Irishness does not mean whiteness

Image by Omar Lopez
Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro spent years of her childhood trying to understand and embody Irishness. Here she calls for a new understanding of what Irishness means.

If you would like to listen to Sandrine reading this piece, click here

The terminology of Irishness can be traced back to the period of the 1840s with the rise of Irish nationalism. Irishness acted as a distinctive feature that separated Ireland and the British. The nationalist political movement asserted religion and language to name a few to be deep rooted features of this new sense of Irishness.  Within a contemporary setting, the term of Irishness is now up for debate. Scholar Craig Considine explains how Irishness has been repeatedly linked to whiteness. He goes onto explain how “Throughout the history of Ireland, whiteness has been constitutive and founding element in the creation of Irish traditions” (144). Whiteness being a feature of Irishness is embedded within our society and the Irish identity reflects the nation’s social and historical constructions. Examples of these are visible with the lack of diversity and inclusion within the education, employment, media, and political sectors where it is seen as predominantly white. This supports the notion of how there is a homogenised portrayal of what it means to be Irish. This makes it extremely difficult for those who are non-white to feel connected to this notion of Irishness. 

This inability to access Irishness when you are a non-white becomes an almost impossible task to overcome. This is something that I have struggled with until recently. I am originally from Rwanda and moved to Ireland in 2006. When I first arrived in Ireland at the age of ten, I was aware of how I was just seen as a black body occupying a predominantly white space. This was visible in everything around me whether it be the media and the educational systems.  Examples ranged from the fact that I did not see anyone that looked like me in power whether this was having all white teachers throughout primary and secondary school. Or whenever I turned on the television the news reporters were all white. These observations helped me have a better understanding of the Irish society.  From a young age, I began to look out for distinctive features that  made someone seem Irish. I started doing this is in order to fit in with my friends, but I also thought that this would help me feel more connected to the Irish identity.  I saw them through the traditions of sports and religion. I thought I may be considered as Irish once I fully immersed myself within the Irish community. I did this by trying out GAA, Camogie, adopting Irish slangs, and even being an alter girl in my local parish in Carlow. Even after doing all this daily, I was constantly reminded that I was not yet Irish. 

As the years went by, I started to become obsessed with the term Irishness as I desperately wanted to access it. I identified as Irish since Ireland was now my new home, but I still struggled to capture the authentic essence of the Irish identity. This became clear the year that I received my Irish passport as I thought that finally, this was the moment that I was going to be recognised as Irish. I foolishly thought from this moment onwards when someone questioned my identity, I could state I was Irish 100% since I had an official document that supported my claim to ‘Irishness’. This proved to be far from it yet again I was confronted with the realisation of how complex the Irish identity truly was. Craig Considine tackles the terminology of Irish identity by pointing out how “Irish identity is a complex subject, especially considering the social, cultural, and religious diversification of Irish society” (141). Slowly, I started to understand how identity let alone Irish identity was rigid and was not fixed as there were multiple definitions of Irish identity. I began to understand how being both of African descent and Irish meant that I inherited a dual identity. Something that was not celebrated nor welcomed within our society at the time. I thought that this lack of enthusiasm for multiculturalism and diversity in Ireland was due to the Blacks in Irish community being a new phenomenon. Little did I know that Africans were in Ireland as early as the eighteenth century. 

Image by gdtography
History of Black and Irish community

Within contemporary Ireland, it becomes a sensitive topic when the history of the African population is brought up. There is a falsification of African immigrants being a new cultural phenomenon. This falsification exists in different parts of Irish society in areas such as education system especially the school’s curriculum. Examples are seen with the fact that no history books nor core subjects such as Civic, Social and Political Education ever talk about the presence of Black and Irish community. In any history class that I ever took whether it be in secondary school or when I did my undergraduate degree in English and History there was never any mention about other minorities being part of the Irish society. Once again, this narrative supports the notion of Irishness being solely white. This leads people to think that the African population have only arrived in Ireland recently hence the lack of inclusivity or diversity since the country is trying to readjust to this new influx of African migrants.  This is false as the term Black and Irish is not a new phenomenon as the Black community has been in the Island of Ireland as early as the eighteenth century. Ejorh Theophilius points out how “during the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a considerable black African population in Ireland” (76). With this in mind it becomes an almost impossible task to wrap my head around why the term ‘Black and Irish’ is still causing so much debate. I too am surprised that the African community has been in Ireland for that long as this information is rarely discussed in our society let alone our history books both in the secondary and third-level institution sectors. 

Moreover, there was a resurgence in the early 1990s where there was an influx of African immigrants to Ireland. This again caused the debate of Irishness to be brought up as Ireland was becoming more and more multicultural and diverse. This influx of various immigrants arriving in Ireland caused changes in the political, cultural, social, and economic aspects of society. Craig Considine explained how these multiple changes within the Irish society “have been perceived by the Irish people as creating a crisis of identity that poses a threat to the perceived cultural homogenization” (144). This cultural homogenization once again led back to the whole notion of Irishness being primarily white. 

Changing Notions of Irish identity
The crisis of identity amongst the white Irish population was visible as there was a constant resistance of the term Irishness being loosely used by anyone. Non-white individuals had to break this repeated narrative and show how they too could proudly state that they were Irish. This is something that I found myself on the receiving end of. I experienced this at various intervals of my life. Every interaction that I have with a new person who is white always follows the same conversational pattern when they ask certain questions before asking the question that they truly care about. The first question is ‘Where are you from?” since for that person a black person in Ireland cannot be from here. With every new interaction, the person is always firstly amazed by my ability to speak English fluently and eloquently. They are then amused with the fact that while speaking English I have an Irish accent as they were waiting to hear either an African accent or a broken English. Already with these two features, I can always see the level of discomfort as any preconceived stereotype of an African person is no longer applicable. Still dissatisfied with the fact that I not only speak fluent English but with an Irish accent they ask me where I am from. I always answer that I am ‘Irish’.
A New Ireland

I always say that I am Irish because it is true. Every time I utter the words that ‘I am Irish’ the person that had asked me these questions is not satisfied by my answers and assertiveness. For them, they might see this as something harmful, but for me, they are consciously ‘othering’ me and projecting that myth that Irishness is white. By ‘othering’ me the person is simply telling me that even though I have lived in Ireland most of my life or the fact that I have an Irish accent and Irish passport that I will never be seen as Irish just because I happen to be black. People’s discomfort of certain individuals within our Irish society possessing dual identity leaves irreversible wounds towards the person that this is projected onto. Growing up in a predominantly white society is a difficult task and this is made even harder when you are of black identity.  It is not acceptable to keep questioning people’s identity when they say that it is Irish. Contemporary Ireland is proof that Irish identity is no longer fixed like in the past it is now fluid and constantly changing. The second-generation of African immigrants born here only know Ireland as their home. They identify as Irish subconsciously, but this is taken away from them when insensitive questions like ‘Where are you really from’ is asked or when racist abuse of ‘Go back to where you come from’ is hurled at them. There is a need to recognise, accept and embrace a new and changing Ireland. 

Contemporary Ireland is constantly teaching us that to be Irish no longer means ‘to be white’. Ireland is becoming a diverse and multicultural society. According to the Central Statistics Office in 2016 there were 35,326 Africans in Ireland. It also states that “There were 10,100 dual Irish nationals who identified themselves as Black or Black Irish-African” (https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp8iter/p8iter/p8e/). We can no longer be afraid of change as more and more people from diverse backgrounds are identifying as Irish. The duality of being both Black and Irish is no longer something to be ashamed of nor try to justify. We now live in a diverse society where this change is seen in every sector. By constantly trying to make individuals prove their Irishness, the society is forcing them to miss out on celebrating inclusiveness, a new Ireland, that welcomes all regardless of their ethnic background. Ireland is my home, and I should never have to prove that I am Irish just because I am black.

By reading this article I hope that everyone will have a new appreciation of how the Irish identity is no longer restricted to just one definition. To be Irish no longer means to be white. Once people become more open minded with the term of Irishness only then will we start seeing the beauty of our changing Ireland. We are becoming more diverse and multicultural. Individuals sense of belonging and Irishness should not be up for debate. So the next time you cross paths with a member of the Black and Irish community and you are about to ask them ‘No, where are you really from?’ just stop and remind yourself of the changing term of Irishness and how some members in our society have dual identity. I repeatedly use words such as ‘our’ and ‘home’ when referring to Ireland because Ireland belongs to all of us. Yes, that includes me the young girl from Rwanda who is proud to be both Rwandese and Irish. 

Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro, B.A, M.A

Sandrine Ndahiro is an English Ph.D. student in the University of Limerick. Sandrine’s
research centres on third generation African writers, such as Afrofuturists, who have emerged
during the era of late liberalism and who have introduced multiple and nuanced perspectives
for reflecting on African lives and aspirations. She recently co-produced a documentary
entitled Unsilencing Black Voices which details personal stories and accounts by members of
the black community in Ireland. Sandrine’s work now highlights the need to shine light for
those vulnerable in Irish society.

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