Emigration has been a feature of Irish life since the “great potato famine”. Indeed, since the great calamity there have been few years where immigration replaced emigration. From my own perpective, I was brought as a young child away from Ireland. The story goes that it was a tester to see whether we might move further. My Dad had always been keen to move to Australia. That didn’t happen. Instead of the sun and beaches of Oz, I grew up with a small Irish community around me on the Isle of Man. Noted internationally as 70,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock, I was surrounded by a few ex pats who moved away and were unlikely to return. With that in mind, I grew up not too far from ‘home’ but experiencing a somewhat odd version of the familiar Irish experience abroad.
A friend commented recently on Facebook that it was “amazing how most people want to get off this rock but you want to get back!” in relation to my excitement about a trip to Ireland. He meant it in the best of spirits, but it did prompt me to think about my relationship with the land of my birth and how it compares. The necessity to create a blog post to clarify my own thoughts on the matter were further compounded by recent reading books from Shappi Khorsandi and Dara O’Briain. SO, for me, home is where now?
Perhaps the real tragedy of Irish history is the Irish can’t forget, but the English can’t seem to remember.
In most countries, only the victories and moments of glory are recorded in the history books. As I experienced first hand, there is little to nothing on the history syllabus in England that deals with the Irish famine, 1798, or the Irish war of independence, or for that matter the Scottish clearances. When there is so much ‘good’ history to celebrate, why bother looking at such pesky trivialities as ethnic cleansing or military defeat? True, in a modern and international world it is probably about time to ‘move on’, but at least with events involving the death and oppression of millions – the Germans and the Jews, India’s revolution, the rise of a political change across Africa and most of America’s history when viewed from multiple perspectives it is rare that recanting the past is seen as a cultural failure. For many reasons, not least the morphing of old Irlsh patriotic republication-ism to a newer 1980s armed terrorism – nationalism for many years was resigned to the extremes. The Irish at home have, in the Celtic Tiger years, developed an unusual negativity about their own nation. A negativity, it must be noted, that is rarely experienced by those who did not experience those decades first hand. Instead, it is seen as a very significant bond.
800 years later
Winston Churchill famously commented “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.”. Personally, I never really settled in the British Isles. I felt oppressed and shut down. I didn’t always fit in. On reflextion, is was probably part Anti Irish prejudice and equal part Anti-annoying-pain-the-ass-prejudice. I wasn’t always an easy kid to get along with. Moving between schools, I was never domesticated. My argumentative and opinionated nature (which I would claim to be an inherited characteristic) was fueled if not facilitated by those around me. I bought all the jerseys, followed the teams and screamed at the TV at all the right moments. Taytos, Club Orange, Barrys Tea, Brunches and Loop Da Loops – I lived on food parcels. Delighted to get them – every bite was savoured. I’ve long drawn affinity with the Exiles of London Irish and Celtic FC. Then I found Munster to adequately represent my homelessness. An Irish childhood supplemented by holidays and an extended (and overly active) University residence are my experiences of Ireland. My accent has never really been particularly geographically clear. THanks to prounced “TH”s I was never a ‘local’ in Waterford, while a dual accent split between a comfortable homelife Irish brogue and a practiced neutral tone for school was maintainable if not entirely awkward and forced.
Where do I call home, and what do they call me there?
In University, they classed me as an ‘International Student’ for economic reasons rather than heritage based ones (my fees were not covered by the Irish state due to my time outside of Europe). At times I felt like one of the many (so called) plastic paddies from children of the Irish diaspora wearing the sashes of the New York rose. In fact, I even spoke at a conference about being an international student. Recounting my own experience of Irish society – from the unusual ‘in between’ position I occupied i.e. not all that international and not all that Irish. At this stage, I’ve no spent more time in Cork than I have in Waterford. I’ve spent longer in the Isle of Man than both. My formative education was on the ‘rock’ while my higher education in Irish Politics and History was from ‘source’. The language and seminal shared marks on the national psychie -such as “the leaving”, social slang, All-Ireland hysteria and political/popular incidents of note – werent my shared experience. Regardless of what I book learn, they never will be. On the whole, people accept me for what I appear to be – as Irish as bad weather. However, when in Ireland, I did revert at times to a one man walking advertisement for the Isle of Man. Recounting its unusual political arrangements and social oddities in the same way I had about Ireland to the Manx. From my experience, Irish people appreciate a conversational oddity – which this certainly was. In retrospect, I think the residents of the Isle of Man were probably similar – but its very easy to be offensive when overly reminiscing to the detriment of your hosts.
As I get older, my views on the place I had been know to refer to as ‘Anthrax Island’ have matured and changed. Shaped by things like my brother, my education and my first jobs. All of which have been very informative on my view of the island. With Sinéad here the last week, I think I appreciate the Isle of Man more than ever before. Kind and welcoming and fiercely protective of their Island – the traditional locals, the Manx, are as close to the Irish as any distant population. I appreciate this national pride, the shared culture and similar heritage. I’m also appreciative of the opportunities it has afforded me. The Isle of Man is also truly beautiful place.
As for Ireland, I’m always happy to return. Its never a challenge or a struggle. I will always shout on the teams and I will always return ‘home’. I aim to speak in Irish Gaelic to my children whenever they may come and where ever we may be. But as close friends move away in search of their own experience ‘abroad’ and I move on in search of work – I suspect my shallow planted roots will become even more disturbed. Regardless of these connections, I’m not sure I will ever return there permanently. Primarily I’d miss the buzz of coming ‘home’, but In truth, I’m not sure I could settle anywhere now. Mostly of my own creation, I’m a child of the world rather than any real place.
Of Ireland more generally, in a time when its national identity is seen as stumbling, I think we’re witnessing a profound sense of cultural uncertainty. Internationalization may well be damaging Irelands sense of common values and heritage. With good fortune, this is just a phase that will settle as international uncertainty does. Hopefully, as its perception of its place in the world reaffirms, Ireland will be more outwardly proud, supportive and protective of those Irish away from home that are willing and working for its recovery.
Full video of “In the name of the Grandfather” – Simpons in Ireland