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Our relationship with Britain will always be a bit weird, like making friends with your former school bully

In Australia, people I talk to seem slightly embarrassed by the fact that the king is still knocking around

Princess Diana and Prince Charles in Australia in 1983. Australia’s relationship with Britain is very strange. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

One of the refreshing elements of living in Australia as an Irish person is that the weight of Ireland’s colonial history is too heavy to carry all this way. The airlines really batter you with fees on extra checked bags so you mostly just bring what you anticipate you’ll need to stay alive.

Despite what Irish history teaches us, it turns out we won’t die if we leave the history at home or put it down for a bit and have a little rest for ourselves.

Living in the UK is another matter, kicking up as it does all sorts of imperial dust for an Irish person. There’s the baffling lack of working knowledge most British people seem to have about the stickier, ickier elements of their country’s bygone glory. They don’t teach it in schools so as not to traumatise the children, one supposes, but also so that they won’t grow up and refuse to pay their taxes.

There’s the continued shock among some people in the UK that a person can have an accent that might be designated as “foreign” despite the geographical proximity. The deep urge to have a go at it themselves which seems to follow is apparently unavoidable. “Waterrr”, they’ll repeat, giggling like pre-pubescents hearing someone accidentally fart in public, as though our preference for saying all the letters in a word is an endlessly thrilling delicacy. Rolling the rhotic “r” over their palate like the contents of a particularly zingy bag of Monster Munch.


The grim reality is that while Britain has been, and in many ways remains, important to Irish people by dint of our history, we are not a priority for those lads. They don’t think of us much, unless the North is particularly inconveniencing them, they fear a Spanish invasion, or they need a quick batch of post-Brexit passports hot from the printer.

Or, of course, these days if they need Joe Biden’s phone number.

Our relationship to Britain will always be a bit weird, like making friends with your former school bully in adulthood, but instinctively checking your back for “kick me” signs every time they’re out of sight, because the body just remembers. We emulate Britain, we resent Britain, we want to wear our hair like Britain’s but we want her to know we did it first. We need her, find her tedious and generally spend a good bit of time thinking about her. We can’t help it. We speak through her language, operate through the skeleton of a legal system based on hers and we have grown to love the potatoes she so encouraged us to rely on. That has gone both well (colcannon, steamed new season spuds) and badly (the famine).

As an Irish emigrant, I’m not supposed to talk about butter. I’m supposed to talk about James Joyce and Seamus HeaneyOpens in new window ]

In Australia – at least here in Canberra, where the Irish community is small – so very far from home, the postcolonial relationship is different. As Australia comes to terms with its own colonial past, it appears to fall into the same slightly awkward relationship to history that many other western countries now occupy.

On Australia Day, I was surprised to find that here in the capital, only immigrants I encountered opened the conversation with a merrily imparted, guilt-free “Happy Australia Day!”. Born and raised Australians – at least those living here in the heart of government – seemed to feel a bit of discomfort around the day. Is national pride exclusionary? Is it ignorant? Is it retroactive approval of past atrocities and value systems we have since parted ways with?

There seemed to be an undertone of “is it unseemly to celebrate my country?”

These questions are good ones and as a guest in this country, this is not a conversation I’m here to take part in. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly, because it’s a deeply complex conversation requiring serious contextual understanding as well as historical and social literacy. It’s for Australian people to decide how they feel about their own historical legacy, how they can acknowledge that in the present, and how both should shape policy for the future.

What does strike me as very strange and interesting indeed, however, is Australia’s current relationship to Britain as a member of the Commonwealth.

People I talk to here seem slightly embarrassed by the fact that the king is still, in some respect, knocking around. That makes sense. I haven’t yet lived in Australia for a year but two things seem clear enough – there is a strong conception of Australian values and identity that are shared by most people here, and there is some discomfort with the long, lingering shadow of British imperial history. This is a wider problem for the British monarchy more generally – how do you sanitise, defang or otherwise “spiff up” an organisation that emerges directly, causally, chronologically from that history? How many babies must be kissed, ribbons cut or marbles returned to drown out the questions about where the money, property and entitlement to stay in the job actually come from?

Moving back to Ireland would mean working till 10pm, no home of my own and bad coffeeOpens in new window ]

I was astonished to find myself writing this column on an Australian bank holiday in honour of the king’s birthday. Having lived in London for years, I’m conscious that there is no bank holiday in the UK on the occasion of the himself’s birthday. They have Trooping the Colour (the monarchy loves a spot of solemnly looking at soldiers moving neatly about) but no day off. If there were to be one anywhere, it would surely be in the motherland itself. This day off – which I’m very grateful to have, by the way, as one of three more than Ireland’s annual serving of public holidays – seems like a particularly weird inertia-fuelled postcolonial hangover, or perhaps a way of keeping the Commonwealth relevant in a country that really does appear to be getting on pretty well regardless.

Besides, people rarely take to the streets in peaceful protest against a Monday off work, whatever the reason for it.

Even Irish people might like a day off for the king’s birthday (though we’d change the name – Spanish Armada Day might be more fitting).