Roisin Ingle on . . .
A recent sunny Africa Day at Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park was one of the best days out I’ve had in ages. Later, when I thought about why I enjoyed it so much I kept coming back to colour: the colour on the endless tribal masks my children drew or the colour on the stunning outfits of participants. Mostly though, it was the skin colours that gave me a lift, the rainbow of skin pigmentation from freckly white Irish to deep brown Kenyan. I felt more at home there, more Irish, than I would have at a GAA match. Being Irish is not what it used to be and that’s a great thing. Whatever else is going on in this country, all the extra colour that’s been added to the pot by immigration regularly puts a smile on my face.
Africa Day left me thinking about Irishness and the versions of it that go under the radar. I’m Irish, for example, but the story goes that my English great-grandfather on my Dad’s side jumped ship at Ringsend in Dublin to settle here. I’m Irish but my mother is from London. I’m Irish but growing up I felt a bit of an outsider not having any ingrained political, religious, sporting or even cultural links to the country. My Irishness was, to a certain extent, my own invention. And sometimes, because it wasn’t textbook Irishness, because I wasn’t really “native” in the way other friends were, I felt a bit different, a little left out.
A reader, let’s call him Brian, told me a story recently that made the point in another way. He’s in his 50s now but he still feels a bit different, a little left out. It was the story of a serving spoon that he keeps in his house in Co Wicklow. The silver spoon bears his family crest and tells part of the tale of his family down in Co Kerry. His wealthy and very privileged grandfather was English and after rearing a family and being widowed there he came to retire in Ireland, married here and went on to have nine more children. Brian’s father was the eighth child, born when his own father was nearly 80.
They lived in a big, comfortable house, the kind of home where the cutlery had a crest, and during the War of Independence part of the house was occupied by the Black and Tans. One day, Brian’s father’s much older stepbrother – let’s call him George – who lived in another house near by, was riding his horse and saw the IRA plant a bomb destined for the Royal Irish Constabulary. George rode on and reported the bomb, saving many lives but setting in motion events that would have devastating consequences for the family. George’s house was raided and burnt out by locals, all their possessions were stolen and he was forced to leave Ireland in an armoured car with his wife. Brian’s father was not burnt out of his house. By that stage his grandfather had died leaving behind nine children and a widow and the line was drawn at burning a clatter of children and a woman out of their home.
A few weeks later Brian’s father, then a young boy, was in the village and saw a woman feeding her chickens with a silver spoon. It had the family crest on it so he knew it had been stolen from his step-brother’s house. After feeding the chickens the woman threw it on the ground and left it there. Brian’s father retrieved it. So now Brian has the family spoon which all these years later he keeps in a sock drawer. He still has the spoon and he still has questions. “Was my step-uncle a hero or a Judas? Should I be proud of him or regard him as a villain in the story of Irish freedom fighters? As Protestants I am still not sure where our place is in Irish history despite Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Lord Edward FitzGerald and the rest. To some we are not Irish. Many of my relatives definitely looked toward Britain ‘for their salvation’ but surely I am a ‘New Prod’, one who can hold my head high in today’s society despite the presence of a dented silver spoon that is longing to shout out its story.”
A few days after Africa Day another Kerry native Una Min Kavanagh, who has Vietnamese heritage, was spat on and racially abused in Dublin. She wrote powerfully about the incident and received widespread support. “They clearly have no idea of the richness a multicultural society can bring. They’re missing out,” she wrote of her attackers. Whether it’s a young woman standing up to racists or the story of a silver spoon in a sock drawer, the many ways of being Irish will always be worth shouting about.