Subscriber OnlyAbroad

As an Irish emigrant, I’m not supposed to talk about butter. I’m supposed to talk about James Joyce and Seamus Heaney

The rules change when you emigrate: your moaning card, if not your passport, is revoked

When you’re an Irish emigrant writing in an Irish newspaper, there are certain expectations at home.

One is that you don’t complain about Ireland too much. That can seem more smug and annoying coming from an Irish person living elsewhere.

The other is that you don’t romanticise Ireland too much. That can seem credulous and naive – generally, Irish people do not speak positively of Ireland among themselves, but we do hold a typically postcolonial belief in our country’s potential to be better.

The problem with these two expectations, I’ve observed, is that both romanticising and complaining about Ireland are key features of Irish people, whether or not they’re living at home. Irishness entails dissonance. We’ll be dreadfully embarrassed that we don’t have a rail link to the country’s primary airport but then someone will say, “Ah sure it’s better because it inconveniences all the American tech workers trying to get back to San Francisco. Maybe if those companies paid more tax we’d have a jaysusing airport train.” And then someone else will say something intimating that Ireland would be a Celtic utopia with all that tech money we’re duly owed (because the companies would, of course, definitely stay put if we taxed them more – they’re in Ireland for our charm and culture) and Wednesday afternoon would continue as usual.


All this is to say that for an Irish emigrant – as for an Irish person – moaning and romance are key cultural touchstones, but the standards shift when you emigrate. When we leave, we’re supposed to come over all solemn and behave as though our lives are some sort of diplomatic mission designed to help the world take Ireland seriously. We’re not meant to let the side down. People at home don’t want us to get arrested for public drunkenness or to talk too much about butter, especially in The Irish Times. It makes us all look a smidgen unsophisticated. Someone’s passport might be revoked.

And yet, this particular column may well be a bit embarrassing at home because it is, in fact, about butter. It may appear like one of those undisclosed TikTok ads. I promise you, though, that it isn’t an ad. It’s more of a love letter to Kerrygold (a company that hardly needs to advertise to Irish people anyway). As an Irish emigrant, I know I’m not supposed to talk about Kerrygold. I’m supposed to talk about James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, and chuckle about the horrendous state of British politics.

I can get Barry’s Tea here in my local Australian supermarket (it costs a relatively hefty 12 Australian dollars (€7.34) but Barry’s has me in a chokehold so I’ll pay whatever I have to) but I cannot get hold of Kerrygold. There isn’t a huge Irish community here in Canberra. Most of us live in Sydney and Melbourne, where I don’t doubt the gold stuff is more readily available. Here, though, the Irish section of the supermarket is subsumed under a mildly insulting label reading “UK”, so shopping from it feels like a bit of a historical backslide. The Barry’s is placed next to boxes of PG Tips (unacceptable) and beneath McDonnell’s Curry Sauce, jars of Branston Pickle and bars of Fry’s Chocolate Cream.

I can’t imagine who is buying the latter but they have my sympathies.

Kerrygold was what my mother horsed liberally on to toast before school on cold winter mornings (back when carbohydrates were a meal and not a component of one). It was what was hefted over steamed potatoes in medically inadvisable helpings and grated, chilled, into flour for rough puff pastry when we baked together. One of my least favourite aspects of British cuisine when I lived in London was the ascetic butter. It shatters over bread flintily, like a slate falling from a roof on a chilly day. Flavourless, saltless, joyless, it is a deeply futile food. Thankfully, you can get Kerrygold easily in London, and I did.

It is not just a flavour of home, but of childhood. So I’m perfectly conscious that there is a subjective element to the preference. We favour the familiar and when it comes to food, what we love is often just what is habitual. Those habits are formed in our formative years when certain foods become tied up with concepts of safety, love and belonging. There is nothing about Kerrygold that makes it objectively better butter than any other.

Except that it simply is objectively and theoretically better than every other butter. You might wax philosophical and ask, “How can we know that our favourite foods are objectively superior rather than simply selected for us by culture, environment and economic circumstances?” You might indeed ask that. And I might tell you to pipe down and pass the Kerrygold before my toast gets cold. Because it’s nicest when it’s a bit melty but doesn’t fully disappear into the bread so that when you bite it you can feel it squish a bit beneath your teeth.

I’ve had to do without Kerrygold in Canberra (unless any Australian black market buttermongers are reading this, in which case please get in touch). Can I then be blamed for yearning for this staple of Irish daily life as an emigrant so far from home, and for romanticising a bit?

The reality is that Irish culture polices expressions of Irishness. We don’t like those who left thinking idealistically of home when they aren’t doing the time, as it were, in the less exalted aspects of Irish life. But nor do they want us – those who left – speaking negatively of the things that pushed us from home.

Thinking well of Ireland when you live there is considered deluded.

Thinking badly of Ireland when you live there is a means of bonding with other Irish people.

But when you leave, the rules change along with the butter. Your moaning card, if not your passport, is revoked. Romanticising becomes a bit sad rather than optimistic.

We’re tough on one another, at home and abroad.