Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

They drink green tea in Ireland, and other misinterpretations

Despite her best intentions, Sadhbh O’Dwyer has found herself promoting erroneous images of Ireland repeatedly to eager audiences abroad throughout her life, she writes from England.

Tue, May 8, 2012, 12:18

   

Despite her best intentions, Sadhbh O’Dwyer has found herself promoting erroneous images of Ireland repeatedly to eager audiences abroad throughout her life, she writes from England.

Sadhbh O'Dwyer with her two kids

Back in March, I gave a short talk to my daughter’s primary school in Hampshire about St Patrick’s Day. It had been really heart-warming to talk to this group of eager four- and five-year-olds about the Irish traditions that we practise on St Patricks Day such as eating green food and wearing green clothes. I taught their teachers a two-hand reel and the children enthusiastically leaped around to the Chieftains. One teacher promised a shamrock/leprechaun hunt and it was all going swimmingly until my daughter’s little friend Jocelyn told the class, ‘They must drink green tea in Ireland’. The rest of the class murmured appreciatively and I realised that I’d done it again; I had promoted an erroneous image of Ireland to an eager audience.

This problem of providing a rather confused image of Ireland has dogged me throughout my life. I worked for a year as a lectrice d’anglais (English language teacher) in the University of Nice. On my first day teaching a first year class, I wrote my name in its full Gaelic glory on the blackboard. ‘You write my name Sadhbh but you pronounce it Saive’, I explained. Two young men at the back of the class jumped up and made for the door. ‘If that’s English’, one said, ‘I haven’t a hope of learning it’. And before I could explain that my name has a Gaelic not an English spelling they ran out the door never to be seen again. I have to admit, I do check every now and then to see if an anti-English language learning backlash has occurred in Provence. And if it does happen, I reckon that those two young fellas will be involved.

In 2003, I went to Japan as an English language teacher in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme. I was sent to Fukuyama, a small city near Hiroshima, where I taught English in Myoodai High School. It was a fantastic experience as the teaching staff were fabulous and extremely friendly and the students were very enthusiastic and interested in learning English. I spent a year teaching the children and their teachers all about Ireland. I had Ireland-themed bingo games, I played Irish music in class, taught my classes how to do Irish dancing and to make brown bread. One weekend I found myself at a local town festival where I was shoved on top of a lorry and asked to teach Irish to the crowd. ‘Dia dhaoibh minna-san’, I said and they answered back with ‘Konnichiwa a chairde gael’. I thought I had done a wonderful job of bringing Ireland to Japan. At the end of my teaching year, the students wrote me beautiful letters of thanks with fabulous drawings and heartfelt extortions to stay in Japan. And at least half the students expressed a desire to visit my home country of Iceland. Iceland sounds very similar to Ireland in Japanese. This also explains why the principal used to always ask me about the volcanos back home. The Icelandic tourist board owes me a big debt as generations of Japanese students will no doubt make the trek to Iceland to listen to Irish music and eat brown bread.

I’ve been living in the UK now for seven years, first in Wales and now in England. In post-devolution Wales I was feted as a true Celt, Ms Ultimate Irish Person, while my poor husband, a lowly Londoner, was decidedly uncool. The lovely people in the Swansea shops used to ask ‘Are they all like you?’ I seemed to tick every stereotype in the book: pale, red-haired, Catholic, easy-going and fond of potatoes. However, it was a little uncomfortable to be viewed as Ms Ultimate Irish Person. I wanted to say time and time again that you don’t have to be Catholic to be Irish, you don’t have to have red hair, many people in Ireland are neurotic and lots of people eat cous-cous now. Yet again, I fell into the trap of depicting a picture of Ireland that was not strictly true (although, to be fair, all the advertising from the tourist board and the ferry companies seems to resort to the cliché of a red-haired wan in an aran jumper).

Since moving to England two years ago, I no longer carry the Ms Ultimate Irish Person tag. It is a great relief to be simply viewed as a person rather than as a true representative of my country. Perhaps this is due to England’s long history of multiculturalism as well as the warm welcome I have received from our local community. I have also reflected on the misinterpretations of Ireland that I have given others. Who is to say what is a strictly true representation of Ireland? All these interpretations are constructs in the first place. There is a freedom in creating a country of volcanos whose citizens only drink green tea. And I must admit, it is great fun to tell your children that everyone loves Bosco in Ireland.

 

Sadhbh O’Dwyer is a freelance writer and copy-editor. Her blog is www.niceirishlady.wordpress.com, www.hireascribe.co.uk.

 

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