Suddenly everyone has views on Ireland.
This is not something we are accustomed to. For several decades now, our international reputation has largely been characterised by positive, if occasionally patronising, stereotypes. Seen as Europe’s affable scamps, we are widely considered hospitable, fun, intoxicated (that one clings on unfortunately, despite the similar or more enthusiastic imbibing habits of European neighbours) and decent. Our well-used passports are among the best to have, gaining us access to most countries without disproportionate difficulty.
It’s a good thing too, since our reputation as a nation of emigrants is far from groundless. Irish people all over the world – including me, first in the UK and now in Australia – are immigrants. For generations, we have made homes in new places. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Irish emigrants and their ancestors globally amount to about 70 million people.
We really, as they say, get around.
As immigrants, we have assimilated all over the world and contributed to the conception of the Irish as salt of the earth types. Convivial. Hardworking. That wasn’t always the case, but it has been for decades now. Our national reputation is as true and as untrue as everyone else’s.
We are not considered by those outside our shores to be a particularly big player on the world stage. Fair enough. We’re small. It’s where our sense of community comes from. A long history of colonialism and religious rule has left us with a habit of reliance on larger powers. Ireland operates under an awareness that economically, politically and culturally, we do not and cannot exist in isolation. It is enmeshed in our collective psychology. We seek top-down solutions to problems.
Here in Australia, Ireland is generally relevant only to Irish people. That’s fair enough. Public conversation here recently has focused unsurprisingly on Israel and Gaza, China and of course, domestic news.
The day after the Dublin riots, I sat outside a well-known Canberra ice-cream shop with a group of about 10 people I’d never met before. All were based here in Australia, but several nationalities featured. I was the only Irish person in the group. Sitting amid the lively conversation, I thought about the situation and discourse then unfolding at home. The event – a tragic act of obscene violence against children and a woman who tried to protect them – marked a turning point in Irish consciousness. The frightening rage and chaos on streets I’d traversed a thousand times. The enthusiastic readiness of many to engage in and escalate that violence once it began. The deep and irrefutable lack of cohesion it revealed within Irish society. The panicked messages I had sent in the middle of the night to my brother, knowing that he, his wife and their young family happened to be staying in central Dublin that night. The hope that they were nowhere near the violent eruptions. The fear for everyone at home.
Events in Dublin have been utilised as fodder for conversation on wider issues such as immigration, class, race, gender and the classic Irish government response to a crisis
Nobody in the group outside the ice-cream shop seemed aware of the situation in Dublin. Even if they had been, it did not arise as a topic sufficiently important to discuss. I understand why – they had no connection to Ireland. No frame of reference through which to consider it. To them, it would simply have been an inconsequential news story about something happening in an unrelated place on the other side of the world. We all ignore these sorts of stories all the time.
They rarely spoil our taste for ice cream.
Sadly, Ireland has featured prominently in international news since then. It has been unpleasant to witness from Australia, though I can’t imagine it has been less so closer to home. Little of the coverage has been positive. Events in Dublin have been utilised as fodder for conversation on wider issues such as immigration, class, race, gender and the classic Irish government response to a crisisreactivity without reflection.
As an Irish emigrant, you have a duty to immerse in the new place to which you have committed. You cannot fail to get on with your life elsewhere, even when things are bad at home. There is both a physical and a temporal distance. I now live 11 hours ahead, so news from home is often something I wake up to in the morning, by which time it has lost the sting of its first freshness in Ireland. I must experience it at a remove. The distance is too great to overcome, but emigrants are still connected to home.
I have been in Australia for three months and have nothing but goodwill toward the country that has taken me in. Assimilation is a slow process and an incomplete one. I do not yet know how long I will be here. I don’t know if time will fray my connection to home or even if it can be displaced by a more imminent relationship to a new place.
Like so many Irish abroad, I have felt intense distress for my country since the awful events of that day. I go to bed with the distance tugging at my ribs like a length of sharp wire. I have thought about how we arrived at this point and worried about what comes next. I’ve lamented that both are the remit of weak leadership none of us seem to consider up to the job.
And yes, I have felt embarrassed by Ireland. By the version of us we have revealed to the world and to ourselves. By our resistance to own what we have seen within our national consciousness and to face it.
This is a difficult time to be Irish, no matter where you live.