On paper, it would be hard to be more Irish than I am. I have a Northern Irish birth certificate. Treasured family heirlooms — faded, foxed photographs of County Down and the Antrim coast — crowd my closets. On my hard drive resides a digital trove of birth and marriage certificates signed by my great and great-great Irish grandparents and beyond.
But in reality, I’m about as Irish as Bing Crosby singing too ra loo ra loo ra in Going My Way. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of Irish culture and history. I’ve vacationed there only a couple of times. If I saw them together, I couldn’t tell a shillelagh from a hurley (an Irish hockey stick, I’m told).
Like most of my cousins, aunts, and uncles, I was born in Belfast. My parents were raised a few blocks from the site of my own glorious nativity, and my forbears have tended a lovely patch of turf just outside of Newry, near the North/South border for at least two hundred years.
Thanks to ancestry.com and some online archaeology, one of my sisters has documented our family’s tenancy there, generation by generation. My suspicion is that the family laid claim to their few acres beginning in 1609, with the Plantation of Ulster. That’s when James I sent hordes of Scottish and English Protestants across the Irish Sea to seize land owned by those nettlesome Catholics.
My mother’s maiden name is a Scottish one – Cameron – and she was a Protestant. She emigrated to Canada with my father when I was 2 1/2. At the time, I probably babbled with a lilting, Northern Irish brogue — think Liam Neeson or, God forbid, Ian Paisley. But it wouldn’t have taken long for those vowels to flatten out once we got to Toronto. Now, I can’t even do a decent imitation of an Irish accent.
In spite of the hard evidence of my geographic and genealogical provenance, I’m still a mishmash of disparate ingredients — a genetic jambalaya. I know this because, like Joseph Boyden (more on him later), we researched our family’s genome to find out where our roots were first planted.
It turns out that most of my early ancestors were indeed from Ireland. But a substantial number hailed from eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Spain. We may have ended up jabbering in the pub with Guinness-foam flecking our beards, but some of our early ancestors no doubt preferred hoisting an ox horn of chilled, dry Reisling.
The question of my ethnic identity never occurred to me until recently. I’d always thought problems of identity were the province of contemporary art curators and academics looking for a socially relevant Ph.D. thesis. It wasn’t until I performed in a play last year about the Dublin Easter Uprising (it was its 100th anniversary) that it suddenly twigged.
I played the part of Joseph Connelly, one of the tragically shambolic leaders who was executed by the British in 1917. I recited his rousing, angry, and final speech from the dock. Passionately declaiming about the treachery and brutality of the British Empire in my central Ontario regional dialect felt a bit odd. It felt even odder (since I agree with Connelly) denouncing the colonial power that my family had, over countless generations, blindly and enthusiastically supported.
But my discomfort gradually receded and eventually moved to a dusty filing cabinet at the back of my brain — until the debate about Joseph Boyden’s alleged cultural appropriation pried it open again.
It started me thinking: If Boyden doesn’t have the right to speak for First Nations peoples, did I have the right to speak on behalf of an Irishman when I’m really an Anglo-Canadian? Was I appropriating someone else’s culture?
The superficial answer is no, I’m a card-carrying Mick for goodness sake, so what’s the problem? The problem is that my knowledge of Irish history, politics, and culture, as I mentioned, isn’t very substantial. And until I got involved in the play I knew squat about Joseph Connelly. As someone once said in another context, “I knew Joseph Connelly and you’re no Joseph Connelly.”
I’m no Joseph Boyden either. Boyden actually knows about the history and culture of the people he writes about. He has lived and worked in their communities and seems to care deeply about them.
Does he have the right to imagine a fictional world that native people might inhabit? Sure, writers are forever imagining other people’s lives. That’s what they do. I took on the role of Joseph Connelly with some mild discomfort and there are probably moments when he’s writing that Boyden feels the same doubts about his identity.
But that’s not the same as inventing a false persona. What he’s not entitled to do is pretend he’s someone he’s not – a native person. If you read his MacLeans’ piece http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/my-name-is-joseph-boyden/ and get past the tone of earnest desperation, it’s clear his proof is tenuous: a reference to some North American and arctic DNA. How much? He ain’t sayin’. The silence is telling.
There’s no doubt he’s a terrific writer who tells wonderful, sympathetic stories about native people. But, if I find it discomfiting to pretend to be Irish, surely Joseph Boyden, who claims to be First Nations, should too.