Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro on the changing nature of Irishness…
Racism, social inclusion, and diversity became some of the hot topics of 2020. With the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, the year 2020 proved to be a pivotal point in understanding the changing nature of Irishness. Black Lives Matter in Ireland in 2020 stirred up a conversation about the changing nature of the Irish identity, and in particular the accepted view that to be Irish, means to be white. This called for a need to have a national conversation on the understanding of Irishness and why the default of this identity was whiteness.
Before the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, those with a dual identity like myself, being Rwandese Irish, never had the opportunity to address why the Irish identity was no longer homogenous ( white, heterosexual, and Catholic). I, alongside other migrants, are living proof of how contemporary Ireland is home to multiple generations of migrants who are adding to the cultural richness of present-day reality.
This present day reality is somewhat ignored when one looks around and still sees that Ireland has yet to catch up and match the cultural richness that is visible in our society. The lack of diversity and inclusion in decision-making bodies in sectors like politics, education (ongoing conversation of decolonising education) and media outlets, hinders any positive contributions from non-white Irish with dual identity. Their lack of involvement in these sectors adds to the tension of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ when looking at contemporary Irish discourses. The BLM movement made us take a close look at our own society and realise how, even in 2021, there is a lack of representation from people of diverse backgrounds even though migration is not a new phenomenon in Ireland. These questions brought about discussions such as decolonising education, panel discussions, and a re-focus of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. Far too often those in power keep suggesting that the lack of diversity and inclusion is because the presence of the ‘Other’ is a new phenomenon that Ireland is only trying to catch up to.
Fluidity of Irishness
The so-called homogeneity of Irishness proves to be damaging as Ireland is becoming an increasingly multicultural and diverse country. It proves to be damaging for those whose Irishness is constantly questioned such as migrants, marginalised communities and those who are living in liminality in Direct Provision centres. They are left out of conversations and representations as their voices are ignored, brushed aside, and overlooked as they are not the right type of ‘Irish’. The changing nature of Irish identity calls for the need to understand the lived realities of those that are Irish but are not white, especially their yearning to be represented in contemporary Irish discourses.
The influx of migrants during the Celtic Tiger period meant that Irish identity became fluid and complex. Migration is not a new concept that has just arisen in Ireland. Bryan Fanning and Ronaldo Munck point out how “ Migration is a major aspect of social reality in today’s increasingly globalised world” (1). Migration proves to be a complex issue. It is a byproduct of Ireland’s entry into the European Union in 1973; this was a transformative period in Irish history. All aspects of society such as economic, social, and political entered a new phase of what it meant to be Irish.
The late 1990s saw the era known as Celtic Tiger. This title describes a new era of Ireland at the start of the twenty-first century, a time which proved to be a transformative period in Ireland. Pilar Villar posits that “For the first time in history, Ireland became a destination not only for tourists and students, but also for EU nationals, asylum-seekers, political refugees, and the so- called economic migrants” (1). Ireland has become the perfect example of the impacts of globalisation. This period changed the ethnic landscape of Ireland for years to come. The Celtic Tiger period created momentous economic growth, attracted migrant workers from all over the world, and saw a noticeable rising level of wealth. From this moment onwards Ireland has become a multicultural country.
The cultural richness seen since the era of the Celtic Tiger is not something that is mirrored in present day perceptions of reality. Instead of seeing this cultural shift in a positive light it just created tension between ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’, an issue swept under the carpet until recently, when those who arrived in the era of Celtic Tiger and afterwards started calling for the need to have diversity reflected in all aspects of the society.
The lack of representation of multiple heritages in different spheres such as television, film, creative work, education to name a few is frustrating. When I am in conversation with friends and with those in power, they all suggest that the lack of diversity in high profile jobs is due to immigration being a new phenomenon in Ireland. The argument appears to be false and insensitive to individuals like myself who rightfully call out these institutions who have failed to have a more accurate representation of people from marginalised and diverse backgrounds.
The Celtic Tiger saw the birth of a new Ireland, one that was now diverse and multicultural. This transformative period caused a dramatic shift in Irish society, which caused issues for migrants who arrived in Ireland who faced resistance to calling themselves Irish. The fact that migrants have no connection to the Irish past makes it harder for these multiple identities to be a cause of celebration. An attachment to the past ground’s individuals’ understanding of what it means to be Irish as they can trace their bloodline to defining moments in Irish history such as the Great Famine (1845-1852) and the Easter Rising (1916). Therefore, those that arrived in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger period will never have this intimate link with the past, therefore acting as a justification of why their Irishness will forever be questioned. This requirement makes it an almost impossible task to claim the Irish identity, and to make a push for more representation that mirrors the realities of present-day Ireland. People like me who are calling for the need to see more representation are still met with this sense of resistance. We can not just idly and wait for the change to come.
Waiting for this type of change to happen proves to be emotionally draining, as those that are engaging with these discourses are the ones that have never felt the need to prove their Irishness, nor plead to see representation to re-affirm that possessing a dual identity is beautiful and a gift, as opposed to a threat.
Attempts of representation
An issue that arose during these national conversations around the changing nature of Irishness, and the need to be more diverse and inclusive, was the quick rush to answer these questions of lack of representations by using panel discussions, and television advertisements that tried to address the issue, while excluding other marginalised communities. A prominent example being the hosting of roundtables discussing racial issues and not providing a platform for members from Irish Travellers even though time and time again they detail the racist abuse they too receive. Also the issue of overlooking the prominent rise in Anti-Asian racist abuse that the community received especially with the backdrop of COVID-19. This proved to be a complex issue; as it was powerful to see those with dual identity given centre stage on our documentary “ Unsilencing Black Voices”, I was also met with the harsh reality that through my celebration of representation, other community groups were still being left out.
One campaign that moved me this year was the recent SuperValu ad named “ Bring It On” which celebrated diversity In Ireland. It addressed the changing nature of Irishness with the use of Westmeath star Boidu Sayeh, who stated, “they’re not from here talk stop that”. This advertisement proved to be powerful as it troubled the notion of Irishness and nationalism by centralising a Black GAA player, who showcases how even the national sport of Ireland is played by those who have a dual identity. Immediately, I thought about the power of this as it acted as a beacon of hope for young Afro-Irish people that they too can one day play GAA, and they would be accepted.
Although, this advertisement proved to be powerful when I went on Twitter upon its release there was an ongoing conversation about how nice it would have been to also include individuals from the Traveller Community. Mincéirs (Irish Travellers) are continuously calling for more representation in mainstream media, but have been left out yet again in terms of campaigns that champion diversity and a celebration of a new Ireland, but still leave out other communities. This example showcases how in Ireland we still have such a long way to go in regards to being sure that when looking at the issue of diversity and inclusion, members from marginalised and diverse backgrounds are invited and encouraged to participate. Through this practice, those in these groups will have a new sense of belonging.
2020 proved to be a transformative period in Ireland where people were having discussions on the need for Irish discourses to mirror the diverse and multicultural population. We need to have diverse and marginalised voices contributing to contemporary Ireland. Diversity and cultural richness must be seen as a gift and not something to be feared.
I am looking forward to an Ireland that is more inclusive and diverse, an Ireland where I have a better sense of belonging and can see people who look like me in decision making positions. I should not have to wait another twenty years for change to happen only for my children to grow up in an Ireland that is still saying migration and the changing nature of Irishness is a new phenomenon.