Colm Toibin: It Takes All Kinds to Make Ireland

The battle in Ireland over the past 40 years has not been a struggle over territory. No one has wanted to take land away from others and claim it for themselves. It has, instead, been a struggle over identity: a long effort to find agreement over language and symbols, the terms of competing and complex definitions of what it means to be Irish.

It has been clear for some time that the old definitions would not work, that it was not useful to suggest that to be Irish was only to be Celtic in background, have a name beginning with O' or Mac, be Roman Catholic in religion and get drunk on St. Patrick's Day.

It has taken a great deal of argument to establish both in the public mind and in legislation that the island of Ireland includes more than a million people in the North who view themselves as British and want their identity respected and understood. They are also Northern Irish and are mainly members of the Church of Ireland or they are Presbyterians. They do not want to live in the Republic of Ireland, or in a united Ireland. They feel a closer allegiance to the flags, emblems and heritage of the neighboring island, or perhaps even to Scotland.

And yet they will cheer for Ireland when the Irish rugby team plays against England, as there is only one rugby team for the entire island. In soccer, on the other hand, they will cheer for Northern Ireland, which has a separate team from that of the Republic of Ireland. These allegiances in Ireland are complex. And when they have not had tragic consequences, then they have implications that are at times almost comic.

Some years ago I found myself at the Edinburgh Festival watching Wagner's "Siegfried" by the Scottish National Opera. Among the audience that night was my compatriot Lord Trimble, who was at the time the first minister in the government of Northern Ireland. Both Trimble and myself are staunch Wagnerians, and, since it was a wonderful production, we were perfectly happy, as long as we did not begin defining ourselves.

I use the word "compatriot" about Trimble with a degree of irony and mischief. We were both born on the island of Ireland. He holds a British passport and feels his identity to be British. He is even a member of the British Conservative Party. I hold an Irish passport and believe that I am Irish. I am also a loyal and devoted citizen of the European Union. He was brought up Protestant and I was brought up Catholic. That night, as we listened to the music of Wagner in Scotland, were our differences more important than what we had in common? I like to think this question no longer matters as much as it once did.

In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, Trimble acknowledged that in the past, Northern Ireland had been "a cold house for Catholics." Part of the agreement he negotiated with his fellow citizens of Northern Ireland who were Catholics was not to integrate their identity and his, but to allow their set of loyalties to be an honored aspect of what it means to live in Ireland now. This agreement was signed on Good Friday 1998, and it remains a blueprint for political stability. Most people in Ireland see the recent killings in the North as isolated incidents, small reminders of the nightmare of the past rather than the beginning of a new set of bad dreams.

But heritage in Ireland has been gnarled and open to question. When Samuel Beckett—who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, wrote in both English and French and lived mainly in Paris—was asked if he was English, he replied: "Au contraire." He meant that it is often easier, if you come from Ireland in any of its guises or aspects, to state what you are not than what you are. What works wonders now in Ireland is not the bomb or the bullet, but two humble and ancient objects: the hyphen and the word "and." Thus Samuel Beckett can be Hiberno-French; and David Trimble can be Northern Irish and British; and I can be Irish and a citizen of the European Union; and the president of the United States, since he has roots in County Offaly, can be African-American-Irish.

In the past 20 years it has become easier to be many things in Ireland—gay, for example, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a European. In Northern Ireland, you can have an Irish or a British passport. You can be educated under the British system and pay your taxes to the queen and yet peacefully insist that, because history is to blame, as James Joyce put it, you are Irish and not British. Your neighbor can feel quite the opposite but because of political agreement, you can salute each other respectfully as you pass on the street. It has taken time to come to this agreement, and we will not be easily diverted from our hard-won peace and the recognition of our complexity.