Friday, March 26, 2010

Ireland means nothing now

Successful integration of ethnic minorities in the Americas and Australia doesn’t imply it will be this easy in Europe.

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 Irish Proclamation of Independence is quite different.

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.

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.

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.


  1. interesting...only time will tell.
    I think for immigrants to integrate, they must be spread around a country. To be diluted across the established inhabitants, so that when they arrive in an area they are in small numbers.
    I believe small numbers per area are important. When you have too many immigrants from one background in a particular area there is two reasons to interfere with integration:
    1. the established inhabitants can feel threatened and so xenophobia can set in. This is a natural human trait, possibly an instinct. As such to simply dismiss it as politically incorrect or old fashioned or even racist is a mistake. Better to accept it as fundamentally human, try to understand it and maybe be able to avoid it getting out of hand; rather than to isolate the xenophobes and make it entrenched.
    2. If too many immigrants congregate in one area, they will use each other for support and friendship. This is understandable as they have much more in common with each other than the 'natives'. But this discourages integration. Why make friends with locals who are xenophobic and speak a different language and eat strange food when you can make friends with people like yourself?
    Ghettos certainly stop integration and have been used for this purpose in the past to keep jews out of regular society and now discourage many africans from integrating into mainstream french society.
    Lets hope Ireland can learn from the examples of others and succeed in integrating immigrants. However I think polititians just spout politically correct rubbish and hope the problem sorts itself out. K

  2. Also is there any community left for immigrants to integrate into? Our sense of community seems to have evaporated during the Celtic Tiger. K

  3. "However I think polititians just spout politically correct rubbish and hope the problem sorts itself out."

    I agree. Perhaps because this immigration happened so late (and perhaps because Irish governments had cultivated an image of Ireland being friendly to poorer non-European countries - as a fellow victim of colonialism) at the moment there seems to have been very little discussion about this. I am occasionally annoyed when I see people complaining WAYYY too readily about racism - and this paranoid treatment of the immigration debate means that people can't be honest about their discomfort with it.

    I suspect that one side-effect of that is the growth of hard anti-immigrant parties in several European countries. When the mainstream parties and media refuse to acknowledge any possible negative side effects of immigration, the extremists are empowered.

    Not that I'm anti-immigration particularly! I really want to learn more about the role of different migrant groups in society. But it's bloody hard to get useful data for that...

  4. '...I really want to learn more about the role of different migrant groups in society.'

    Might be worth checking this out in a library:

    Race: migration and integration.

    by Newman, Jeremiah.

    London: Burns & Oates, 1968.
    • Racism.

    ISBN: 223976296!horizon&view=subscriptionsummary&uri=full=3100001~!194525~!11&ri=2&aspect=basic_search&menu=search&ipp=20&spp=20&staffonly=&term=integration&index=.GW&uindex=&aspect=basic_search&menu=search&ri=2#focus

    1968 by Burns & Oates
    Unknown Binding, 234 pages
    0223976296 (isbn13: 9780223976290)

    note: I haven't read it. K


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