Ciara Kenny

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I have a lot of Ireland in me, but now I also have a lot of Denmark

Singing Irish songs with my Danish colleagues, without obligation or alcohol, highlights just one way that I have been made to feel welcome in Denmark since I made it my home, writes Brendan Doyle.

Tue, May 1, 2012, 10:02


Brendan Doyle

Singing Irish songs with my Danish colleagues, without obligation or alcohol, highlights just one way that I have been made to feel welcome in Denmark since I made it my home, writes Brendan Doyle.

I recently chaired a teachers’ meeting at the school in Denmark, where I have been a staff member for the last 17 years. In my school, we start our bi-monthly meeting with a song, which is usually chosen from what’s called: ”Højskolens Sangbog”, but any other song may be chosen. So I chose Molly Malone.

I’m not really a singer myself, but looking around the room at my colleagues, as we cockled and muselled, gave me a strange sense of pride at sharing something, which to me is so Irish and so much part of what I consider to be Irish culture. The bronze statue of Molly Malone in Dublin is a bit like the bronze statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Both girls made their mark on the international imagination. Molly was a sturdy, working class girl, probably very pretty and sexy, and the Little Mermaid was the romantic lover type, who followed her heart against all odds. Both represent a feminine principle, strength and love and attraction.

I am not especially patriotic, but like many other emigrants, I am profoundly aware of my roots and have a great love for my country of birth. After living out of Ireland for more than half of my adult life, I am happy to return at intervals to reconnect with the warmth which I always meet on my home turf.

Sitting at that meeting, I was full of admiration and awe at the openness of my colleagues, who have taken me into their “home”, their country, and allowed me to be one of them. They even sit and sing a song from my country, no alcohol involved, as if it was the most normal thing to do in the world. Afterwards, they asked me what I actually knew about Molly, (not really much!), and the difference between cockles and mussels. Then we exchanged something about the good fishing in Ireland, the passion of the catch, and how the EU had put an end to so much in that area. I remembered my childhood summers in Ballymacaw, near Dunmore East, and how the fishermen would give us crabs from their lobster baskets for free. No one was really interested in crabs, so we had a summer diet of crab meat and mackerel by the dozen.

I wondered if a foreign teacher in an Irish school, for example someone from Poland, would manage to get Irish teachers to sing a song in Polish, without any alcohol. I have no idea. My teaching career in Ireland (Crumlin) was short and so long ago.

English is a more accessible language, more international. Yet one of the greatest errors for any native English speaker is to underestimate the attachment other nations have to their language and tradition.

On first arriving in Denmark, 30 or so years ago, I began to learn Danish to survive and to find out more about what was going on in my surroundings. In the beginning, I had a lot of resistance and didn’t find it easy. But as I learned more and more Danish, my opportunities broadened. The first 10 years or so, people would invariably ask me where I came from, whenever we spoke. My accent was intriguing, but nowadays people rarely comment. And Danish has many levels, many dialects and many layers of sophistication. Denmark prides itself on being the world’s oldest monarchy, going all the way back to the 10th century, a generation before Brian Boru. The present Queen, Margrethe can trace a direct line to King Gorm, who died around 950 A.D.

So this country has adapted and continues to adapt. Since my arrival here in the ‘70s, politics has always ruled in the middle. Horse trading and push and shove are the norm. And one should never underestimate Danish confidence in their own ability to figure out new ways and find partners in an ever-changing world. Even major blunders, such as Danske Bank’s takeover of the National Irish Bank, will be given a good shake and turned about, sooner or later.

There is nothing like Danish optimism. National pride and self esteem are tangible assets encountered and commented upon by every thinking foreigner during their sojourn in this country.

Thinking of Ireland, and its present woes, I cannot but help imagining that there are thousands and thousands of ordinary decent people who didn’t lose their heads during the Celtic Tiger bubble. There are stalwarts everywhere, decent people who are not afraid to contribute, and whose generosity and attitude is much more than about making a quick fix for themselves.

Emigrating is an enriching experience. We live in a global world. I don’t feel bad about not living in Ireland, even if I am outside the national family of Ireland.

I will always have a lot of Ireland in me, and now I also have a lot of Denmark.