How Irish is too Irish?
Now I’ve been in the US a long time I’m valued for what I am rather than where I came from, writes Áine Greaney
I was sitting in one of those corporate cafeterias eavesdropping on the women at the next lunch table. One had vacationed in Thailand. The other had returned from a group tour of Vietnam.
“Over there, it was nothing to see two generations of family crammed into a house no bigger than my living room,” said the Vietnam traveler. “Makes you appreciate what we have here, in America.”
I’m sure I’ll never see that American woman’s living room. But I’m willing to bet that it’s larger—and certainly more weather-proof—than my childhood home in Mayo. And as for that multi-generational-living thing? Yup, we managed to cram two parents, five kids, two grandparents, and the family dog into a thatch-roof house with three tiny bedrooms.
But, sitting there in that air-conditioned cafeteria, did I interrupt my lunch neighbors to say: “Whoa! Wait. You have no clue how it really is. You have no clue about what I learned from my live-in grandparents, or that poverty and cultural exotica are a lot more than the sum of our non-commodities, of what we don’t possess?”
I just kept munching on my salad. Ten minutes earlier, I had ordered and paid for that salad in my best expat patois.
These days (I have since switched jobs), I work as the communications director for a large nonprofit. In my own office, among my own colleagues, I say little or nothing about my rural, west-of-Ireland childhood. Equally, I don’t stand at the office photocopier belting out an old Irish come-all-ye, just as I don’t boast how, once, I used to knit Aran sweaters. You’ll never see me pulling up a boardroom chair to re-tell one of my live-in grandfather’s fireside stories, like that one about how, as a youngster, his mother (my great-grandmother) brought him to town where he saw a huge ship sitting way, way out in the harbour. His mother said that the ship was on a stopover (in Cobh) between England and America. It was called the Titanic.
So as an expatriate in America, am I in a perpetual state of what my late mother called, “putting dogs on windows” (aka pretending or trying to be someone I’m not)?
No. And yes.
In my private, non-working life, among my American friends, everything is fair game. Actually, I’m often the one quizzing them about their childhoods. Even after almost three decades here, I’m still fascinated by this huge, polyglot country where entire families either shipped in or moved out or were dust-bowl displaced across three whole states. But in the workplace, I’m quite content to “pass” as American.
I was 24 years old when I landed at JFK Airport, New York. It was a freezing December afternoon. I had my tatty college army-and-navy rucksack and a borrowed $200 and a set of directions for how and where to catch a Trailways bus.
In my early American years, I worked as a waitress in an Irish-American pub in a jazzy college town. This was the swingin’ ’80s, and, compared to my at-home job of teaching in a rural primary school, that restaurant job was one eye-popping culture shock. Also, in any country or culture, waiting tables is a safari of human behavior: the good, the bad, and the downright weird (especially after midnight).
In that Irish-American pub, for the first time in my life, I had to become—well, Irish. I discovered this “all-Irish” meal called corned beef (yuck) and cabbage. My bar customers ordered this “Irish” beer drink called a Black and Tan. Often, as I served up that pint glass, I used to imagine what my history-buff father would say if you ever offered him any food or beverage by that name.
The first week on the job, I learned that the way I spoke was called a “brogue.” And my “brogue” brought a string of questions: Oh, what brought you here? Don’t you miss your family? Aren’t all you Irish chicks named “Colleen?”
Of course, I was grateful for this all-American chance to reinvent myself from my heretofore parish teacher’s life in which the government signed my cheque, but the church and local priest oversaw my hiring and work performance. So, bit by bit, I began to assume this packaged, offshore brand of Irishness.
Three years after arrival day, I quit that pub gig to take evening classes toward a master’s degree. I also worked a string of day jobs, most of them in offices. I’m not proud to admit this, but as I interviewed for and started each new gig, I wasn’t above laying on the brogue and the Maureen O’Hara charm.
What a 20-something girl doesn’t or cannot yet know is this: Playing to a set of Hollywood stereotypes, to a set of broad-brush cultural assumptions, is “putting dogs on windows”. And worse, it will deplete our sense of self and self-esteem.
I finished that master’s degree and landed better-paid jobs, including my first position in business writing and communications.
In one job, I had to deliver a monthly overview of the organization’s public information policies to all new employees. As an ex-teacher, preparing content and delivering a short, lively presentation was easy. So I assumed that my participant evaluations would be glowing.
Then I scrolled down to those add-on, narrative comments: “I liked the communications woman’s accent.” “Love that accent!” “She’s really cute!”
Gulp. What about my carefully prepared content?
Outside of work, I was also building a career as a creative writer. On both sides of the Atlantic, my publications and bylines were landing me on some book panels and literary readings and public presentations.
More than once, an American listener approached the podium to say: “Heck, with that accent, you could stand there and read the phone book, and I’d sit here and listen.” Meanwhile, at Irish events, more than one listener said: “You? From down the west? Oh! we-ell, you’d think you never even set foot in Mayo!” In America, they have a phrase for this: “damned if you do (be Irish) and damned if you don’t (be Irish).
But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to read any phone books. I didn’t want to have crossed an ocean and navigated a whole new country just to be either cute or fit anyone’s notion of County Mayo.
Then came our 21st-century recession. And with it came a lot less room, a much narrower tolerance, for blather or swagger. In a 2008, 8 to 10 per cent unemployment America, in an America where both the communications and the publishing industries were changing and dipping faster than the Nasdaq, it took hard-core, provable skills to snag a new job. And, in a perpetually merging and downsized workplace, keeping that job means staying trained, ready, and willing to produce the goods.
I find this delightful. I find it really freeing. Without the cultural distractions, I’m just another middle-aged woman with a skill base that’s continually challenged and updated. I’m a woman valued for what I know and what I can do, not for where I came from.
Still, since that day in the lunchtime cafeteria, I have imagined myself turning to those women and regaling them with enough hardscrabble childhood stories to put them off their sandwiches.
We weren’t a poor family. At least by 1970s rural Ireland standards, by how we viewed ourselves or, indeed, where we ranked in our village’s socio-economic pyramid. Based on what I overhead at that lunchtime table, our setup probably didn’t match how those women grew up, but in our village primary school, most of my classmates had live-in grandparents. We kids had a good pair of shoes just for Sunday, plus a warm winter coat. If it had once been a sister’s or a cousin’s coat, what difference?
But in that imaginary lunch speech, the glossary becomes longer than the content. There are more cultural footnotes, more lost-in-translation asides than any of us would have time for.
Often I ask myself: Would it be the same if I moved back to live and work in 2013 Ireland?
Yes. Maybe not to the same degree, but on both sides of the Atlantic, from our florescent, white-walled workplaces to our vapid, buzzwordy chatter, today’s workplaces breed a certain homogenisation. We assume that most or all of us used the microwave on the kitchen shelf or that Dad bought us our first mobile phone for Christmas. For those of us who didn’t, that fear of historic and cultural mismatch, the socio-economic dissonance can keep us reticent or mum about our pasts.
A version of this essay was first published in The Daily Muse and Forbes. Originally from County Mayo, Áine Greaney now lives in Boston where she now works as a communications director, a writing teacher and an author. She has published four books, and many short stories, essays and features in Irish and American publications. Her fifth book (in progress) What Brought You Here is a non-fiction narrative about leaving Ireland, an examination of the act of emigration as an existential, political and spiritual act. See ainegreaney.com.