I’ve been Irish for a few hours now. Here’s how it’s done. Here’s what happened.
Converging on the Convention Centre on the North Quays, we were dismayed to find a large crowd already being megaphoned into a sort of queue. I’ll be honest with you – the first bit of the day’s proceedings wasn’t as much fun. We were herded in between metal crowd separators and ordered to keep shunting forward and it was a while before we were allowed inside the building – to meet another set of crowd separators.
Paradoxically, on the occasion of my twenty-two year residency in Ireland converting itself into legal citizenship, I felt profoundly foreign during this initial tedious process. I don’t think I’ve ever in Ireland been part of such a large crowd of people who are not (quite) Irish. Our foreignness was what we had in common, comprised as we were of every creed and colour under the sun. So joyously eclectic were we that “not Irish but about to be” really was the only thing we had in common. It was, however, a very very important thing to have in common.
As soon as each of us reached the registration desk, the whole atmosphere changed. Having signed a piece of paper and receiving each our individual pack of goodies, we were given a smile and a congratulations for the first time. We were then wafted into the far more salubrious section of the building. Once seated in comfy chairs in a plush auditorium, smooth jazz was piped into the building. Smooth jazz is (arguably) the very least Irish music imaginable, but it had an appropriately calming effect. All is well. You made it. If we were going to deny you citizenship we’d have done it by now. Relax. Enjoy the show.
If there was anything wrong with the day at all, it was the perhaps inevitable conflict between ceremony and logistics. We waited in our tiered seating looking a a big curtain listening to smooth jazz for quite a while before we were all in place. We were many – in itself a very good thing – but the concentration of ceremonial focus was dissipated somewhat. Eventually I started to hear what I though might be the sound of instruments tuning up behind the curtain. However, I’m not good at telling the difference between smooth jazz and instruments tuning up so I wasn’t really sure.
The curtains suddenly parted however to reveal a Garda band playing a remarkably jolly little tune which I subsequently although not at the time identified as “If You’re Irish – Come into the Parlour”. Having competed their brisk little number to applause, a colour party from the Defence Forces marched into the limelight along with Minister Finian McGrath and Judge Bryan McMahon. They each gave friendly speeches. Judge McMahon’s offered the longer address and spoke eloquently about how in a few minutes time each of us was to gain exactly the same rights, privileges and duties of Irish citizenship as he himself, notwithstanding the fact that McMahons have lived in County Kerry for many centuries. He made it clear that to become Irish was not to burn bridges with mother countries and that the heritage of incomers was to retained as a positive contribution to Irish life. He also made it clear to new citizens hailing from South Asia that Ireland is in need of better cricketers.
He then administered the oath, which we repeated collectively (thank God!). We then stood for the national anthem (instrumental – thank God!) and the day was pretty much done.
I’ll not deny I was sobbing at times – both during Judge McMahon’s speech and during the anthem. Especially during the anthem.
But how do I feel? How does it feel? I left it a shamefully long time to do this. For many years, Ireland has not just been a place where I live and work, not just my home but part of me. Ireland made me – such as I am here and now in this year of our Lord twenty seventeen. This ceremony has set something nagging to rest, completed an incompletion and makes me, right now, an Irishman several hours old, feel that I have finally set something straight.
Fealty has been owed. Fealty has been given.
I could wax lyrical about Ireland, but others have done it better than I. Besides which, as a citizen it is now my inescapable civic duty to complain about Ireland – to rail against its hypocrisies and betrayals and to harangue it for its repeated failures to live up to its own promise. Now I’m a citizen, I have a patriotic duty to eschew sentimental truisms and pay a fuller and more honest part in this country’s (my country’s) debates.
We don’t pick our future identities out of a catalogue. Shirley McLaine might but the rest of us don’t. Our national identities are as much a matter of happenstance as anything else. I did not “set out” to be Irish. I was an economic migrant. Twenty two years ago, I was unemployed with little sense of purpose or identity. I was working on a government scheme that paid a few pennies more than unemployment benefit to work with outreach library services in North London but more importantly to keep me off the official unemployment statistics. I had no thought of moving to Ireland before a proper job here presented itself. I applied, stayed, and eventually became Irish. That’s my story, and it’s a story I only partially controlled.
So my main feeling is a feeling of gratitude, together with a sense that this gratitude now has a proper form and a shape to it.
And happy. Very very happy right now.
Some people have already asked me if I still feel British. Now that’s a very very complex question and one that I’ve already given a deal of thought to.