How do you explain something like the 1980 Scottish Cup Final? Two soccer teams based in a Scottish city with fans that have hated each other for generations, knocking seven shades of shite out of each other in a massive pitch invasion, waving the flags of foreign nations and singing the songs of an ancient conflict between England and Ireland. I sometimes worry that when the aliens get here, they’re going to scoop up someone to try and explain humans to them, and that someone will be me, and I will have no clue what to say.
St Patrick’s Day brings out these types of thoughts. People you went to school with, the children or grandchildren of Irish immigrants, draping themselves in the Tricolour and swaths of green in their new Facebook profile picture. The IRA iconography; the Bobby Sands quotes. There’s a dark glamour in this kind of suffering. If your life is empty, you need something to make it serious. If you don’t have the guts to suffer yourself, co-opt someone else’s suffering. There’s no better source than the past. And it’s easy to support sectarian violence when all that means to you is a punch-up with someone wearing an England football shirt outside the Four Provinces pub.
It’s not uniquely an Irish thing, by any means. There’s a desperate human need to belong to a tribe of some kind, that caveman brain still operating inside us all, telling us that to not belong is to die. But what is a tribe without another tribe to define itself against? How do you know what you are unless you can point to another tribe to say, this is what I’m not?
Living in England, you get this all the time. Every sports event that comes along, they’re photoshopping World War 2 helmets onto soccer players and making terrible puns about the war. Nationalism is bullshit, and any thinking person knows it. The Allies might have saved the world, but you weren’t in the trenches. You’re going to claim some sort of reflected glory for the accomplishments of people you never met? Then you’re going to have to accept responsibility for their failures. If you liberated France, you also turned fire hoses on civil rights protestors. You are your forefathers, or you aren’t; you don’t get to pick and choose.
The issue is complicated when the countries you find yourself caught between have a long and troubled history together. It’s hard to feel your heart swell with pride at the sight of your nation’s flag when that nation has spent centuries kicking the shit out of the place your family came from. It was these inbetweeners, these second and third generation Irish, that the IRA used to find so easy to recruit; how better to prove your questionable Irish identity than to plant a nailbomb in the high street of the English town you grew up in? You see the exact same phenomenon now with radical Islam; the young men blowing up buses in London on July 7th 2005 were English born, and Nidal Malik Hasan came from Virginia.
You don’t get to choose who you’re going to be. The Irish government considers me Irish enough to have a passport, but I was born in England. So was my father. Three of my grandparents were Irish-born, and if Irish people were predominantly black, I’d be a lot darker-skinned than America’s first black president, but Irishness isn’t immediately visible. I’ve never lived in Ireland. In fact, I haven’t even visited Ireland in fifteen years. As far as Irish people are concerned, I’m English, and any mention of my Irish heritage makes me a fake, a fraud, a wannabe. A Plastic Paddy.
And that’s fine. I understand that. I emigrated to Canada at the age of twenty, and I’ve heard my share of tenuous connections to the Old Country. “Dude! You’re English? My grandfather’s mother was from Manchester!” People only say it to be nice, to try to relate. But the deeper you dig, the more you find that there are no Canadians. They’re qualified Canadians, hyphenated Canadians, Scottish- or Greek- or Iranian-Canadians. The only people who don’t identify with somewhere else are indigenous, and how can they identify with a country that was dumped on them by foreigners? They’re Nuxalk or Mohawk or Cree, not Canadian.
Everyone wants to be something else, to cling to the beautiful dream that there’s some mythic homeland out there; a place we’ve never been too, but will one day end up, where everyone knows us and accepts us and understands us. As far as delusions go, it’s up there with The One. The place your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents left is long gone. If you went there now, you’d find people speeding along the idyllic rural lanes in cars they bought on credit, blasting techno music and shouting into an iPhone. You can’t go back to something you never had in the first place. You can’t go back, period. All over the world, you can see people killing and dying for the idea of a homeland, but the truth, both melancholy and liberating, is that there is no home. That spot you’re in, that square foot of sky above you, that flexing and expanding cage of bone around your heart — that’s the only home you’ll ever have, or need. A nation is a lump of rock covered with people; that’s all. It can’t love you, or even know you, so why should you love it?
So here’s my modest proposal: let’s not worry about what we are. Let’s put aside the mad scramble for an identity and make our own. It’s fine to know and care about your ancestry, but remember this: your ancestors left that place to come to wherever it is you are now. And if you don’t like it, leave. Go find somewhere else that suits you better. It may even be that you feel happier in the place your family came from; just don’t expect the people who stayed there to welcome you home like a long lost cousin. To them, where you were born is who you are. Your parents don’t come into it.
And you don’t have to claim Irish ancestry to go out and party on St Patrick’s Day, any more than you have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. Get wasted on filthy green beer and make a fool of yourself in your giant foam Guinness hat. Just leave the kilt at home, please. It’s about as Irish as a Big Mac, and it makes you look like a weirdo.