FAQ: The Irish, the British and how they feel about each other…
Don’t be a ‘Plastic Paddy’…
Q So I don’t want to get this wrong, Ireland isn’t part of Britain?
A Well, your confusion is understandable. It can be argued that Ireland is part of the British Isles—a geographical term than a political one—but not everyone in Ireland loves hearing that. That’s probably because since about the 12th Century until quite recently, England—later Britain—has been dead set on colonizing and exploiting Ireland, so the parts that are independent these days are proud to be a very separate entity.
So these days, some of Ireland is British, some not. Since 1921, Ireland has been made up of British Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland. There are still those who think that the two should be united and independent from Britain, but for now it looks like things will stay that way. The two don’t always feel that separate—you can drive right across the border without noticing—but there are some important differences between the two.
Q What are these important differences between North and South?
A Well the accent is pretty different once you start listening out for it! Clearly, though, that’s not the controversial bit. You’ll find most ‘Unionists’ (who want union with Britain) are also Protestants and most of them live in the north, whereas those in the south are proud to be independent and are predominately Catholic. Historically, Catholics were very badly treated, not given any representation in government or important professions, subjected to mass starvation and basically considered to be a less civilized race of people by the lovely individuals who ran Britain in those days… Hence all that migration. So though you’ll find more mixed neighbourhoods, mixed marriages and general getting-along-okay between the two groups these days, there’s still a legacy to work through. All of that history stored up a lot of trouble for the future.
Q Speaking of trouble, what were ‘The Troubles’?
A The Troubles was a period from 1968 to 1998 in which 3,600 people were killed and many more injured. For people in England, its remembered mostly for the terrorist attacks by the IRA made over here, but most of the deaths during The Troubles were in Northern Ireland (not in the Republic of Ireland). The violence was between paramilitary groups on the Republican and Unionist sides—although we could argue that the British police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) who were there to keep the peace were also part of the problem. There are stories of some very dark dealings there which are only coming out now.
Q So the IRA, are they still a thing?
A The short answer is, no. The IRA (Irish Republic Army) officially agreed that their war against Britain was over in 2005, but from time to time someone pipes up that they’ve formed a group called the Real IRA, or the Really Real IRA… There have been no major terrorist incidents post Troubles though violence along sectarian lines still happens in Ireland, as well as other kinds of crime which is tangled up with these older, powerful groups… but on the whole, the IRA is in the past.
Q So… everything is okay?
A Weeeeell… sort of. Things are looking very delicate in Northern Irish politics at the moment. Power sharing between Unionists and Republicans is always precarious, and the last elections put the balance out in such a way that Stormont (the devolved parliament in Belfast) looks unworkable and there’s talk of reimposing Direct Rule—that means Westminster making all the decisions. I’ve got to say, I don’t really understand it all, but it’s definitely bad news.
Q And the Irish still hate the English right?
A As an English person with Irish friends, I hope not! Certainly a lot of Irish people (over 300 thousand) choose to move over to England so we can’t be that awful. As individuals, I think the English and the Irish are often great friends, but yes of course there are historical bruises on both sides and so conversations about history, politics and religion have to be handled carefully. The Irish and the Scottish have a slightly more robust relationship, maybe it’s the Celtic thing, or a united distrust of the English…? Of course, Ireland has fresh reasons to be annoyed with England: Brexit.
Q What does Brexit mean for Ireland?
A That’s the million Euro question! It certainly complicates things—if Northern Ireland, as part of Britain, leaves Europe but Republic of Ireland stays in… what does that mean for the ‘soft’ border between the two? Some politicians say it might even throw the peace process off track.
Q Moving on, there are a lot of Irish stereotypes out there… are many of them true?
A It doesn’t take a genius to guess that—while most nations like to make cracks about themselves—they won’t thank you for stereotyping, so perhaps the most useful answer here is just a ‘no’. And remember that having a bit of Irish ancestry doesn’t makes you an expert… So, do the Irish like a drink? The pub and ‘craic’ (having a good time) is a bit of native culture which most Irish people take pride in, but problems with alcoholism (which are high) are taken seriously and one in five Irish people don’t drink at all. So on the whole, avoid jokes about drinking unless your new Irish friend is the one making them! Though the Irish are famous as party people and generally easier to chat to than the British, I’d say they are actually more private than us and really care about good manners. Also, they hate arrogant people! If you want to make friends, joke about what a big loser you are… Are they all poets and musicians? Well, they certainly have more than their fair share of artists and you’ll hear much more live music in Ireland than in Britain… but in economic terms, lots of them are in IT or pharmaceuticals I’m afraid. Viewed from the British perspective, Ireland is a bit of a contradiction—quicker than us to adopt equal marriage (and by popular vote!) but way behind on reproductive rights… it’s a complex picture.
Q Why are Irish people so dreamy?
A That’s an unsolved mystery. Just put your fingers in your ears and don’t listen to their beautiful accents if you wish to maintain self-control.