The Fifth Province

I’ve often heard of Ireland being described as the 51st state, given her close connections with the USA. Back in 2019, in a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, nearly 10%, some 30 million Americans, identified as having Irish ancestry. Given that Ireland’s population that same year stood just shy of 5 million, that’s a pretty remarkable statistic.

Hungary as the fifth province of Ireland though, the numbers in my head simply didn’t add up. I know there are more Hungarians in Ireland than there are Irish in Hungary but nowhere near enough to make up a fifth province, I’d have thought.

Up until the eleventh century, Ireland did indeed have five provinces: Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connacht and the Middle Kingdom, Mídh (Meath), which shared a border with each of the other four.

I get the notion of a fifth, ethereal province being Ireland’s diaspora,  anchored as they are around the world. But Hungary?

I took out a pen and paper, set the stopwatch on my phone for 60 seconds and made a list of the Irish-Hungarian connections that immediately came to mind.

  1. James Joyce and Szombathely
  2. The painting of our Blessed Lady in Győr
  3. Irish musicians studying at the Kodaly Institute
  4. The Hungarian Yeats Society
  5. The Seamus Heaney Memorial Lecture
  6. Áran Bakery
  7. James Michener on Hungarians being the Irish of Eastern Europe
  8. Lazlo Jewellers in Galway
  9. The Hungarian chap whose name I can never remember who illustrated Ulysses
  10. The IHBC
  11. St Patrick’s Festival in Budapest
  12. Hungarian bands that play Irish music – Firkin, Paddy and the Rats,
  13. Hungarian dancers dancing with Riverdance
  14. Eglantina Remport’s book on Lady Gregory and Irish National Theatre: Art, Drama,
  15. The Hungarian girl who approached me after a gig one night and opened the conversation by talking in Irish
  16. Jack Doyle’s, Becketts, Davy Byrnes
  17. Irish-bred horses running in the Hungarian Grand National
  18. The fellah who….

And my time was up.

Then the penny dropped. The fifth province has nothing to do with a place or an event; it’s more a state of mind.

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson mentioned the fifth province in her inaugural speech in 1990:

The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west.  It is a place within each one of us – that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in. 

This conversation with myself started when I read that the website had launched recently at the Embassy of Ireland in Hungary. I was curious to know more.

Like all good ideas, it started slowly, geminating over time, before another need validated it.

It was born out of a conversation over ten years between Krisztina Kodó (Kodolányi János University, Chair of the Department of English Language and Literature) and József Papp (ELTE, Doctoral student). Kodó had the idea and Papp gave it form. Their vision was to build a repository for the various Irish cultural centres in Hungary, a one-stop shop if you will, where people interested in all things Irish could go see what was on.

Papp, building perhaps on Mary Robinson’s description of the fifth province, envisioned

an artificially created world where information is collected, disseminated, and shared. The blog should be conceptualised as an imaginary fifth province, a digitally inclusive surface where Hungarians can feel a bit more at home in (and away from) Ireland.

Irishness. That’s what the Fifth Province is about. And sadly, Papp’s untimely death meant he didn’t get to see the first draft of his idea take solid form. Kodó was joined by  Kitti Enyedi, Lajos Kovács, and Károly Káli-Rozmis, all former KJE students who share this sense of Irishness.

As Kovács point out when I was chatting to him this week:

Irishness is an identity not only belonging to Ireland; Irishness is found in Hungary, too.

Hordes of Hungarians who have lived in Ireland are now back in Hungary doing their thing. Arán Bakery and the Celtic Barber are two cases in point. Like many of their ilk, they’ve brought back some of that Irishness with them. There’s a living connection.

I take inordinate pride in people identifying with Ireland but am honest enough to hold up my hand and admit that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I was quite precious about Irishness. In my early days in America, I had my fill of Irish Americans who would start a conversation by telling me they were Irish. No, I’d think to myself, you’re not. You were born in the States. Your parents were born in the States. Your granny might have come from Ballydehob but that doesn’t make you Irish. When I heard President Robinson’s Cherishing the Diaspora speech in 1995 I was duly chastened. I am grateful that I have since had the opportunity to tell her how much her words changed my outlook. In it, she spoke of Irishness as not simply being territorial, mentioning people ‘who may never have seen this island but whose identity with it is part of their own self definition’.

Recently launched (and supported) by the Embassy of Ireland in Hungary, has the potential to become the place to go to find out what’s on offer around the country when it comes to Irishness. Be it their listing of Irish scholars and universities offering Irish studies, the various Irish societies operating in Hungary, or the listing of events with an Irish connection, this will be the place to go, the doorway as it were, to Irishness in Hungary.

But like anything else, it will only work if everyone uses it.

If you have an event that falls under the umbrella of Irishness, let them know. If you offer a course of study or are doing something connected with Irish literature or the arts, let them know. If you play Irish music or hurling or Gaelic football, drop them a line. The key to realising the fifth province is participation.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 November 2021


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