23 year-old Rory McIlroy is, almost without question, the most globally-successful sportsperson to come out of Northern Ireland. Right now, he is the highest ranking golfer in the world. But in the last week far more attention has being paid to his nationality than to his achievements. Today's edition of the Belfast Telegraph ran the provocative headline: "Rory: I feel more British than Irish." The reason being that in a recent interview, McIlroy had expressed ambivalence about who he would compete for if golf was included as a sport in the 2016 Olympics in Rio: Team GB or Team Ireland? McIlroy stressed that he had not made his mind up yet. In fact, he hadn't even made up his mind if he would compete, but he acknowledged that whoever he competed for, he'd probably end up annoying somebody.
To re-cap, Rory McIlroy is a Catholic, which on the basis of statistics means that he's expected to consider himself Irish rather than British. On the other hand, he's from Holywood and attended Sullivan Upper School, both of which are right slap-bang in the heartland of Northern Ireland's yacht, country and golf club scene. It's a place where the only tricolour you're likely to see is a French one at a wine and brie party. When it comes to his golfing career, he's so far competed under the umbrella of Ireland, because in golfing, the tournaments are still organised on all-island basis, rather than around political borders. But, if golf goes ahead to the Rio Olympics in 2016, that won't be the case. For the first time in his life, Rory McIlroy will have to choose to compete under the Union flag or the Irish tricolour and whether he'll be standing for God Save the Queen or Amhrán na bhFiann at the ceremonies.
McIlroy himself is, understandably, a little piqued that his recent success has been drowned out in the media speculation about his preferred nationality. In an open letter, posted via his Twitter account, he eloquently expressed his frustrations and tried to put an end to the debate: -
Having just won three out of my last four tournaments, including a second Major Championship, I was hoping that my success on the golf course would be the more popular topic of golfing conversation today! However, the issue of my cultural identity has re-emerged, and with it, the matter of my national allegiance ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016.
I am in an extremely sensitive and difficult position and I conveyed as much in a recent newspaper interview.
I am a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland and am hugely honoured to have come from very rich Irish sporting roots, winning Irish Boys, Youths and Amateur titles and playing for Ireland at all levels. I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be.
I receive huge support from both Irish and British sports fans alike and it is greatly appreciated. Likewise, I feel like I have a great affinity with American sports fans. I play most of my golf in the US nowadays and I am incredibly proud to have won both the US Open and the US PGA Championship in the last two years.
As an international sportsman, I am very lucky to be supported by people all over the world, many of who treat me as one of their own, no matter what their nationality, or indeed mine. This is the way sport should be.
Since turning professional at 18, I have travelled the world playing the game that I love and consider myself a global player. As the World No 1 right now, I wish to be a positive role model and a sportsperson that people respect, and enjoy watching.
I feel very fortunate to be in a position to play the sport that I love professionally and to have enjoyed the success that has come my way.
I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics. On a personal level, playing in the Olympics would be a huge honour. However, the Games in Rio are still four years away and I certainly won’t be making any decisions with regards to participating any time soon.
The Olympics will be great for the growth of golf on a global scale, but my focus right now is on being the best player I can be, trying to win Major Championships and contributing to what will hopefully be a victorious European side at the forthcoming Ryder Cup Matches against the USA.
Lastly, I would like to thank everyone for the amazing support that I receive around the world every time I play. It is hugely appreciated . . . Rory
If one was to look solely at Rory McIlroy's dilemma, then it undoubtedly seems silly and facetious to be kicking up a fuss over what team he might play for in four years time if he decides to go ahead and compete. It seems a bit like fighting over where to have your wedding, before receiving a marriage proposal. But the debate does shine light on an area of Irish modern culture that receives the old Irish problem of too much attention and too little understanding: Where do we stand on our national identity?
Northern Irish Protestants, particularly ones who have lived in Northern Ireland all their lives, are known to get quite angry if someone refers to them as "Irish." On the one hand, this seems stupid and pedantic. After all, before 1921, the phrase "Irish" was used to describe their ancestors. On the other, why shouldn't they have the right to embrace a new national identity, in the same way Czechoslovakians did after 1918 or Germans did after 1871? Simply because Northern Ireland hasn't been around forever doesn't mean that it has no right to exist or that people have no right to emotionally invest in it.
Equally, Rory McIlroy's position as a cradle Catholic who self-identifies as British represents one of the great silent minorities of Northern Irish demographics. Since the days of Daniel O'Connell, Irish nationalism has not traditionally been very kind to Catholics who see themselves as British; the ugly sobriquet of "West Brit" was, and is, hurled at them because it's felt as if they've somehow let the side down. They're often seen as deficient and nobody, really, likes to talk about them. But they do exist and in fairly sizable numbers, particularly as you move "up" the socio-economic pyramid. Time after time, every census and every report that comes back about Northern Ireland indicates that there is a significant segment of the northern Catholic community who would not back a united Irish republic, either because of pragmatic, economic or sentimental reasons. Why are they not being acknowledged? And why, even more incredibly, are they not been targeted by the Unionist parties, particularly the moderate Ulster Unionist who, quite frankly, need every vote they can get? And why, when there is a Northern Irish British Catholic like Rory McIlroy, who is prepared to talk about it, do we all seem so incredulous?
But for me, the dilemma faced by Rory McIlroy and by thousands of people of our generation in the North summons up, Banquo-like, the ghost of the Anglo-Irish. The great losers of Irish historiography. Abandoned by their northern allies, who were only concerned with "saving Ulster" and in creating a new "Northern Irish" identity at the expense of the old Irish one, and completely written-out of the great myth of Irish nationalism, in which everything with the word "Irish" in it must ipso facto by anti-British, hardly anybody talks about the Anglo-Irish today. (If they've even heard of them, at all.) But their situation, and the hyphen in their nationality, is perhaps the one most relevant to Northern Ireland today; it merits being talked about.
The Anglo-Irish were a social group descended from the Norman invaders of the twelfth century, who subsequently intermarried with the native Gaelic aristocracy and also with the wider Irish population. They existed predominantly in the southern three provinces of Ireland - Leinster, Connaught and Munster - and they had little to do with the seventeenth-century plantations of Ulster, which saw the creation of the unique, if misunderstood, Ulster-Scots community. In the aftermath of the Boyne, the Anglo-Irish made up between about a tenth and a fifth of the overall Irish population; they are almost all members of the Church of Ireland and a significant number made up the aristocratic Ascendancy. Some of their more famous sons included the author Jonathan Swift, the "Iron" Duke of Wellington, the great politician Edmund Burke (below), the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the novelist C.S. Lewis, the famous Nationalist leader C.S. Parnell and the nineteenth century Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. And, of course, W.B. Yeats, who captured the Anglo-Irish view that some people should be poor and some should be rich because the world was prettier that way. A view, incidentally, which still survives on the Malone Road.
Prior to the eighteenth century, the term "British" was hardly ever used - especially not in Ireland. One was simply an English/Irish/Cornish/Scottish/Welsh subject of the Crown. By the time the rising tide of nationalism was sweeping across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Anglo-Irish community had already been settled in Ireland for six hundred years. It was far too late for them to suddenly get a new identity, just because everyone else on the European continent seemed to be rushing hell's-bells for a national label with which to define themselves and everything to do with their culture. (Edmund Burke, like his hero Marie-Antoinette, found the whole thing a bit unsettling, to say the least.) By the end of the nineteenth century, it was quite clear that the Anglo-Irish were on the wrong side of history, as Ireland pulled itself apart over the issue of independence from Britain. Unionism was strongest in the North and the orange-and-purple militancy of the Ulstermen had no time for the wishy-washy Anglo-Irish, with their fondness for old Irish culture. As far as the Nationalists were concerned, the vast majority of the Anglo-Irish were traitors. Loyalty to the King was loyalty to a foreign, hostile power. Since they didn't fit into either polarity, by the time Partition occurred in the 1920s, the Anglo-Irish simply vanished from the history books. For Northern Ireland to work, Unionists had to make it seem as if partition was predestined - a kind of six counties' manifest destiny, if you like. An historical view grew-up that the North had always been so inherently different from the South that separation was basically inevitable. In that version of events, there was no room for the 15% of the population who lived in the South, but who had self-identified as both royalist and Irish. For Nationalism, of course, it was easier to blame the English for everything, rather than to concede the awkward reality that there was a significant number of Irishmen and women who had not wanted independence.
It would be easy for me to stand on my historical pedant's drum and demand that we pay attention to the history of the Anglo-Irish because once upon a time they existed and, because of that, they deserve to be properly studied like any other part of history. It would equally be valid for someone to riposte that I'm over-sentimentalising them, in order to make a point about modernity. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of the wealthiest member of the Anglo-Irish community had been far more concerned with preserving the privileges of the aristocracy against (what they saw) as the French Revolution-inspired hysteria of nationalism and from the jumped-up working-class demagogues of the Orange Order, who the Ascendancy loathed just as much as they did the IRA. Maybe there isn't much in the history of the Anglo-Irish that's actually worth emulating? Maybe they were predominantly selfish, reactionary and backward? Maybe the reason why they ultimately vanished from history was because they were an eighteenth century social class trying to live in a twentieth century world? (See below: enjoying their bling-tastic lives.)
But the point about the Anglo-Irish is that they chose and that the real reason that they were written out of Irish history wasn't because of what they did, but because of what they were. And that's the biggest problem in Ireland, then and now: we are far more concerned with what you are than with what you do. What Rory McIlroy captures is a generation that's sick and tired of having their identity forced upon them by history and other people's expectations. Why can't we acknowledge that the past happened and not keep trying to revive its divisions?
Basically, whether you like it or not, eight hundred years ago, in a period with radically different morals and attitudes to war, the English invaded Ireland. They came, they settled, they intermarried. They conquered Ireland, and then they ruled Ireland, with the help of the Irish themselves. Expecting every vestige of a British identity to vanish from the entire island of Ireland is a bit like expecting every immigrant group to vanish from the continental United States. Then again, another awkward fact: whether you like it or not, British rule quite clearly didn't quite work out for everyone and over the centuries, they didn't exactly set themselves to winning hearts and minds, did they? Seven hundred years after the invasion, the vast majority of Irish people chose to expel imperial rule and to become an independent nation. These two developments are historical fact, both the invasion of the 1100s and the independence of the 1900s brought good and bad things. Most things in History do. They have left a whole litany of national identities to chose from. The Anglo-Irish believed themselves to be a fusion of Ireland's cultures; the majority of them were strong monarchists, but many were also enthusiastic supporters of the Gaelic Revival, the Irish language, music, literature and the arts. They were, for better or worse, the original products of a mixed marriage.
It's been nearly a century since Partition. It shouldn't surprise us that people are beginning to question their identities and that we're once again beginning to see a generation that's comfortable calling themselves Irish subjects of the British crown or Irish citizens of the United Kingdom. If you see yourself as solely British, solely Irish or as uniquely Northern Irish, then that's your prerogative. Go for it.
And for all their many faults, perhaps that should be the legacy of the Anglo-Irish: take an interest in all the parts of Ireland's fascinating history, but be prepared to bend the rules a little. People fought and died for it a long time ago; you don't need to fight the same battles again. Don't be too rigid; don't be stuck in any one category. And while you're doing that, do what Rory McIlroy has done - have a strong sense of civic pride and make your homeland proud. After all, despite what we've done to it, it's still one of the best places on Earth. Maybe that's why we get so worked-up about it.