Commentary & Interviews

What Does it Mean to Be Irish?

What does having an Irish passport mean to me? It’s a question I pondered when I renewed my travel document a few years ago. And I’m still pondering.

An Irish passport is a very neutral passport in terms of international relations, and is one of the strongest in the world according to the Henley Passport Index. It’s also highly sought after. In 2010, when Mossad agents were suspected of killing a Hamas official in Dubai, five of the suspects travelled under fake Irish passports.

The well-worn harp on tour
The well-worn harp on tour

Apart from the rights it bestows, the convenience and diplomacy, the passport legally identifies me as Irish. But what does it mean to be Irish?

In The Raymond Keogh states that “written material and media comments over the last decade confirms a widespread acknowledgement that an identity vacuum exists and that there is a growing desire to grapple with the issue in order to move beyond the present impasse. But when we ask the question ‘who do we think we are?’, we often end up going around in circles.”

Only Irish citizens living in Ireland can vote in all Irish national elections with others limited to specific elections depending on nationality. While all residents of Ireland are expected to observe the laws of the land, only Irish citizens have a complete say in those laws. So is having full access to this democratic process the essence of being Irish?


Can we describe being Irish in one word? Is being Irish an accent? Or is it looking Irish – having natural physical traits associated with the Irish race – a theory that would exclude me on grounds of being frequently mistaken as French? And how would this explain people who have applied for Irish citizenship? And why have they done so? If a love of Irish culture makes you Irish, is my predilection towards reggae an entitlement to Jamaican citizenship?

Sometimes the only detail uniting the Irish is the rain cloud above our heads and our lack of preparation to deal with it.

Controversially, is being Irish a set of personality traits? If so, we need a serious re-evaluation of who we are as the negatives far outweigh the positives. Let’s face it, we’re predominantly a nation of begrudgers and whingers who would rather complain about a problem than attempt solve it, and criticise or mock those who endeavour for a solution. Type begrudgery into Google and the second result yielded will read “begrudgery in Ireland”. 

The Irish have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, often used to mask lack of confidence. We delude ourselves into thinking we’re great fun (i.e. good craic) but take alcohol out of the equation and that so-called craic is thin on the ground.

Religious tolerance is in short supply and there is no better way of alienating yourself on the Emerald Isle than by declaring yourself an atheist. Judgement day is every day in Ireland and an Irish person will readily highlight your personal flaws to distract you from noticing theirs (see begrudgery).

The Irish preference for style over substance is best illustrated in JM Synge’s 1907 The Playboy of the Western World making the play as relevant now as ever. On a lighter note, we’re hopeless when it comes to time-keeping.

But most of all, we are a nation of “mé féiners”, translated as “I myself”, a phrase used to describe a self-centred attitude where one’s desires are prioritised over others’ needs. “Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always get another Irishman to turn him”, George Bernard Shaw once said. Jumping queues is a national past-time. If you don’t believe me, observe the queues for Ireland-bound flights at international airports.

Perhaps my Irish passport is the gift that enables me to seek temporary refuge abroad from these traits so prevalent en masse at home, and is one of the core benefits of travelling if you’re Irish. I’m not alone in my views. Many a stand-up comedian from these shores has made a lucrative career critiquing the Irish.

And in his inaugural speech in November 2011, Irish President Michael D. Higgins said we face challenges “in closing a chapter that has left us…wounded as a society” and in order “to close the chapter on that which has failed, that which was not the best version of ourselves as a people…will require a transition in our political thinking, in our view of the public world, in our institutions, and, most difficult of all, in our consciousness”. In order words, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.


For my international readers, I see you recoiling in horror as you re-think your trip to Ireland. Fear not, there is a slim to zero chance that you will experience any of our negative traits during your holiday here. Of all the countries I have travelled to, Ireland possibly has the highest standards of service in the hospitality industry. There is an exceptionally strong work ethic in Ireland and you, as an international tourist, will benefit from this.

We have more good traits best exemplified by our innate business skills and high standard of education. Some might argue that we have a strong sense of social justice and I agree. We have a long history of extending our hand to those in need.

We’re one of the most creative nationalities on the planet in terms of cultural arts and are widely recognised for such. We love sport – playing it, watching it, talking about it – and are finally realising the contribution our national sports can make in identifying Ireland in a global setting.


Why is national identity important anyway? Is the categorisation of people into nationalities barrier-building? Or is it merely convenient in terms of public administration duties? Brendan Behan said the Irish have a psychosis rather than a nationality. If true, then a cure, rather than a definition of being Irish, is required.

Whilst I’m fond of the little travel document that is my passport, I’m ambivalent about the meaning of my national identity. So would I renounce my Irish citizenship? No, it’s what I know best and something I was born into. I could never criticise another country the way I analyse Ireland and agree with author Douglas Kennedy’s assertion at Listowel Writers’ Week that “Your country is like your family. It’s your argument”.

I’m open to the idea of acquiring a second passport: many Irish people are citizens of another country by birth, parentage or marriage. But like my name, my primary passport will remain the same. In a world which is in a state of flux, having some constant in life is vital. For me, that constant state is the Republic of Ireland and there is an onus on me to contribute to its betterment. It’s my argument and perhaps that’s what it means to be Irish.

If you still feel like visiting my home country after reading this then have a look at my Planning a Trip to Ireland post!

What does it mean to be Irish

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