I remember when I was a kid in church singing "Hail glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our isle" and it felt really good, even as an under eleven-year-old powering out the song with gusto. Man, that was pride, although at that age I had no idea of such a notion. I just loved the tune, the words and the idea of this symbol of an (honorary*) Irish guy who always looked heroic in his green and gold costume. My wee bunch of shamrock in the lapel was a badge of, I suppose, belonging to a nation. As a kid, I was proud to be Irish.
And I still am. But within that pride is a critical mind out to put some balance into my romantic heart and folklore-driven head. It is easy to say and write words like nation and Irish but then complications get in the way and a straightforward definition of identity becomes a tangled web. But why should I worry about that? If I want to call myself Irish, then Irish I will be. If some pedant challenges me and points out that I am British because I was born and raised in Northern Ireland, okay. But I can choose to describe myself any way I like. Bejapers.
In terms of trying to consider balance, I recall a rather wordy but interesting book called The Irish - Are They Real? by the curmudgeonly old Sunday News columnist Patrick Riddell. He was born in Belfast in 1904. He was a civil servant, a Royal Marine and finally a full-time writer. He told it how he saw it and told it well.
The book was published in 1972 and the jacket blurb introduces the theme: "Ireland is in the main a Palace of Lies, a backward country inhabited by a friendly, charming, volatile, undependable and sometimes treacherous people. It is a country of great contrasts and propagator of great myths. But are the Irish as puritanical, as witty, as devoted to a drop of the hard stuff, as loquacious as they so often have been portrayed. Are they, in fact, real?"
Riddell travelled north and south trying to find the answer to his main question but, amusing and perceptive as his account is, he realised that there was not a simple answer and that might have been because it was an impossible question to begin with. One of a number of threads was offered by his uncle: "There's little in Ireland that makes sense or ever has made sense and those that try to make sense of this country of ours invariably retire defeated....."
Sometimes it is a great feeling to be Irish when considering the significant names in Irish creative arts and other endeavours and sometimes it is shameful to be associated with the despicable specimens who reek havoc and destruction in the name of whatever they decide is more important that lives and a peaceful existence. If you're Irish, north, south, east, west, you are born into a conundrum. So embrace it. Don't fight it. There's enough fighting.
I will celebrate St Patricks's Day. There might be Guinness involved and champ and a whole lot of wonderful memories of family, friends, songs, stories, poems and all the ballyhoo. Identity can be complicated in reality but can always be clarified in the nostalgic blur within individual heads.
The Irish, are they real? You betcha. We're real but not always living in reality.
Saint Pat - cheers, you rascal.
*'Tis said he may have been Welsh or English. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there may have been a claim he was of French origin. Pass the porter, mother!