By Francine Cunningham
On 17th March every year, it seems like everyone in the world can find some trace of Irish ancestry, at least enough to raise a glass or two in honour of St Patrick. Yet if the roles were reversed, which nationality would Irish people identify with the most? Could it be the Italians with their papal pageantry and matriarchal families, the Russians with their love of poetry and hard liquor, or the Viking blood of the independent-minded Norwegians?
In fact, I would argue that it is none of the above. The people that the Irish have most in common with are… the Belgians.
It’s a theory that first came to me when I was in Bruges, standing in front of a painting by the Flemish expressionist, Constant Permeke. There was something about the images of those farm labourers with their flat caps and big, brutally honest hands that resonated with me. They could have been figures from my childhood visits to Donegal.
Go back a few generations and both Ireland and Belgium were largely composed of a rural peasantry. Both are small countries with a history of being colonised by larger European nations. Significantly, both countries continue to carry complexes from that time, sometimes unnecessarily lacking in confidence and too often overly concerned about what others think of them.
Both countries are steeped in Catholic traditions. In Ireland, the “wake” is a grand party to celebrate the life of the person who has just deceased, while in Belgium funerals are an equally important occasion. So much so that the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was heard to remark that Belgian funerals are better than Dutch weddings.
Maybe it’s buried somewhere deep in the (post-)Catholic psyche that the citizens of both countries feel the need to turn to figures of authority to intervene on their behalf. In Ireland, politicians (TDs) hold constituency “clinics” where local people can come and ask for intervention to solve a particular problem, while in Belgium politicians offer a similar local service called “politiek dienstbetoon”.
Another fortunate characteristic of both countries is that widespread sinning can be followed by confessing.
Both countries struggle to accommodate the different senses of identity that exist within their borders, although Belgium’s community tensions between the Flemish and the francophones have thankfully not led to a major escalation of violence.
Both Ireland and Belgium are intensely introspective and self-critical, but at the same outward-looking, with well-travelled citizens. These citizens are also welcomed in most places since they are free from much of the baggage and bravado of larger lands.
It goes without saying that both Ireland and Belgium are known for their dismal and soggy climate. Maybe that is why my fellow countrymen need to warm up with Irish stew, while the Belgians have their slow-cooked “stoofvlees”. Of course, Ireland is the country of the potato and Belgium is the land of “frites”.
Both nationalities also share a great capacity for hard work and an equally impressive capacity for brown ale, whether stout or Trappist beer, either downed in a pub or a ‘brown café’.
Irish sporting hero and Tour de France star, Sam Bennett, who was actually born in Menen in deepest Flanders to Irish parents, famously took to the internet last year to protest when the Tour organisers put a Belgian flag against his number. He commented: “Ammm, did I miss something? I was fully sure I was Irish.”
Just maybe he protested too much.
Isn’t it time for the Irish to recognise their closest continental cousins? After all, there is more than one way to wear a green jersey.