What being Irish means to me. By Leo Varadkar, Ola Majekodunmi, Mary Lou McDonald and more

What being Irish means to me. By Leo Varadkar, Ola Majekodunmi, Mary Lou McDonald and more
Twenty years after her father, Paddy, published Being Irish, Marie-Claire Logue puts the question of Irish identity to a new group

Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste  
I was born in the Rotunda and grew up in west Dublin and it never occurred to me that I was anything else except Irish. This was my home and my heritage. As I grew older, however, I realised that some others viewed me as different, because of my surname, because of my skin colour, because of differences that I had never imagined would affect my Irishness. Being Irish came to mean more to me precisely because some people tried to deny it to me.

The people who shout loudest about someone not being Irish enough, who cling to a rigid conception of identity and attempt to deny it to others, are cowards who are afraid of what being Irish really means. They are insecure about their own identity and try to overcompensate by lashing out at others. They are really at war with themselves.

There is no one version of Irishness. Our strength comes from each other, everyone bringing their own talents, ideas and dreams. We draw inspiration from the past, but we are not bound by it. We are all colours and backgrounds, every religion and none. Some of us do not drink, we like different kinds of music, we follow foreign sports as well as our own, and we eat our dinner in the middle of the day as well as in the evening. We disagree about politics and have our occasional fights. But when it matters most, we are there for each other. It’s there in the camaraderie and good behaviour when we travel abroad for major sporting occasions. It’s seen at home when we look out for each other during a pandemic.

Being Irish means our nationality is never a burden. It’s the opposite. It lifts us up, it provides a sense of belonging and, in the darkest of times, it gives us a feeling of hope. To me being Irish simply means that you are someone who calls Ireland “home”.

Maj Gen Maureen O’Brien. Photograph: Tom Honan

Maureen O’Brien, major general, Irish Army  
In June 2001, I embarked on the last leg of my journey to deploy with the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor. I was the only passenger on the helicopter flight headed for Suai, the Sector Headquarters, where I was to take up my appointment as an operations officer.

Forty-five minutes later we landed in a small clearing and I was deposited there, on my own, with nobody in sight. I was never so happy to see an Irish man in my life when Capt Barry O’Riordan emerged from the trees to greet me.

The next day I attended an extraordinary meeting of the Australian general leading the UN Sector and the Indonesian general responsible for the Indonesian forces deployed along the border of West and East Timor. It was being held against the background of accusation of some Indonesian forces being involved in alleged war crimes during their occupation of East Timor.

The tension was palpable, fuelled by mistrust on both sides. When the meeting concluded, the Indonesian general stood up, walked slowly towards the back of the tent, in my direction. He pointed to my Ireland flash on my left arm, smiled and said, “You’re from Ireland. Do you know Capt Johnny Murphy?” It turns out that he had worked with Capt Murphy as a military observer with the UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH) in 1995 and 1996. He recounted stories of their work together and his respect for the Irish officer. You could feel the tension of the meeting dissipate instantly.

For the last 40 years, being Irish has meant serving my country with pride. As an Irish woman, I will continue to serve with great pride for as long as I believe that I can make a difference.

Kevin Kilbane. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Kevin Kilbane, former Ireland international footballer  
Although I was born and raised in Preston, England, at no stage in my life did I ever feel like England is home and absolutely never felt English. Home was always Ireland, even though I didn’t get the chance to visit much growing up as money was extremely tight.

I felt there was always a negative and very prejudicial stance towards Irish people from within England. We were always defined as “thick Paddies”. Stereotyping Irish people has been widespread over the centuries and none more so than in 1980s England. I hated it.

Of course, I’ve grown up and I’ve learned to brush it off, but I’ve had my own identity questioned many times by Irish people who don’t necessarily see me as Irish. When I was called up for England as a young footballer, I just had to decline. I hadn’t had any contact with the FAI [Football Association of Ireland] and had never come on to its radar for selection. It may well have hindered my career (Sam Allardyce, my coach at the time, said that I was letting him, and my club, Preston North End, down) but I just couldn’t wear the three lions and I could never stand for God Save the Queen with pride.

Playing for Ireland to me meant standing for the anthem and playing for my people, and as cheesy as that sounds it meant everything to me.

Ola Majekodunmi. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Ola Majekodunmi, broadcaster and journalist  
You would laugh at the number of times people have asked me how I speak Irish or why I even speak it. I struggle to understand at times what is it that is so surprising about a person of immigrant background speaking the first official language? Not only that, but why is it threatening to some that I do? There are complexities within Irishness. We are not proud of who we are as a nation, yet we have this beautiful, cultural heritage. I fear it may all slip from our hands one day without us realising that now is the time to cherish what we have.

I will never forget that moment when I got news that I had been granted Irish naturalisation. I was at my local library studying for my Leaving Cert and suddenly I felt like I was one of you, one of the team, one of the nation’s people. I looked around me and I thought inwards, ‘Yes finally, this is it! I’m accepted now!’ How wrong teenage me was. You might cry at the number of times I have been trolled online with phrases like ‘You’ll never be Irish’, but I laugh and roll my eyes.

I tear up sometimes appreciating how much Gaeilge means to me. I seriously cannot imagine my life without her. Gaeilge is what moulded me into who I am today, yet people who make fun of the language with contempt, fail to recognise this unless they open themselves up to her. You certainly do not need to speak Irish to be Irish, but I do not think any of us can deny how much a part of us she is. I am Nigerian just as much as I am Irish. Dublin is my home and so is my birthplace, Lagos.

AP McCoy. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

AP McCoy, former champion jockey  
I grew up in the small Catholic village of Moneyglass in County Antrim, one of two counties in Ireland with a Protestant majority. I considered myself Irish then, still do and always will.

That is not to say that we were sectarian or hostile to the unionists of the surrounding area. In fact, one of the most influential people in my young life and career as a jockey was a local Protestant horse trainer, Billy Rock.It was through Billy that my love of horses began and was nourished. I was so obsessed with horses that Billy’s religion didn’t matter to me at all. What Billy told me about horses was more important to me at that time than what I heard at Mass on Sundays.

In 2002, I passed Gordon Richards’s total of race wins and afterwards I received an invitation from the Home Office to receive an MBE at Buckingham Palace. I rang my mother and talked it over with her. She was a woman who had strong republican views, and she unusually advised me to accept it, saying that I had lived in England a long time, was rearing my family there and that it was the right thing to do. But on every invitation date that was sent to me for going to Buckingham Palace I was busy racing.

Then, in 2010 I won the Grand National and received another letter from the Home Office to award me an OBE. So I said to myself, I had better attend this time. I went up and stood in front of the queen and my jaw dropped when she said: “It’s nice of you to show up this time.” I made an apology about my racing schedule, and she smiled and said: “You don’t have to apologise to me. I read the Racing Post every day, I knew exactly where you were.”

When I retired in 2015, I got the news that I had been awarded a knighthood. I rang my mother who, upon hearing this, said: “I’m going to have to go into hiding around here now!”

Sonia O’Sullivan. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Sonia O’Sullivan, former world champion and Olympian  
Wherever I went to the farthest corners of Earth, there was always at least one Irish flag in the stadium. I recall particularly at remote track meetings in India and Qatar seeing a few Irish flags in the packed stadiums. You begin to realise there are more Irish people living outside Ireland and, when there is a reason to connect, they are the first in line. I still experience the Irish welcome wherever I go.

I remember when I was running 5,000m at the Melbourne athletics Grand Prix in 1995. It took place just a few weeks before the World Fire and Police Games. The visiting Irish team came along to support me and filled a whole section in the stadium close to the finish line. It was a big surprise to me to have such colourful and vocal support just a few weeks after I had arrived in Australia for training and racing.

I am proud to be Irish. It is true that when you live abroad, you tend to emphasise the good things. For the people who live in Ireland, the view can be negative sometimes. And there has been negative news in recent years. I was so impressed by and proud of the equal marriage campaign and the numbers of (mostly young) Irish who flew home to vote. They had learned about life abroad and were making sure that Ireland should change too. Ireland was the first country in the world who took this decision by popular vote.

Micheál Martin. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach  
The Covid-19 pandemic and our response to it have confirmed for me many of the qualities that I have long associated with my Irishness. The centrality of family and community, and loyalty to our sense of place, have long manifested itself in our sporting and cultural activities.

During the most difficult periods of the pandemic, it manifested itself in the overwhelming sense of solidarity across the country. At a time of such grief, when deeply embedded rituals and traditions were not available to us, our communities still found safe ways to be with the bereaved and put our arms around them. As we have emerged from the shadow of Covid, that sense of community and place is as strong as ever. In fact, all across the country we see evidence of families reconnecting with their place, as they have reappraised their lives and are now ready to “move home”. We will all take time to reflect on our experience of the pandemic, but I know that I will never again take for granted the freedo

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