Ireland, England and me: Selina Guinness on Ireland’s English question
My accent identified me in Dublin as a Trinity Protestant, in London as a person of interest to the police
Selina Guinness: “When I speak, I appear to mount an invisible horse, stabled overseas.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
This voice gets me wrong. It betrays me. I have a non-rhotic accent, I speak RP, though the slight lilt tends to confuse people. Fellow citizens ask me, “Are you English?” Sometimes this is more than a matter of friendly curiosity. I don’t really belong here with this voice. I’m aware it trails a history. So I have different ways of answering: “I was born and reared in Dublin, but I lived in England for a while”, or, more apologetically, “My parents sound like this too”. Some then, still, look at me askance. What they hear is a measure of privilege they wish to deny as Irish. Occasionally it is easier to reply, “No, I’m not English, I’m just posh”; though this too needs to be qualified.
An older generation finds my voice easier to locate, identifying the modified vowels of a Trinity College Dublin Protestant. This is not Seán O’Casey’s type of Protestant, nor indeed my mother’s: her vaguely Methodist family were coal traders in Dún Laoghaire who married out of faith and into law. No, what they have in mind are my father’s kind – the Church of Ireland gentry who sent their sons to English public schools. A friend who works in RTÉ, who has known me over 30 years, told me recently: “You know, as soon as you open your mouth, you appear a foot taller.” We agreed it was a problem. When I speak, I appear to mount an invisible horse, stabled overseas.
In the late eighties, I went to London to work for a summer. You couldn’t hope to gain “experience” in Dublin, on that my parents were agreed. A group of engineering students had colonised a series of squats around Manor House in Hackney. At 17, I shared a mattress on the 16th floor of a tower block, scheduled for demolition, with a mate who worked the sites. I soon found work as a shop-girl in a gold warehouse off Hatton Gardens. The business was cash-only, and there was no till; the notes went straight into a plastic bin beneath the counter. Out the back, the owners did a lively trade in counterfeit Lacoste. My second week there, I was told we’d be opening up on Sunday. My fellow assistant, Andy, looked nervous as he buzzed me in, and I was about to ask why when a gunman jumped out from behind the potted plant, followed by another. Their every line – “Lie down on the floor! Don’t do anything stupid and you won’t get hurt!” – seemed to derive from Starsky and Hutch.
When the police arrived, and learned where I came from, how recently I’d been taken on, and exactly where I was living, I briefly became a person of interest. A few days previously, an IRA bomb at the Mile End barracks a few miles away had killed a soldier. Under interrogation, the niceties of my identity counted for very little, until Andy was asked for till receipts to quantify the stolen cash. These naturally he could not provide, and suspicion turned towards the owner and his innovative idea to open up his wholesale business on an August bank holiday weekend.
That summer taught me that I could be unambiguously Irish in England. It also taught me I was white. I discovered what racial privilege meant the first day a temping agency sent me to work for an insurance firm. A recruitment ad for sales reps had been placed in the Evening Standard. When potential applicants rang in, my task was to persuade them to attend a presentation the following day, without letting it slip that this was commission-only work. My boss advised: “If they can talk, that’s great. Asians are fine, but no one buys insurance from a black.” I rang the agency to seek advice, and was told firmly to do the job required. Every man who called – and it was only men – asked me whether a basic salary was provided. Forbidden to answer them, I listened, unable to distinguish one English voice from the next, and so invited in anyone who was prepared to stay on the line and talk. The next day, I glanced in through the glass wall during the presentation, and saw that I had failed. At lunchtime I was let go, my name immediately dropped from the books of the temping agency.
Six years later, England unfurled its bounty, addressing me as “darling girl” in the voice of my DPhil supervisor at Oxford University. The recent IRA ceasefire meant that England, with sufficient study, might hope to resolve Ireland, and there were quite a few of us “darling girls” gleaning the sheaves of the Bodleian. Honeyed times; the ennui of clotted cream. We wondered why it was so hard to gain any purchase on the polite debates about Irish history conducted in the seminar room, and concluded that we were women. Fr Martin Dwan from Reading taught me how to dance strip-the-willow at the inaugural céilidh fundraiser for the Women and Ireland Group.
I felt grateful to Oxford, and boxed in by all the palaver and performance that sustained its post-imperial munificence. Appointed a European Rhodes Scholar, I heard Sir Anthony Kenny announce that the singular thing about Cecil Rhodes was the great foresight he possessed in recognising that the future would require talents entirely different from his own to oppose those very things he valued most. This deft formulation, designed to pour sawdust on the sticky trail of Commonwealth, struck me as the epitome of parliamentary English. Later I would realise that each one of us in that multi-racial gathering, chosen for our individual qualities, was duty-bound to represent the trust’s corporate model of leadership. I failed in this, and many other regards, by writing, but never turning in, my Oxford DPhil thesis.
This essay by Selina Guinness is among contributions to Ireland’s English Question, a feature in the new issue of The Dublin Review. Selina Guinness, Patrick Freyne and Sinéad Gleeson will be participating in Dublin Review Conversations: Ireland’s English Question, a panel discussion with Dublin Review editor Brendan Barrington, in the Little Museum of Dublin on Wednesday, December 4th at 6.30pm. Tickets are free but must be booked, via Eventbrite.