Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

“Honestly, I feel more European than Irish”

With English, German, Portuguese and Spanish, we can converse with almost 16% of the world’s population in their mother tongue, writes Darren Kidney.

Sat, Dec 10, 2011, 12:04


With English, German, Portuguese and Spanish, we can converse with almost 16% of the world’s population in their mother tongue, writes Darren Kidney.

Darren and Rebecca in the port wine region of the Douro valley in Portugal at harvest time

Frequently I get asked where I come from, to which I sometimes respond “I don’t know“, or “currently from Portugal“, which serves well as an ice-breaker to such break-the-ice questions! Living and working in non-English speaking countries, I regularly get asked about correct English grammar and get referred to as the “native speaker“, to which I might answer “yes, I used to be!

Whilst both responses might appear light-hearted and disrespectful of one’s homeland, there is an element of honesty about them too. I certainly do not want to be non-Irish or speak English with German sentence structures, but on three distinct occasions I have been amazed at how quickly one subconsciously adapts.

The first time was after three years living in Hannover/Germany, when some colleagues who were talking about “wir Deutsche” then realised that they were including me. Towards the end of a family visit in Ireland at around the same time, I mentioned something about “going home tomorrow“. Home had suddenly become Hannover. Currently living in Portugal, and being in Germany again last month, without realising it, I talked about “my flight home [to Portugal] tomorrow“. All of a sudden, home is now in Oporto!

My passport says that I’m Irish, and I do feel Irish, having spent the most impressionable teenage and university years in Kildare and Dublin, but honestly, I feel more European, and that includes Irish.

2001 was a great time to graduate in Ireland – applying for a job was more like selecting the company whose promises best fitted one’s own definition of “dream employer“. This was especially true of the IT industry. But for a TCD Mechanical Engineering graduate with an interest in the more traditional heavy-engineering as well as a flair for the automotive industry, the options were more limited. Was this the reason that I decided for a leading supplier of automotive components from Germany? A sense of adventure, desire for experience abroad and wanting to be different, were certainly some of the other factors. Inwardly I expected to milk the mainland Europe experience for all it was worth for just a few years, and then return to Ireland. “Just a few” has turned into more than 10 and still counting.

Soon after moving I remember comparing living expenses with a friend in Dublin. We paid the same for rent. I had a new 75 square meter apartment and she had the box room in a 5 bedroom house. And whilst there’s a lot more to life than money, it does make a difference. One of these many other things which count in life is free time, and I was experiencing German efficiency at its best. My boss was asking what I was doing wrong that I had to stay late at work so often. In Ireland, I may have been seen to be doing a good job if I was staying later than the boss, but to him, I must have had a problem. The truth was that I was simply deeply engrossed.

The Kidney family at the beach in northern Portugal in March

The expatriate contract in Portugal runs for three years, the first of which is over. Before being asked to come to Portugal, provincial Muslim Malaysia was on the cards, but that would be more challenging with three kids of 5 and under. I think that our next home will be Germany again – but who knows – my German wife Rebecca now no longer talks about when we return but rather if.

Skype and international flatrates make it difficult to remember when the last real family visit was. And then Ryanair & co. make real visits easy and cheap. Grandparents in Germany and Ireland read books via Skype and the memorable moments such as the “first steps” and the “first time without fairy wheels” get recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The reality is that door to door travel time is sometimes less than what separates other family members who live in the same country, be it Germany or Ireland, even if it is less spontaneous and more expensive for us. Not everything is as rosy as this however, and there are also the darker sides of living far away.

With English, German, Portuguese and Spanish, we can converse with almost 16% of the world’s population in their mother tongue, plus all of the others who can also speak any one of these languages. I regard this not only as interesting trivia and a useful by-product of the last ten years, but mostly as an immeasurable gift to Orla (5), Eric (4) and Leah (2), who speak German with their mother and English with their father, and one will often hear Portuguese from their play room. Less than a year after arriving in Portugal I was in a shop and having difficulty getting my message across in broken Portuguese, until Orla chirped up with the crucial sentence. And on the way out, she offered “Daddy, or you could have said it like this….”.