On Wednesday we had a guest speaker in our Irish Life and Cultures class. Being something to do with school, I was expecting someone who would come and teach us something I could learn from a book, maybe with a dash of experience, but I was not anticipating what I got instead.
Our speaker was Craig Cooney, the minister at St Catherine’s Church. As a native of Northern Ireland by birth, but a citizen of the Republic of Ireland by passport, he had a lot to say about identity and I certainly had a lot to learn. He told us of the very Protestant family and lifestyle he grew up with, where it was more of a way of life than a religious belief. He told us of his family tradition, going back generations, of joining the Orange Order. And he told us of his difficult decision to forge his own path, defy his family’s expectations and form his own identity through not joining this order, moving to Dublin and eventually becoming a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. His story was incredible and strong, but what truly resonated with me was what he learned from it and what he had to teach us from it.
Never let something or someone identify you. No matter what, be your own person, make your own decisions and learn to evolve from your experiences. Everything we do in life changes us, whether we see it or not. He used us as an example, saying that, even though it isn’t noticeable now, when we return to the US our friends and family will note that we have changed. We may have matured, become more independent, less cautious or all of the above. Something inevitably will be different; I see it as my time here in Dublin becoming part of my identity.
I have learned so much about Ireland’s history and culture and I think that that has rubbed off on me significantly. It’s easy for identities to get in the way; I’ve seen the effects of that in Ireland’s past. This talk, though, helped me realize that identity is just a way of labeling people, categorizing them and filing them away. If people weren’t so caught up in labeling each other for what they are instead of whom, things may have progressed a little bit differently. So what if someone is Protestant or Catholic, does it make their kindheartedness any less genuine? I didn’t think so. I still find it amazing the way Craig forged his own path against the one made for him and refused to settle to be identified for something he wasn’t. I believe it takes real courage to defy something like that, but it clearly was worth it.
The more people I talk to here in Ireland, the more perspective I gain on the Northern Ireland troubles. This person helped me realize how much of an impact labels and stereotypes had on them. It wasn’t about religious beliefs so much as it was about who’s what and particularly, who’s different. Just because people had different views, other needed to exert power to prove their identity and power. They let their identities as Catholics and Protestants define them when at the end of the day, weren’t they all Christian?