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Sunday 6 July 2008

Irishness can be a many splendoured thing 

No-one should be allowed to set bounds to our definition of what it means to be Irish, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

HAVING only a short time at home between long journeys last week, I scanned the bulging email inbox with a ruthlessly discriminating eye for what was important and/or urgent. Low curiosity, however, drew me instantly to a message from an unfamiliar address (littlehouse1@adelphia.net) which had the irresistible subject line: 'You are an evil crank.' I enjoy communications like that.

Mr/Ms Littlehouse had, I think, found my email address on my website, where he/she had presumably been perusing various articles he/she deemed offensive.

"Your words against the unification of Ireland show you to be a vile shrill witch," he/she said. "I think you should stay of [sic] Ireland since you are not really Irish anyway. Stay in London and write the kind of English tripe you have been slobering [sic] out for so long."

Sorry for the [sic]s, Littlehouse, but in addition to being an evil crank and a vile, shrill witch, I'm also a bit of a pedant.

In that spirit, may I point out that if you had been paying proper attention, you would have noticed that I'm not, in principle, against Irish unification.

If the people of Northern Ireland want to throw in their lot with a willing Republic, that will be fine with me. My difficulty has been with the cretinous murderers and fellow-travellers who thought and think the island should and could be united through violence.

What marked Littlehouse's strictures out from run-of-the-mill abuse from republicans is his/her allegation that I'm not really Irish. This is a comfort-blanket sometimes cuddled by the ultra-sectarian and is several degrees up from the normally sectarian, who merely accuse their Irish critics of being lickspittles to the British Establishment, agents of MI5, and so on.

For the record, three of my grandparents (Ford, McInerney and O'Sullivan) and both my parents were born, brought up and (apart from the republican granny who worked in London for a time and brought home an Englishman to bully) lived all their lives in Ireland. (I don't count my father's three years studying in London.)

I was born in Dublin, educated in UCD and, although admittedly I emigrated at a time when there were no jobs at home and have not moved back, I've been involved with matters Irish for my whole life.

But to the likes of Littlehouse, any challenge to tribal shibboleths (we-were-the-most-oppressed-people-ever; the Brits willingly let us starve during the famine; Sean South was from Garryowen; it-is-noble-to-freedom-fight-our-way-to-a-United Ireland; only Prods are bigots) doesn't just mean you're a heretic who must be stripped naked, covered in ordure and expelled from the tribe. It means you're guilty of such unforgivable thought-crimes that you are a non-person who was never part of the tribe in the first place.

The first time I was accused of not being Irish was long ago at an Irish Studies conference in the United States.

Having delivered an academic paper on Patrick Pearse, I had been challenged angrily and at great length by the weirdest of the three weirdos from Noraid (the highly controversial Irish Northern Aid Committee), but, being a nice person (as befits my Irishness), I was extremely civil when I ran into them later.

Indeed, I was so civil that I neither laughed nor jeered when it emerged that none of them had ever been to Ireland.

Still, one of them took umbrage at my having asked and snarled, "You haven't got one drop of Irish blood in your veins."

It was her comfort blanket.

The Anglo-Irish, of course, didn't even have to demonstrate thought-crimes to be designated as foreign.

They just needed to have a posh accent, to have come from a Big (as opposed to a Little) House, have been to school in England, or have associations with the British Army to be easily denunciable as un-Irish.

Failing those reprehensible characteristics, it was enough that they were Protestants, for the only Protestants who were accepted by our tribe were those who had fully proved their credentials by embracing Irish nationalism loudly and -- preferably -- violently.

Despite being laden with Anglo-Irish baggage and marrying a (bogus) Polish count, Constance Markievicz took to the gun and she was eventually heaped with tribal honours.

Next year will see the publication of the magisterial Dictionary of Irish Biography. Among the Irish people in there will be many whom Littlehouse presumably thinks should not be.

The wholly Irish Edward Carson will rub shoulders in there with contemporaries like the half-English Patrick Pearse and the Scots-born James Connolly.

They didn't agree with each other, Littlehouse, but they all were Irish.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards