“You know, an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else.” said comedian Russell Brand. Whatever you think about the refugee crisis and migration, we have to admit he has a point.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am an Irish immigrant who has been living in Belgium for ten years. I am an Irish citizen but not a Belgian one. I am a Belgian resident but not an Irish one. My nationality, that’s a difficult one.
Being an Irish citizen but not resident, means that I cannot vote in any Irish election or referendum. This seems very unfair to me, as I view Ireland as ‘my country’. It was particularly painful in the case of the recent Marriage Equality Referendum, which I would have loved to be able to support. When asked “Why should people who don’t live in the country have a say in what happens here?”, the only reply I could think of was “Because I’m Irish”. But what does that mean?
Who is Irish?
If either of your parents is an Irish citizen born in Ireland, then you are automatically an Irish citizen, irrespective of your place of birth or whether you ever set foot in the country. It is interesting to compare that to my position in Belgium. I have been living here for 10 years. I speak the language. I am integrated into Belgian customs and culture. But I am not a Belgian citizen.
According to brief research in my family, place of birth is not the deciding factor in how you feel, empathise, or associate with the people, history, culture and traditions of nations. My mother was born in Scotland and I’ve never seen her wearing plaid or eating haggis. Living in Belgium has not made me feel less Irish. I can only conclude that being Irish is about feeling, about culture, about being part of a tribe. It is about knowing the personality and behaviour of a group of people and feeling at home.
Emigration has played a greater role in the story of Ireland than immigration. As a country on the periphery of Europe, inaccessible by land, Ireland has not seen the numbers of immigrants more southern European countries have experienced. However, people have been leaving Ireland for hundreds of years. The Flight of the Wild Geese is a term used to describe 120,000 Irish soldiers who left to serve in continental European armies in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. There was an Irish regiment in the Spanish Army of Flanders in the 1580s. Typically Irish names beginning with ‘Fitz’ originate from this time frame, ‘Fitz’ meaning ‘bastard son’ in French. The Great Famine of 1845-52 caused Ireland’s population to fall by 25%. More than a million Irish people emigrated during this time, an estimated 1 million to America and 200,000 to the U.K. Most recently, following a crash in the Irish economy, more than 200,000 Irish people left Ireland over the last five years. A study recently showed that Ireland has the highest percentage of native-born population living abroad.
That goes a way to explaining why the world is full of Irish bars. Irish people have been setting up shop all over the world for centuries. The population of Ireland is about 4.5 million at the moment. It is estimated that there are 70-80 million people in the world with Irish ancestry.
A least 22 presidents of the United States of America have Irish ancestral origins. Including Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush. Wikipedia tells me that Beyoncé, Elvis, Tori Amos and Muhammad Ali all have Irish roots. Some people would say that these and the 80 million other Irish descendants are all ‘Irish’, that they belong to the tribe. Irish people are proud, and always happy to claim a success story as their own.
How can you be proud of the place you just happen to be born in? How can you be proud of the soil under your feet? How can you be proud of your ancestors? Their achievements and actions are not ours. The people living in Germany or Belgium today do not feel personally guilty for what happened in Auschwitz and Congo. In the same way it is strange to feel personal pride in relation to the history of your country.
Yet I do feel proud to be Irish. Ireland’s successes feel like mine (like winning the Eurovision Song contest more than any other country ever). This kind of nationalist pride is considered dangerous and extremist in Belgium. In Ireland it is accepted and feels normal, we want to show the world how lovely we are. Visit any festival in the world and you are sure to see people flying the Irish flag.
Belgium seems happy to fly under the radar, to convince the world that chocolate and beer are the only things you need to know about us. Belgium is afraid of that feeling of national pride, because here it mostly comes adorned with a lion tattoo. I understand that side of the story too, of course, one of the things Ireland is known for is ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
No amount of rational thinking has changed my gut feeling about being proud to be Irish. I realised how deep the feeling ran when I became angry at a comment from an Irish acquaintance. “You can tell by looking at him that he is not really Irish”, an off-the-cuff remark directed at my (then) 2 year old son. My half-Belgian, half-Irish son. The first person on my family tree that does not have two Irish parents. My son who looks exactly like my dad. It hurt my feelings in an unexpected way.
At the end, I guess you are what you feel you are. When you look at it that way it seems silly to judge or separate people based on where they come from. Nationality is not something you can satisfactorily prove with paperwork alone.
The first book I reached for while researching this article was the dictionary. (OK it wasn’t actually a book. It was the internet, but same difference.) These terms sometimes seem interchangeable but I needed to know exactly what they mean. We all need to know what they mean.
- Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
- Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country
- Asylum seeker: A person who has left their home country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another.
- Foreigner: A person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own. A person not belonging to a particular place or group; a stranger or outsider.
- Citizen: A legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalised. An inhabitant of a particular town or city.
- Resident: A person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long-term basis.
- Nationality: The status of belonging to a particular nation.
- Nation: A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.