How do you define someone’s Irishness? Is it by their accent, their passport, their residence, their parents, their birthplace, or is it their appearance? I recently took part in a social experiment by Una-Minh Kavanagh to capture images of those of us who are Irish, but don’t look Irish, and are regularly asked “where are you really from?”.

Growing up as one of the three “brown” families in our small town, I shrugged off the looks, the “exotic” compliments, and the curiosity as to my origins as simply Irish people not being used to diversity. As I got older, I would laugh it off as one of Ireland’s quirks – harmlessly, casually, mildly racist! No harm meant!

Moving to the UK – particularly the diverse melting pot of London – I felt a significant difference in the way I was treated. Here, when people asked where I was from, and I replied with “Ireland”, they just accepted my answer. That was it. Of course if I was willing to go further and talk about my cultural heritage, being born in Malaysia to an Irish mother and an Indian father, moving to Ireland when I was two, then they would listen, but I didn’t need to prove my Irishness. My accent, and the fact I said so, was enough.

However, when I met Irish people in the UK, it was not so simple. They would see my face, and hear my voice, and struggle to hear an Irish accent. It was as if it didn’t compute. I felt I had to exaggerate my Irishness – making my accent stronger, dropping colloquialisms knowingly into sentences, trying to prove that I was indeed Irish, just like them. Then I would see their incredulous faces when I eventually would say that I was actually Irish too, their reactions appearing to challenge me to explain myself and my background. I could almost hear the question on the tip of their tongue – “yeah but where are you really from?”

That may not seem like much – it may seem like an inquisitive question. A mild curiosity. But to me it says – you don’t belong here. You’re not one of us. Explain yourself. I think it may actually be a microaggression, to coin a phrase I’ve only recently realised I might be allowed to use.

We don’t think we’re a racist country. We look at America and think we’re better than them. We think we’ve always been the underdogs, we’ve always been hard done by, and we’ve never hurt a soul. We need to stop pretending.

Reading this article on the New York City Draft Riots in 1863 shattered the rose-tinted glasses I had felt about Ireland’s proud history in America. Then, reading about Direct Provision (the sanitised name for the inhuman imprisonment of asylum seekers), and the plight of Ibrahim Halawa (and the responses to articles about him on social media!), not to mention the myriad of ways the Catholic Church has been allowed to run riot, has made me ashamed to publicly declare pride in my Irish heritage. But this is not the answer.

Rather than distancing myself from my Irishness, or avoiding the topic of racism – casual, overt or otherwise – we need to start talking about it more. Initiatives like Una-Minh’s help start these conversations – and flush out the racist beliefs inside us. These conversations are far from easy – it is distinctly uncomfortable to mention race, or otherness, or the potential for any of our white friends to consider that they may have a more privileged position than their non-white friends. But it is only by talking about this, and learning from each other’s experiences, that we can indeed say we know what it truly means to be Irish.

You can follow the conversation on Twitter here – #WeAreIrish – get involved and spread the word.

File 19-04-2017, 11 19 43
(C) Una Kavanagh #WeAreIrish

8 thoughts on “Irishness

  1. Excellent! The conversation’s which needed to happen! And that was a very good point about being ashamed to declare public pride in being Irish… It made me think, when I see / hear racism from other Irish people I feel ashamed to be associated with them in any way as our opinions and outlook / morals differ so much! But they shold not effect my pride, or yours, or anyone else’s #WeAreIrish

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The latest 2016 census results from CSO said 82.8% of the population of Ireland claimed they were ethnically Irish or Traveller. 9.5% said they were white but not Irish and the rest (7.6%) were African, Chinese, ‘other Asian’ and ‘other & mixed’. ‘Other & mixed were 1.5% of the population. They didn’t break up the data further than this.

    They have separate data on nationality as this is a separate subject.

    This #WeAreIrish hashtag seems to want to confuse Irish ethnicity and Irish nationality. Perhaps Úna being a Vietnamese orphan who was adopted by Irish parents is having an identity crisis. Nobody is denying that she is not a full Irish citizen. She was raised by Irish parents and this is different than a Somalian who migrates here by using the refugee system and brings their family over through re-unification laws.

    But Irish is a distinct ethnicity and she is not ethnically Irish no more than if I moved to Vietnam would I be ethnically Vietnamese. A previous post of hers which seemed to incite this project suggested she was upset that there was an option for ‘Asian-Irish’ under ethnicity on the census — that she would prefer if this question did not exist.

    Well I think the CSO is right to keep to stats on how many ethnically Irish people are left in Ireland. Likewise I hope people are keeping stats on how many ethnic Tibetans remain in Tibet and how far the displacement of these people by the Chinese as come along. We regard Travellers as a distinct ethnicity in Ireland. I don’t see the problem in recognising Irish as a distinct ethnicity too.

    Eurostat estimates that by 2061, 50.1% of under 14s will be of migrant origin. When will that figure be 70%? 90%? A study on diverse communities by liberal political scientist Robert at the Harvard University discovered to his displeasure that diverse communities led to less trustful communities and there was less civic engagement. We see examples all over the world including Ireland showing us that multiculturalism does not work.

    Globalist elites like former Goldman Sachs banker and United Nations Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland has said European states must do their best to ‘undermine national homogeneity’ so the mass migration effort we are seeing in Europe is driven by those in the highest ranks. Many people think this desire to undermine homogeneity is part of the effort to rein in a sort of one world government and Europe is the experiment. Others think it is the desire to inflate housing prices, keep the supply of resources lower than demand and undermine the labour market.

    For years they have been telling us the global population is too high yet they won’t allow the population of Europe to drop despite there being huge unemployment rates (50% of Spain’s young are unemployed) as technology is used for more work. In order to keep the population up they are using mass immigration. There is opposition to this and it is not right to call it racism.

    Brian Hayes MEP says Europe needs to use Nigeria’s high fertility rate to its advantage. They have 6.5 children there per woman. They can’t afford them but they still have them. We have 1.3 children because we can barely afford those. Why would we want to bring their problem here?


    1. Michelle,
      I received this comment notification just before I went to bed last night and I didn’t approve it immediately because I wanted to be in a position to reply, and I couldn’t reply properly at that time because your comment angered and upset me. I can’t comment on why Una was motivated to undertake this social experiment, but I can say that it meant a lot to me to participate in it. If you read my article above, as I feel like you haven’t, then you would see that I am not talking about Irish ethnicity or citizenship – I am talking about what it means to grow up in Ireland, or with a strong connection to Ireland, that you then have to justify to people repeatedly – whether it’s obviously ignorant, anonymous racist trolls on Twitter who tell me that because I am not white I cannot call myself Irish, or it’s seemingly educated, well-intentioned people like yourself who still seem to miss the point that I was trying to make. I am talking about personal experience – I am not talking about statistics on migrant populations. I would invite you to read my article, to hear what I am saying about how it is growing up in Ireland constantly feeling like I need to explain myself, and ask yourself why we struggle to accept that someone can be a different colour and still be Irish?


    1. And if you think that taking this approach to BULLY me into approving your comments is effective then you are wrong. I have shared your words now that I am ready to do so. Have a think about why you even replied to this post in the first place – is it to share your personal experience in response to my opening up of mine? Or is it to lecture me and explain to me how you think the world should work? We need to have more open conversations – and as upsetting as this interaction has been, it has shown me how important it is now more than ever.


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