Irish Dancing reflects the changing face of Irish culture worldwide

There’s nothing better than doing a double-take.

Now and again we all have to question our identities, to re-consider who we are, and where we come from.

As an Irishman at this year’s North America Irish Dancing Championships in Orlando, it would be hard not to feel confronted with exactly that sense of self-questioning at the competition. What - now - does being Irish mean?

Ireland and the ethnic group called ‘the Irish’ are unique because of the fact that the Diaspora easily outnumbers the ‘natives’. That is, there are more ‘expats’, or those of Irish heritage, than there are actual Irish living in Ireland. In the case of Ireland, depending on whose figures you go by, there are about 18 times more!

That’s a staggeringly large ratio. For every one Irish man or woman living in Cork or Dublin there are 17 to 18 ‘Joe Murphy’s making a living in America, Hong Kong, Brisbane, etc.

And a huge number of those 70m-80m Irish Diaspora seem to have congregated on Orlando, Florida this weekend.

Superficially, the competition looks like a bunch of Americans who just happen to have an interest in Irish culture and dancing, much like there are those in Ireland taking courses in, say, Chinese Studies yet who have no Chinese heritage. But look a little deeper and it’s a very different picture.

Molly is a recurring surname in the girls’ and ladies’ categories, while it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the Irish dancing schools have unmistakably gaelic Irish names.

The names themselves, though, also give insight into the evolution and integration of the Irish into Irish-American society. ‘Intermarriages’, as such, mixed families, and varying cultures have combined in the great melting pot to leave some unmistakeably ‘fusion’ families. ‘Natasha Wotyiuk’, ‘Aimee Devaux’, ‘Jessie Hobek’, ‘Kaitliin Wong’ etc, are just some of the fascinating name combinations at the event.

In Ireland it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the face and genetic makeup of the country is rapidly changing. The Poles and Eastern Europeans; the Chinese and Asians; all manner of peoples and cultures have blended into Irish society. All but the xenophobes would say that this has been for the better.

Yet perhaps it’s in Irish-America that this evolution is most strikingly seen. Besides the surnames there are the unmistakeably Chinese features, colored children, Hispanic children, etc, all competing in this year’s event.

To me, watching this is fascinating and I think it’s a treasure that we should boast of these new cultural mixes.

There’s something amazing and highly novel about watching a little Chinese kid do Irish dancing moves that would put Michael Flatley to shame, yet who could deny how marvelous an innovation this is? Without wanting to put it too strongly, anyone who still clings to the belief that anyone who doesn’t boast locks of red hair and call themselves Molly Malone isn’t Irish - and sadly such people still exist -has never been living so far in the past.

Today was a moment to reflect on my Irishness, and Irishness in general. And I have to say that I’ve almost never felt prouder to be part of one of the now most diverse cultural and ethnic groups in the world that now boasts people like Molly Wong among its global population. Here’s to our new Irishness in the twenty-first century!