Writer Colum McCann proposes a "reimagining" of what it means to be Irish


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.