In a shop recently I made friendly conversation with the young man who was working the till. Noting his ebony skin I asked him where he hailed from, thinking he would mention some faraway country across the globe. “Cork!” he answered, in the broadest Cork accent I have ever heard. And as I drove away, a somewhat chastened white Irishwoman, I found myself questioning all of my assumptions about identity and Irishness and what it means to be Irish. Or indeed to be American or English or Brazilian. I concluded that there’s no such thing as ‘pure’ Irish or pure Brazilian or pure English. We have all developed as a result of migration. Along the way we have picked up a mixture of DNA from here, there and everywhere.
A few years back a study into the DNA of ancient bones unearthed in Co. Clare proved that the ancient Stone Age settlers had come from Northern Spain. Further DNA tests showed that, remarkably, thousands of years later, their descendants still live in the villages and townlands of Clare.
So we’re really Spanish, right?
Well no, it’s not that simple. Because other DNA studies have demonstrated our Middle Eastern origins while yet another piece of research has shown us to have Ukrainian and Eastern European DNA as well.
So in truth we Celtic Irish are hybrids, descendants of long-ago Basque, Middle Eastern and Eastern European migrants who braved the perils of sea travel to fetch up in Ireland and populate this land. So when we welcome our Syrian or Eastern European friends into our towns and villages, they are our relations and in a sense we are welcoming them home.
The other side of the coin lies in the great Irish diaspora. Several members of my family emigrated. I now have nieces and nephews with an intoxicating genetic stew running in their veins. Are they Irish? Well, yeees. Sort of, anyway. Though most of them will never make their home here.
I have an Irish/Iranian/American granddaughter born in Ireland but living in the US since she was a baby, with her own US passport and American citizenship. Is she Irish? Well yeees. Sort of. Though she may never live in Ireland again. Is she American? Well yeees. Sort of.
I have an African friend with four children born and raised in Ireland. Are they Irish? Definitely.
How do we define Irish identity? Is it down to DNA and genetics? Skin colour? Place of birth? Accent? Culture?
In a way there’s no such thing as an Irish identity, written in stone, permanent and defined for all time.
Those early Stone Age people who came from Spain and settled in Co. Clare didn’t do Irish dancing or play hurling or celebrate St. Patrick’s day. Christianity, let alone St. Patrick, was a distant dream. Were their children Irish though? Definitely.
But more than that, their children and all the children born since are members of a single human family, with connections and blood relations stretching around the globe.