An explosion of podcasts has seen everything from cuddles to unsolved murder cases examined and presented in the audio world. Flying high amongst them is The Irish Passport, an exemplar model of long-form, multi-voiced, thought-provoking documentary, which invites listeners to consider the many voices and experiences of Ireland and the Irish. Whilst Coronavirus thwarted plans to bring the team over for #LIF2020, it doesn’t stop us sharing their views on exchange or how exchange influences the shape and nature of the programme.
In the context of exchange, The Irish Passport Podcast brings together three major aspects of the island’s identity: culture, history, and politics. Hosted by Naomi O’Leary, European correspondent for the Irish Times, and Tim Mc Inerney, lecturer in cultural history at the University of Paris at Saint-Denis, each episode takes on a theme that forges links between these three dimensions of the Irish experience. As a series “about” Ireland, the podcast has always aimed to recognise that national identity is not a static phenomenon; on the contrary, it is dynamic by definition, only existing through constant engagement and conversation. Ireland, of course, boasts its fair share of national clichés, but the reality of Irishness in any period has always been complex and changeable. As with any country, whatever Irish people do becomes part of their national story, and this narrative is continually being revised and reconstructed by each of us every day.
The podcast has sometimes highlighted how a failure to recognise the importance of exchange can create significant and often harmful gaps in understanding. Perhaps most redolent, in this regard, was the turbulent political moment in which the podcast was founded. Just a few months previously, the Brexit referendum result had unearthed a host of urgent questions about the island’s political future. [On the island of Ireland], the UK’s land border with the Irish Republic was now on course to become the only frontier between the United Kingdom and the world’s biggest trading block. Here, too, the hard-won peace that followed thirty years of bombings and paramilitary conflict was suddenly being undermined. [It fast became clear] that two territories –one which voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain in the EU, and the other which did not vote at all– might bear the greatest brunt of the Brexit fallout. And yet, despite these incredibly high stakes, the topic of Ireland had been almost entirely absent from political debates in Britain before the Brexit vote. Instead, as we discovered on the podcast, there persisted a longstanding and seemingly systemic knowledge gap about the island of Ireland, even among some of the most senior politicians in Westminster. Where there might have been meaningful exchange, superficial assumptions were all too often to be found; in place of solutions, it followed, there seemed to be room only for successive crises.
Such communication failures, of course, have not been confined to the clumsier machinations of Brexit. Across the vast Irish diaspora, outworn ideas of Ireland as a pious, conservative, and arch-traditionalist society have long been at odds with the reality on the island itself. Conversely, suspicions or misunderstandings among the people who live in Ireland about the greater international Irish community are often rooted in reductive stereotypes. Even on the island itself, the two political jurisdictions are only now – twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement – really beginning to come to terms with the diverse political and cultural legacies that have made the country what it is today. Significantly, the recent centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 was conceived not in a spirit of triumphalism or mindless flag waving, but rather in an atmosphere of self-interrogation and national reflection. It not only commemorated the achievements of the independent state over the last 100 years, but acknowledged its many failings. And it asked, in light of those last hundred years, what the people of the nation wanted their country to look like another century from now.
All this has provided rich subject matter for the podcast, which not only delves into the more complicated facets of what it means to be Irish, but endeavours to give voice to those whose perspective has been largely absent from established narratives. In the few years since the podcast began, Irish society has already transformed in ways which would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. Two landmark referendums on equal marriage and abortion access were passed with resounding mandates, not only reflecting a younger generation no longer beholden to the old templates of authority, but also an older generation who have stood up and challenged the mores of their youth. On the podcast, we have heard voices from the Travelling community, who have recently gained ethnic minority status after centuries of persecution at home and abroad. We have spoken to activists and protesters, challenging broken systems like public housing deficiency, healthcare, and systemic racism. We have travelled internationally to speak to those of Irish descent as far afield as Japan. And we have also spoken to people from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland: nationalists who hope one day for a United Ireland, unionists who cherish the continued connection with the United Kingdom, and those who see themselves as something in between – with complex identities and allegiances that do not always fit neatly into grand narratives or eye-catching media headlines. It is here, in what has all too often been considered the “margins”, that the real essence of Irish society can be found. Indeed, it is only by listening to and engaging with all these diverse perspectives that we can begin to recognise the real face of this country.
While the podcast has aimed to narrow some of the more prevalent “knowledge gaps” about Ireland and its greater international sphere, it also recognises that knowledge at one point in time can only achieve so much. To really understand a place, a people, and what its contained in their culture, history and politics, one must become part of this national exchange. All countries are made and remade by their people – and if Ireland in the last few years is anything to go by, it may only take the blink of an eye for those people to entirely reinvent their homeland once again.
Episodes of The Irish Passport Podcast are available on all major podcast providers, and via their website: www.theirishpassport.com. Extra content is also available on the podcast’s Patreon page: www.patreon.com/theirishpassport
We hope we’ll see the team at #LIF2021.