Identity as our moral starting point

In June 2003, I flew from Belfast to Washington D.C as part of a programme called the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP). A programme that brings together young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington D.C to work together, play together, break down prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about one another in the hope of building and sustaining peace in Ireland.

I always felt a bit different to the rest of the group. I am Irish-Malaysian. I was born in Ireland; I spent my childhood in Malaysia; my adolescence in England; and my young adulthood in Ireland. I found it hard to relate to the troubles of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the South. To boot, I have an English accent, which made me feel very self-conscious about having any claim to Ireland at all.

When I first came to Brussels, I was invited to a few events organised by the Irish Embassy. There, I met fellow Irish interns but I always felt uncomfortable being around them because I felt like a fake. When asked where I was from, I would say Dublin and name the area where I lived during my University years. I would then explain my accent, which ended up being a recount of my life in ten seconds. I always got the impression that they didn’t really believe that I was from Dublin. The truth is, I didn’t believe it either.

When I decided to not let things matter so much and be honest with myself, my Irish identity was one of the hardest things I had to grapple with and understand. The first thing I accepted was that I am not just Irish: I am Irish, I am Malaysian and I am – in a way – British too. Once I accepted that, I decided that I had every right to go to Irish events and to be considered Irish. But, I would be honest about who I was. Since taking this approach, I have felt more at ease and open at these events. I’ve made more Irish friends and I have felt – strangely – more Irish.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about our nation’s history, culture, our ancestry and our family as constituting our moral starting point. He writes in his book After Virtue that all these circumstances and characteristics are in part – he quotes – “…what gives my life its own moral particularity“. It is from this moral starting point that we can move forward and figure out “the good life”.

My ancestors, my mother, my father, my birthplace, my nations’ histories and cultures all provide the framework of who I am. As I flip through my WIP scrapbook of ten years ago, I finally understand this touching note from one of my classmates given to me just before leaving D.C: “You have an amazing story – let the world hear it!! Be a foreign ambassador for us and Ireland. You go girl.”

As we continue to understand who we are and where we come from, we continue to move forward in figuring out our concept of the good life.