, Ireland’s claim to independence was, from the start, based on the presumption of natural ethnic ownership and collective ethnic freedom from foreign domination, not individual freedom from tyrannical government.
There is a hint here at why some of the New World countries have absorbed massive numbers of immigrants while there are problems with integration in several European countries. Here in Europe (as well as in Africa and Asia), the natives stubbornly refuse to die out, so when migrants arrive they are not able to build a new mixed-race society from scratch. Instead their appearance immediately marks them out as foreigners, people who do not share that common ethnicity which had defined the native sense of nationality. In Ireland Vikings, Normans and English could integrate and vanish into the Irish population because they look the same – something not true for Asian and African immigrants; if “Irish” used to mean someone of Irish ethnicity, anyone with dark skin was clearly not Irish.
(In Britain the BNP have taken to calling white people the ‘indigenous’ natives of the UK. For them, Britishness is clearly defined by ethnicity.)
Americaness could be defined by adherence to a general set of values, usually related to an idea of individual freedom, - but not ethno-nationalism when so many people are a mixture of historical nationalities.
Hence Asians and Africans in the US or Brazil tend to integrate fairly well, while Britain gets terrorist attacks, France gets rioting ghettos, Netherlands gets murdered film directors and so on. The New World was mixed race to start with so it was able to build societies indifferent to race, but in much of the Old World the dominant ethnicities still live in their traditional homelands, and many are loth to move over to let outsiders in.
To conclude: being Irish used to emphasise ethnicity, not adherence to culture or law.
...At least so I thought until I was in Dublin shortly after the Saint Patrick’s Day parade finished. The city centre was full of non-Europeans, waving Irish flags, donning wacky Irish top hats and shamrocks painted on their faces.
So Irishness is no longer defined by ethnicity? What, then? Most Irish people have long ago abandoned almost all traditional Irish culture. We dress like British people dress. Speak English. Watch American TV shows. The traditional Irish Brehon laws collapsed centuries ago, now our legal and political systems are similar to Britain. Even Catholicism, the one religio-cultural tradition that seperated Ireland from Britain for centuries, is now in rapid decline.
So what are people celebrating on Saint Patrick’s Day? Being Irish, but not because their ancestors were Irish. And not because Ireland has a particularly unique culture anymore, speaks a unique language or has a unique political system.
Irish nationalism – pride in being Irish – continues while the definition of Irishness becomes fuzzier. It is not about ethnicity. Nor is it about culture to those commentators who boast of Ireland's new multiculturalism.
Being Irish can mean anything at all now, it is up for grabs. Still people profess pride in it, but perhaps this pride is little more than the pride of a football supporter in an arbitrarily picked team – and goes no further than adherence to a particular flag and jersey. It will be interesting to see if immigrants in the long run do integrate and become Irish – whatever that means – or if the obvious ethnic foreignness of some will leave them permanently isolated.