My Speech

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As you are probably aware, I gave a speech at the Alliance Francaise/UCC European Symposium on “European CItizenship”. My speech was on National Identities withing European Identity and Culture. I got great feedback on the speech so I decided to share it with you.

Presidents, Excellencies, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

What am I? Irish or European? When I go abroad, I rarely get told I am Irish, well that is until I open my mouth, but even at that they can get confused to where I am from within Ireland. So for me this idea of being European is a natural definition of my identity.

But am I alone in this feeling? Is it only because I don’t have an Irish accent and my sallow skin, that I think this or is it there something else, something deeper?

Recently a number of us in the European Bloggersphere managed to have a bit of an identity crisis, so I am not alone in this feeling. Younger generations, I think are feeling more European. But is it because we are growing up in a Europe that is a lot closer to us and the fact we learn more about Europe in School. Or is it as some would say it is thanks to ease of international travel with Ryanair and other low-cost airlines and the fact that the internet can bring places closer to us. We can chat to people in other countries easily online with new technologies. But is it just traveling and technology that is bringing us closer or is there something more, something more basic, something deeper that unites us.

Some argue, though that being European is “aspirational”. Conor Slowey sums this up quite well on his blog “The European Citizen” when he said “When I think of Europe, I think of its diversity and its languages and its traditions, and I want to travel, explore and experience all of the little differences, while I still feel at home. To me it’s not rootless cosmopolitanism, but a deep appreciation for many roots and a desire to feel a part of the different places and people that I meet.”

Coming back to identity, national identies though are social constructs, they are formed by what we see around us, by our expeirences and by what matters to us. My church recently sent around a questionaire on identity, it seems to be all the rage lately, and it gave the following options for describing an identity:

  • Class
  • Religous Denomination
  • Nationality
  • Political Beliefs
  • Race
  • Gender

Of those only two would mean something to me as part of my identity, the others would not mean much to me. A big issue of course with identity, is some parts of it you have very little choice over, for example if we take the list the church gave only of two of those can be changed some what easily, Religous Denomination and Political Beliefs. The rest is decided at birth. Granted class can change over time depending on circumstances but you can’t decide in the moring you will become Upper Class, while you can wake up in the morning and decide to vote for a different party in future.

There is an interesting excercise around identity in non-formal education. Basically you draw a flower and on each of the petals write one thing that describes your identity. I did this on a Anna Lindh Training Programme and it was very interesting and you would surprise yourself with what you would come up with. I know the first thing I wrote down was European, the second was Irish.

That is not new for me though. I can remember having conversations in secondary school about this with friends, and I am sure I was definately then in the minority that thought myself European first and Irish second. I still think that way today, as that excercise showed.

I don’t think national identity and European identity are mutually exclusive, being European to me means that I am broad minded, that I speak more then one language, that I have expeirenced life in another country, I start counting with my thumb, that I have expeirenced Europe. That is a very personal definition, because I have friends that haven’t lived outside of Ireland and feel as European as I do. European Identity is a very personal thing, just as with Irish Identity people put different emphasis on different things. To some being Irish is all about the language, to others its the traditions, to others its the sport. There is no single Irish Identity, while all these do come together to form the Irish Culture.

Identity is a personal thing, no one can impose one on you, unless you let them. In one sense sterotyping is trying to force an identity on someone. For example when I say I am Irish, people think “party” and “drinking”, but there is more to me then just partying and drinking. So I always try to define myself by actions, that is how we take control over our identity.

So Irish Identity feeds into European Identity. By saying I am European is not saying I am less Irish, but there is this European aspect to me, which influences how I react, what I say and what I do. It influences how I approach problems, how I deal with friends and how I behave. It isn’t this thing that suddenly appeared thanks to the Maastricht Treaty which gave us rights as European Citizens.

These rights that were given to us under the Treaties and which have expanded under subsequent treaties. These have not changed how European I feel, but I think they have helped in increasing the feeling for others.

Identity is something that is fluid, that it changes over time, that it can expand with new experiences, and that who you are can change. Being European is something, not to aspire to, but to be in your own way. Again we have no choice in our identity, but we do have control over what makes up the important parts of our identity, to me that is what I have learned, my experiences, my loves, my dislikes, and my friendships. In a year in which we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall I leave you with the words of a German Blogger, Julien Frisch,

“Today, I live in a Union that opens its borders internally but is closed down to the world outside its own borders. 20 years after the Wall – the material representation of the division of Europe – was torn down, Europe is still divided. There are those who are in . And those who are not.

As a former East German, I will continue to fight against these borders, because I want to share what I received, not least because I have plenty to share. I want everyone in. And I am ready to invest myself as much as I can to reach this goal.

48 years ago, the Wall was constructed. 20 years ago, its material representation removed. It is time to remove its immaterial leftovers!!”

A few people did help with the speech and I would like to thank Joe Litobarski for pointing me in the direction of a few articles on this area, my good friend Sean for reading over the speech and pointing out all my mistakes, and of course to Hélene and Cécile in Alliance Franciase du Cork for asking me to speak and for all their help!

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Author: Stephen

Cork born and bred, proud European and Irishman. Involved in many organisations and politics. Also writes for SpirtualityIreland.org and UCC Express.

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