Wherever Green Is Worn?

Multiculturalism in contemporary Ireland.


Multi-Culturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, by Edna Longley and Declan Kiberd, Cork University Press, 78 pages, $9.95

Given that the FIFA World Cup generates only slightly more interest among U.S. sports fans than the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo or the Rugby Union Henineken Cup Final, it's not surprising that most Americans missed what was arguably the most important Irish sports story since the founding of the Free State in 1922.

In May, when the Irish national football team was training on the Pacific island of Saipan, its captain and only bona fide international star, Roy Keane, was summarily dismissed by the team manager, Mick McCarthy. The Irish press described Keane's sacking on the eve of the opening round of the World Cup as nothing less than "a national catastrophe."

Lest one dismiss such rhetoric as mere hyperbole, consider that Bertie Ahern, the newly re-elected Irish prime minister, offered (in vain) to intervene personally in the dispute in an attempt to "salvage his country's World Cup hopes." The wry comments of one Dublin sports fan put things in their proper perspective: "This is far more serious than Partition. That only brought us 80 years of bloodshed, but this could mean that we go out of the World Cup in the first group."

What shocked the Irish public was not so much the bitter nature of the disagreement between the feuding former teammates, but the vehemence and offensiveness of Keane's remarks to McCarthy at a team meeting that led to the sacking. According to the Dublin Evening Herald, Keane told McCarthy in front of the entire squad, "You were a crap player and you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that, somehow, you are the manager of my country and you're not even Irish. You can stick it up your bollocks" (emphasis added).

What might have remained a "mere" sports story became a raging cultural debate because Keane impugned Mick McCarthy's Irishness! As it happens, McCarthy originally hails from Yorkshire and, like several other team members born to Irish parents, grew up in England. By extension, if McCarthy didn't make the cut as an authentic Irishman, then neither did several of Keane's teammates who also play for the Irish national squad. Keane seemed oblivious to the irony of his own peculiar position. The 30-year midfielder, who calls Cork home, currently captains one of Europe's most storied professional soccer teams, Manchester United, and thus lives for much of the year in England where he represents the British team.

The Keane-McCarthy spat replays one of the oldest running conflicts in Western Europe, that between the "native" Irish and the "foreign" English. But if the public disagreement necessarily evokes that 700-year-old conflict, it also points up one of the most recent and increasingly pressing issues in the contemporary Republic of Ireland: multiculturalism.

Having emerged in the last decade as "the Celtic Tiger," one of the fastest growing economies in Europe (Dubliners gleefully point out that the growth rate of the Irish Gross Domestic Product has recently outstripped England's), Ireland has for the first time in many centuries seen a rapid influx of new inhabitants. Indeed, the recent liberalization of the Irish economy, coupled with the country's rapid integration into the European Union, has signaled a sharp reversal in emigration patterns that have persisted for a century and a half.

From the mid-1840s, when Ireland suffered the last great famine in Western European history (scholars estimate that 1 million Irish perished and another 1.5 million emigrated), great numbers of Irish have steadily departed their native land for greener pastures in the United States, Australia, Canada, and England. Ireland today is thus unique among European nations insofar as its population is still below that of 1841 (even when one includes the present population of Northern Ireland, officially still part of the United Kingdom). The new Irish prosperity thus promises or threatens—depending on whether one takes a nativist or cosmopolitan perspective—to transform beyond recognition what has traditionally been one of modern Europe's most ethnically homogenous countries.

On a recent visit to Ireland, I was caught off-guard by a Dublin taxi driver who inveighed against the current wave of new immigrants. Vainly scrutinizing the streets for a face, complexion, or manner of dress that might stand out among the crowd thronging O'Connell Street, I finally asked whom he had in mind. "The Dutch!" he expostulated. It seems that one byproduct of EU membership, economic prosperity, and generous welfare benefits has been that ne'er do well Dutch and other European youth have found Dublin a hospitable place to idle away their time. (I continue to puzzle over how they can afford one of Europe's most expensive cities.) If from an American perspective the recent arrival of distant relatives of the Vanderbilts seems like a pretty innocuous instance of the new multiracial Ireland, the fact remains that multiculturalism is receiving a good deal of attention from Irish cultural critics and intellectuals.

A case in point is Multi-culturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, a brief book featuring essays by two of the island's most prominent literary critics: Edna Longley (who resides in Northern Ireland) and Declan Kiberd (who lives in the Republic). Its appearance marks an important moment in Irish cultural history. One of the first publications of the newly established Centre for Cross Border Studies (funded by the EU), the book is intended to represent the new cooperative cultural and political relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland established in the wake of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

It is a token of the immense importance that contemporary Ireland places on its arts and letters that this slim (78-page) volume features a laudatory foreword from Mary McAleese, the current president of the Irish Republic. She writes, "We are gradually moving away from the homogeneity and old certainties which have traditionally been the hallmarks of Irish life. We are rapidly becoming one of the wealthier states in the world, as well as a multi-cultural society."

Edna Longley's essay takes up in considerable detail the single most vexing cultural conflict in Ireland's recent history, that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. While the academic and intellectual elite of the United States has been obsessively focused on the divisions marked by race, ethnicity, and gender, Longley's essay, "Multi-culturalism in Northern Ireland," provides a timely reminder that the truly fundamental, politically critical, and historically significant divisions among peoples in modern Western societies have been religious ones.

Yet one finds little or no interest among contemporary (and usually secular) North American and Western European academics in the religious or creedal differences among their students and fellow citizens. This remains true notwithstanding a post-9/11 interest in the rights of a beleaguered Islamic minority—a group all too frequently cast by left-liberal intellectuals as an ethnic or cultural rather than specifically religious one. But any historically informed and critically accurate consideration of the development of the political principles of toleration and civil rights must necessarily begin with the religious divisions that plunged late 16th—and 17th -century Europe into decades of civil violence, warfare, persecution, and bloody repression.

If, as Irish commentators of the last 30 years have had it, "it's still the 17th century" in Northern Ireland, then Longley's discussion of the challenge of a newly peaceful and culturally vibrant multicultural Northern Ireland might have a salutary effect on her American counterparts. Specifically, it might inspire them to revisit the politically arduous and philosophically complex struggle whereby modern liberalism overcame the sanguinary terror of religious conflict in post-Reformation Europe. In crucial respects, contemporary divisions among races or ethnicities, and between genders, merely replay in a minor key the historically antecedent and more violent ones fought among religions and creeds.

Declan Kiberd's fascinating and trenchant essay, "Strangers in Their Own Country," gets directly to the heart of contemporary Irish concerns about the prospects for the nation's multicultural future. Kiberd takes due note of the shocking instances of racial violence that have beset Ireland in recent years: unprovoked attacks on newly arrived immigrants, asylum seekers, and political refugees from Romania and Nigeria. He likewise notes the unprecedented challenge posed by the first generation of Muslim immigrants for a society that has been, since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Arguably the most prominent and prolific literary scholar living in Ireland today and one of his nation's most renowned cultural critics, Kiberd stands out among his European intellectual counterparts for his relative enthusiasm for economic liberalization. He is an eloquent defender of open borders and an astute commentator on the economic advantages that the free movement of labor across national borders offers to Ireland in particular, and to Europe and the Third World more generally. He writes that "the arguments for embracing immigrants are not just moral or cultural, but economic as well. At present the Irish labour force is seriously short of skilled and unskilled workers…and those who come to Ireland…are here to work, not to live on the state; and they will invariably pay far more in taxes than they will receive in state hand-outs."

In a rhetorical move meant to remind the Irish of their own beleaguered history, Kiberd continues, "by tradition, it is the energetic and enterprising people from poorer countries who usually get up and travel to another land: and the money which they earn in the host country helps, through the subventions which they send home, to reduce poverty in their native countries as well….The Irish, many of whom lived on remittance letters from Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century, should understand this better than most. So also should they recognise the immense levels of energy and creativity in those who migrate." Adam Smith could hardly have made the point any more succinctly.

Kiberd, who for some years was accused (erroneously, in my view) by his cultural critics of harboring "green" sympathies (that is, being too sympathetic to the irredentist ambitions of Irish Republicans who endeavored to unite the whole island under an Irish national flag), has become the nation's leading advocate of cultural hybridization and cosmopolitan globalization. In his dazzling and immensely erudite works, Kiberd has investigated the historical and cultural processes by which a seemingly monolithic and homogenous "traditional" Irish culture was, in fact, constructed by revolutionary Irish nationalists, politically motivated ideologues intent on uniting the citizenry against their imperial English overlords.

Following in the footsteps of the historians Hugh Trevor-Roper and Eric Hobsbawm, who have traced the creation of British "tradition," Kiberd notes that what often passes in Irish pubs from Boston to Belfast as authentic Irish culture are, in fact, examples of "invented traditions" and "instant archeology," creations of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Irish politicians, artists, journalists, and scholars.

In his now-classic work of literary criticism, Inventing Ireland, Kiberd tells the story of Gaelic-speaking Blasket islanders, gathered around a cottage hearth during Easter Week, 1916, who first hear the news of the violent uprising in Dublin. Informed of a rebellion mounted by Irish nationalists hoping to restore Ireland's glorious pre-colonial Gaelic identity, one of the more skeptical islanders, the writer Tomás Ó Criomhthainn, points out to his Gaelic-speaking friends that there is no word in Irish for the "republic" that has just been proclaimed on their behalf.

In contradistinction to less reflective celebrants of all things Irish, Kiberd willingly embraces the invented character of contemporary Irish culture. Indeed he is uncharacteristically acerbic in characterizing his well-heeled media antagonists on the far left who declaim against both the stultifying effects of traditional nationalism and the corrosive effects of globalization; they are, in his memorable phrase, "designer Stalinists." In fact, the invented or self-consciously chosen character of the Irish national culture is for Kiberd an invitation to the ongoing reformation and reinvention of Ireland today. As Kiberd sees it, "the nation is less a legacy of the past than the site of the future, a zone of pluralisms which will prove its durability precisely by the success with which it embraces refugees, exiles, and newcomers."

Kiberd sees in the rising generation that has come of age since the birth of the Celtic Tiger an admirable flexibility, creativity, and cultural promise: "What these young people grasp most clearly of all is that Ireland itself was always multi-cultural, in the sense of being eclectic, open, assimilative. The best definition of a nation was that given by Joyce's Leopold Bloom: the same people living in the same place. As an outcast Jew, condemned to wandering, Bloom may in fact have had more in common with the members of the historic Irish nation than most of the characters in Ulysses: and he would certainly endorse the view that mono-culture works as badly in the body politic as in agriculture, rapidly wearing out the earth's potential." Thus does Kiberd address a diasporic people still haunted by the potato famine that wiped out the only staple crop of the 19th century Irish peasantry and forever altered the course of Irish national history.

To be sure, Kiberd is critical of the excesses of materialist individualism and "economic self-interest." He expresses concern that a society that ceases to respect the "res publica" and loses all faith in a "national philosophy" may well drift into an asocial and culturally vacuous anomie. In particular, Kiberd is critical of what he sees as too sharp a divide between the private and public spheres in multicultural America. For him, the very notion of culture is ultimately a transindividual one, and hence incapable of complete privatization.

If Kiberd is sometimes overly critical of the American melting pot, it is in part because he feels that contemporary American (and especially academic) multiculturalism has abandoned its "secular republican ideal." The result, according to Kiberd, is an unfortunate obsession with the "identity politics" of one's own ethnic group that inhibits rather than encourages genuine cultural exchange. For Kiberd the "evolving multicultural syllabus" in the United States "may serve as a warning of how not to do multi-culturalism in modern Ireland. This is one which presents students with entirely separate versions of Hispanic, African or Indian cultures, each of them honourably rendered in some of its richness, but none of them shown in interaction." In such passages Kiberd hints that what passes as "multi-culturalism" on U.S. campuses is in fact more nearly akin to the cultural tribalism of which Northern Ireland has had such bitter and regrettable experience.

Kiberd also writes suggestively on the ways in which well-intentioned efforts of a government to impose a top-down model of the multicultural society may have unintended and undesirable consequences. Without taking issue with those commentators who've analyzed the racist attacks on Nigerians in Dublin during 1999, Kiberd notes that some have suggested that the deepest source of contemporary interethnic violence is not necessarily a profound or atavistic racism lurking in the Irish soul, but rather "a bureaucratic central government" that imperiously and "suddenly plants refugees" in the midst of local communities, thereby "massively disturb[ing]" long-established streets and villages.

While Kiberd does not call for government to abandon all efforts at social engineering, his comments nonetheless highlight a suggestive instance of the manner in which government bureaucracies create, or at the very least catalyze, those very problems of a multicultural society that they subsequently claim justify their existence and necessitate their intervention. No thought is given to how the unregulated and free-flowing cultural negotiations of individuals in civic society might better manage the challenges and conflicts of contemporary multiculturalism.

Kiberd's most important contribution to the global debate over multiculturalism is his insistence on a conceptual distinction recently made much of by Tom Garvin, one of Ireland's leading political scientists. That distinction is between the nativist or romantic notion of ethnic nationalism that understands the nation to rest on inherited linguistic, racial, or "organic" cultural traits, and an enlightenment or rationalist notion of civic nationalism that conceives the nation to be composed not of a naturally given group or groups, but of free rational individuals who chose to become citizens of a secular, liberal, and democratic republic. If the former sort of ethnic nationalism triumphed in late-19th century and early 20th century Ireland and continues to prevail among the more ardent adherents and sympathizers of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the latter notion is a lost but recuperable heritage of the United Irishmen.

The United Irishmen was an ecumenical organization of Protestants and Catholics, inspired by the examples of the American and French revolutions, who unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow British imperial rule in 1798; they offer one potential source of "traditional" Irish culture that waits to be realized. Suitably reimagined and reinvented, their legacy of civic nationalism, deeply indebted to the ideals of Enlightenment rationalism, and to a genuinely tolerant notion of citizenship indifferent to the categories of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and class, might provide a wider, safer, and more promising path toward the multicultural future of Ireland—and of America, too.