In his address to the Global Irish Forum in Dublin Castle, writer Colum McCann talks about Irish identity and proposes a "reimagining" of what it means to be Irish.
"There is a lovely Portuguese word, "saudade", which indicates a person or place or object that draws out of us our most extreme or improbable yearning. It is a feeling for something that is gone, but might one day return.
"This, I hope, is an appropriate word for those generations of us who have been described as belonging to the Diaspora: we with our vagrant voices, we who sometimes think that the only home we have is our names, we who are both here and there at the same time.
"The nucleus of our Irish identity lies in our ability to create new and sustainable moments of pride, reflection, mystery, debate and self-criticism. We need to keep our culture alive, and we need to develop that culture so that it is always something entirely new.
"What we should call for is an intricate reimagining of what it means to be Irish, and a call to dare ourselves into new action," said McCann, according to the Irish Independent.
"Our first and very simple proposal should be that we fold the Diaspora into the ongoing debate. For those who have left this country to have their voices drift back in . . . and to be heard. And for those who have remained in this country to have their proper voices drift out . . . and also to be heard. To create a contemporary Irishness that is agile enough to understand that we can be in more than two places at once. To create an Ireland of the various Irelands.
"We have to understand that this is not about borders any more. This is not about exile. This is not even so much about emigration. Nor is it even about the difficulty of return. Or immigration. It is about belonging. To understand that we are as much a people as we are a country.
"As such, it is about creating a nuanced debate about who we are – warts and all. Not to rip ourselves asunder or pat ourselves too heavily on the back, but to understand that we are as complicated and as varied as our skies. But let us acknowledge that there are many skies – over Belfast, Dublin, New York, Limerick, Sydney, London – and they all have a part to play. Part of that is giving, and part of it is receiving. Part of it is also smashing some of the old ways. I'm not going to get into the "sh" words – the shamrocks and the shi. . . shillelaghs. There has been for many years a thought that these are stereotypes perpetuated on the Irish from outside. Some of them have been, of course, but let's also admit that many more are perpetuated from the inside: by our Government, by our corporations, by ourselves. We are shaped first by how we see ourselves. And we are further shaped by how we are seen by others. We begin to dismantle stereotypes by broadening our idea of ourselves.
"My second proposal to the conference is that we look very closely at the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and what it means – what it really means and will eventually mean – to be a patriot in 2016. "Patriot" is almost a dirty word these days, and it has been for many years. There's a little bit of shame in the word, a little bit of forgetfulness, a lot of ancient and festering shrapnel, and sometimes it threatens to loosen and tear us up again.
"I would suggest that we reacquire the word "patriot" before it is taken and shaped into something that can be worked against the proper direction of where this country wants to go. Don't back down. Don't let fringe elements own the celebrations of 1916. Be joyous and critical of what we have become. To forget is the crime. To forget is to step inside, close the curtains, sit in the dark. But 2016 should be about all available brightness. It was, after all, about when we became a republic. And now that we have been a republic for 100 years, we can also realise that a proper republic has lungs . . . and an integral part of our breathing apparatus is this very notion of Irishness that must include if not everywhere, then at least an elsewhere.
"And so I suggest that we could have a global celebration of 1916 . . . this, in fact, could be a new sort of national proclamation.
"So who are the patriots to celebrate? Let me suggest a few so we can begin to assess where we are. There are probably a couple of million of them. I would say that Mary Robinson is a patriot. Her embrace of universal human rights and her leadership have cleaved open the world. I would say that Loretta Brennan Glucksman is a patriot. Her depth of engagement with philanthropy through the American Ireland Fund and other places has scaffolded so many programmes in times of need. I would say Adi Roche is a patriot, for bringing our generosity constantly outwards, towards others.
"I would pretty much guarantee that every one of you out there is a patriot . . . and proud to be so too. I would say writers and critics such as Fintan O'Toole are patriots for forcing us into questions. I would say John Hume is a patriot. I would say – and this is where the boat starts to rock, stick with me – Ian Paisley is a patriot, and you might ask why, and I would say because he learned how to change, and this country changed with him, and without an expansive notion of what Irishness is we are doomed to our small hatreds, and there will indeed be little room then if our hatreds grow bigger.
"I would say that anyone who is prepared to engage with difficulty – anyone who is prepared to empathetically imagine what it means to be someone else – is engaging in an act of patriotism, making of this country a greater expanse than it ever thought before. Out of struggle comes grace.
"So, how to marry these two things, the embrace of our Diaspora and the celebration of 2016? Well, first of all, yes – we can identify our patriots. There are other things too. How about we write a series of new proclamations? A proclamation for teaching? A proclamation for peace? A proclamation for inclusiveness? How about we develop cultural centres all over the world where we can talk to one another? How about creating a website where we can have a series of small loans go back and forth between our own people, so that we can help one another? A Kickstarter. A Diaspora Fund. A Bridge Fund. Hey, you over there in the Bronx, here's some money from the depths of Donegal. Hey, you, that Irish priest in Somalia, here's a few bob from a fellow Dub in Sweden. Do you think it's possible? Of course it's possible. Anything's possible to people of decency and imagination.
"I think we need to look after our young entrepreneurs so that what they do in Silicon Valley eventually gets back to Vinegar Hill. I think we need a sustained agency that properly looks after the arts on a long-term basis: to help protect and promote the healthy parts of our culture. The current Government has had a hard time with its long-term policy in relation to the arts. They have not yet realised that – as Gabriel Byrne, one of our foremost heroes and patriots, said – "culture is the force of a scattered people". Let's not forget that we can be agile on a political front too. As a small nation, we have been an international actor in important issues of human rights, inspirational in EU policy and disarmament debates. We have built bridges all around the world, both real and metaphorical, in science, medicine, hunger relief and economics.
"I think we need a philanthropy that goes back and forth. I think we need our schools to link up with one another. I think we need to celebrate our peace – perhaps our greatest current national asset. How about we sell our peace? Without selling our souls? To make something profound and necessary about it? Is it mad to think that you could put a centre for peace in every hotspot of hatred? Just to talk of its very possibility? Is it naive? Nothing's naive when it's prepared to say that it's better than the current reality. We have a deep need to accept alternative viewpoints.
"How about a vote for the recent emigrant? Why can she not participate? Let's stop the stereotypical tomfoolery. Let's stop tapping the Aussies, the Yanks, the Brits on the shoulder, with a nod and a wink. Let's stop allowing corporations to make a fool of us by creating "national days" so that they can perpetuate stereotypes for their economic gain. Let's stop allowing business interests to demolish some of our most cherished history and heritage. Why not a Department for Heritage? Why not a Department for the Diaspora? Not just lip-service to pat ideas about culture and tourism.
"We're a hell of a lot smarter than we are giving ourselves credit for. There are millions of agile minds out there who are waiting for . . . well, yeah – a revolution. Don't back away from that word either. We can expand our notions of self. What we want – and what we should somehow help create – are not just bridges that bring people home, but also bring people outwards. All these things are closely linked to economic and business matters that go to the elemental heart of recovery and national pride.
"I am aware that a lot of this has the air of a clarion call. But we've got to do it. I submit that our artists, myself included, haven't necessarily been doing it. I will submit that our Government hasn't done it. I will stake an absolute claim that the banks and financial institutions haven't done it. Too many of us are coming inside, closing the curtains, shutting down our imaginative lives, living entirely on prefabricated GPS systems that are replicas of other cultures and places. I think it's time to dilate the nostrils of our young people, make of our republic an international republic, and I also submit that a turnaround is within our grasp.
"Then we'll see how many patriots there are out there."
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