Ciara Kenny

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

How a child of Sweden learns what it is to be Irish

For Oisín Fitzgerald’s daughter, a trip to Ireland from her home in Sweden means litres of granny’s soup and learning different rules of behaviour

Oisín Fitzgerald with his daughter Selma in Karlstad, Sweden

Fri, Apr 12, 2013, 09:00


Oisín Fitzgerald

Travelling with children is not for the faint-hearted, so when you want to bribe your child “to be good” on the journey to see granny and grandad you need to get thinking. I asked our four-year-old daughter, Selma, what she was looking forward to on a recent trip to Var pappa kommer från (where daddy comes from), otherwise known as Dublin, and her answer, in English, was “granny’s soup”.

During the four-hour car journey to the airport, in the check-in queue, on the plane, and then finally waiting for the luggage, I softly mentioned granny’s soup to keep her in a compliant mood. Dublin to Selma, who has never lived in Ireland, is condensed into granny’s soup.

I have worked in Norway and Sweden for nearly seven years, and now live in my wife’s hometown of Karlstad. Arriving in Dublin at any time of year, to find the same weather and the same green fields, there is a feeling that nothing is ever changing.

But lately, when we visit home, I am struck by a feeling of unease, from thinking I know the place inside out and finding that I am now only touching the surface.

Ireland is a place where the subtlety of language is wrought into us from a young age. Our culture is steeped in what to say and what not to say, when to say it and when not to say it. I used to know the rules much better, but now I have either forgotten them or I’ve started scrutinising the language instead of being a part of it.

I miss trying to gauge the meaning behind various inflections, nods, and other audio or visual clues to the real meaning behind words spoken. In Sweden, people speak plainly and act straightforwardly. They are unconstrained by cultural norms that make people of a certain age or status act a certain way. In other words, in Sweden, it is easier to be who you want to be.

For all the talk of the nanny state taking away people’s individuality, it has been the opposite case in Sweden. But, they lack subtlety and I miss that, and Ireland has it in abundance. At home, it is difficult to be sure if somebody is saying what they really think, if they are trying to fit a mould, if they are having you on, or if they are just being plain honest and think you are a bit of a gobshite for looking at them askance.

Selma understands English and usually makes a point of telling people this in Sweden. She knows no one understands Swedish in Dublin, so when someone talks to her on our visits she must nod or shake her head, or try and speak in English. So she nods and shakes with great enthusiasm while shouting “yes” or “no” at all these poor souls unfortunate enough not to understand Swedish.

So, we arrive in the airport and make our way out to my parents’ home and then the fun begins. Selma eats litres of soup, her cousins arrive, and they do what children the world over do when confronted with a stranger-child – they pretend to be shy and avoid direct eye contact. Soon, though, they are tearing the house apart in some game that crosses linguistic boundaries.

Signs of familiarity

One by one the rest of the cousins arrive with their fathers and mothers and talk as if I haven’t left home but live down the road somewhere. Sometimes before even saying hello, they complain about the traffic jam on the M50, but I have learned to take this as a sign of familiarity rather than an offence.

The room is soon filled with the chattering of simultaneous conversations, something that never happens in Sweden. One of those conversations could, in fact, turn into a monologue, as people move from one conversation to another. I remember once seeing my father carry on a conversation with me for quite some time after I had guiltily stolen away to another; he had forgotten to look up.

All this talking means the noise level rises, as each talker tries to make themselves heard over others, resulting in a crescendo of near shouting.

In Sweden, people listen to each other politely, which can get a bit boring but at least the weak-voiced or weak-willed get their opinions heard. It does seem to spoil the fun, though.

And maybe that’s the point – Irish people have more fun when they talk. It’s treated like a game with an element of oneupmanship, but I am rusty on the rules.

I want Selma to know that there are different rules (unwritten, of course) and another way to be than the way in Sweden. And that this is the same all over the world; there are lots of ways to be. In time, and through demonstration, I think her cousins will fill her in on this talking game.

This article appears in the Life section of the print edition of The Irish Times today.