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How Irish Citizenship Ceremonies are changing

Every December, the Department of Justice hosts a ceremony to celebrate Ireland’s newest citizens – and this year was no different. However, the recent rise in Covid-19 cases meant an in-person event wasn’t possible.

So 1,800 new citizens took part in an online ceremony instead.

Citizenship ceremonies in the age of Covid-19

Normally, the naturalisation process isn’t complete until you attend a citizenship ceremony in the flesh and take an oath of fidelity to Ireland in front of a judge. But because of the pandemic, these ceremonies can’t take place. That’s why the Department of Justice implemented a temporary system which allows applicants to become citizens by signing a declaration of loyalty instead.

Since this system was put in place back in January, over 7,400 people have signed the declaration and received their certificates of naturalisation. But the department still wanted to mark the occasion of their becoming citizens, so it began to host online celebrations.

On Monday evening, an hour-long ceremony was live-streamed from EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum to celebrate 3,500 new citizens. This was the third – and largest – virtual event to take place since the start of 2021.

Hosted by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, it featured a song from Irish musician John Spillane, who tuned in remotely, as well as stories and video messages from some of Ireland’s newest citizens. Among them were well-known faces like The Irish Times journalist Charlie Taylor, who is originally from England, and professional footballer Yassine En Neyah, who was born in Morocco.

 

A ten-year-old tradition

Ireland’s first citizenship ceremony took place back in June 2011. A pilot event in Dublin Castle saw 73 people from 24 countries become citizens.

It proved a success and, in that first year, 28 more ceremonies took place around the country. Prior to this, each applicant took their oath in the subdued setting of a local courtroom and later received their certificate of naturalisation in the post.

Now, Irish citizenship ceremonies are more exuberant occasions with whooping and clapping. Some have featured pipe bands, while others had marching soldiers. And they always culminate with the national anthem. (The Garda Band performed it at Monday night’s celebration.)

Since that first event in Dublin Castle, these ceremonies have significantly grown in size. In 2014, new citizens filled the 2,000-seat Convention Centre Dublin. More recently, ceremonies were regularly hosted at the Killarney Convention Centre – which holds up to 2,500 people.

They’re being enhanced all the time too. In 2020, Dr. Brian Ó Curnáin provided participants with a phonetic spelling and translation of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’.

Now that certificates of naturalisation are being posted out once again, they’re accompanied by a heartfelt letter too.

By introducing citizenship ceremonies, the Department of Justice aimed to save the courts time. But it has also enabled people to celebrate their new citizenship in a meaningful and dignified way. Once restrictions ease, it plans to implement in-person events once again.

The history of citizenship ceremonies

The idea of pledging loyalty goes a long way back. Oaths of allegiance held together the feudal structure of Medieval Europe and, 2,000 years ago, subjects in Ancient Rome took an annual oath of loyalty to the emperor.

In the US, new citizens have been required to take an oath of allegiance to the nation ever since 1795. The US was also one of the first countries to hold celebratory citizenship ceremonies. While the date of the first event is difficult to pin down, they were well established by the 1940s.

In May 1944, 1.5 million people attended New York’s Central Park to see 150,000 new American citizens get sworn in. Among them were many Irish emigrants.

But individual court appointments were still in place too. Back in 1946, while filming Miracle on 34th Street, Dublin’s Maureen O’Hara attended the district court of Los Angeles with two character witnesses.

After some bureaucratic difficulties, she became the first person in the US to be officially recognised as an Irish citizen – rather than English. Then she immediately swore allegiance to the United States of America.

Canada held its first citizenship ceremony in 1947 when Canadians were no longer considered British subjects. The Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was first to receive a certificate of Canadian citizenship, followed by 25 other people from countries around the world.

Similarly, Australia’s first ever ceremony was held in 1949 when the law changed to recognise Australians as more than just British subjects.

Recently, citizenship ceremonies have become increasingly common in Europe with France introducing them in 1993 and the UK in 2004.

The oath taken for Ireland

Last Monday evening, hundreds of new citizens appeared on the Department of Justice’s live stream. Sitting at home, many were joined by their families; others tuned in alone. Some donned Ireland jerseys; others waved tricolour flags.

Although they had already signed their declaration of loyalty, together they read out an oath to Ireland.

“I [Name] of [Address], having applied to the Minister for Justice for a certificate of naturalisation, hereby solemnly declare my fidelity to the Irish nation and my loyalty to the State. I undertake to faithfully observe the laws of the State and to respect its democratic values.”

Despite their new commitment to Ireland, attendees were reminded not to forget about their own country. Retired High Court judge, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, who has presided over citizenship ceremonies since 2011, said:

“As you embrace the ways and values of your new country, you must never forget the cultural influences of your homelands. These things are precious to us and are the things people in far away lands associate most with our own country and our own emigrants…

“This love of home and tradition has been kept alive down through the generations and maintaining those traditions has not diminished our presence nor will it diminish your presence in your new country.”

The 1,800 citizens who took part in Monday’s event are now part of an Irish community that spans every continent and includes people from 180 different countries.

Want to learn more about Ireland’s history of emigration? Book your tickets to visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.