Where are you from? Our family’s identity crisis
Author Clár Ní Chonghaile on her family’s jumbled web of international roots
Clár Ní Chonghaile: There seems to be a growing tendency to characterise one’s own identity in opposition to others
For International Day at my daughter’s school this year, I decided to run an Irish stall. I’m not usually a joiner but that’s the danger of not having a full-time job: you find yourself Getting Involved. The concept was simple: a selection of words as Gaeilge printed on strips of paper and placed in a box. Children had to pick out a word, pronounce it and then guess, from three options, what it meant. It was side-splittingly funny. Especially for me. My favourite was uaigneach.
Even more fun was had the weekend before when my two daughters and I wrote out the words together, with me testing their Irish credentials and them indignantly declaring that aghaidh couldn’t possibly be pronounced I. It was a rare hands-on chance for us to be Irish together.
My husband is British and our girls have British and Irish passports. They also have Australian passports but that’s a fluke of history as my husband just happened to be born in Sydney. In any case, it explains his wannabe surfer bum tendencies.
For a long time, and despite being born in London, I saw myself as 100 per cent Irish although it’s not something I necessarily viewed as an unmitigated blessing. When I joined the Reuters news agency as a graduate trainee in 1992, I met many people who had spent their relatively short lives zigzagging around the world. I envied their cosmopolitan nous.
My children will be those people when they grow up. My eldest was born in Dakar, Senegal and while the youngest was born in London in 2007, we moved to Kenya the following year and that is where her strongest childhood memories were forged. We will always be Kenyan in the widest, emotional sense. But we now live in St Albans and here we will stay, at least for the time being, as we guide our girls through the necessary torture of education.
So what are we now? And is that even a relevant question?
As part of my in-depth research for this article, I decided to ask the girls: “Where are you from? What’s your nationality?”
The eldest looked at me, askance. “I’m British-Irish, right?”
It’s not a test, I said. She looked more confused. “What should I say?”
I said, say what you feel.
“It’s difficult because what is identity? Is it your home, or where you grew up, or where your Mum and Dad are from?” she said.
From the mouth of babes.
Both girls say they feel a little bit African. Now, you can holler about expat privilege, cultural appropriation and all that jazz, but they feel a special connection that cannot and must not be denied. In Dakar, I would take my oh-so-pale Bebé Toubab (white baby) to the beach at the Pointe des Almadies where she would eat sand and I would watch the sun sink into the Atlantic. My youngest was born in Camden but by two years of age, she was in Nairobi, hooting at monkeys on the roof and ignoring all requests to wear shoes. To be brutally honest, the girls feel more of a connection to Kenya than they do to Ireland. They have both, up until now, spent more time living in Africa than anywhere else. That will change, of course, and maybe their sense of connection will too, though I doubt it.
When I pushed them for answers, my youngest said she did feel quite English. “Except that they voted for Brexit and they eat scones,” she said.
Brexit adds another layer to this dilemma. I now fear that by moving back to Britain, we have condemned our children to a narrower future, where Europe is “over there” and we are actively working to move away from a continent where our family’s story began when I met my husband while living in Paris in 1996.
I’m not going to lie: a year ago, on the morning of June 24th, I did shed a tear or four as I realised that people on the island I call home now had voted to leave the European Union. It felt like a cataclysm in the true sense of the word.
I am an unapologetic Remainer, or Remoaner, or whatever sticks-and-stones name you want to call those who voted to stay in. In the year since that awful morning, I have often thrown my hands up at some new piece of ridiculousness and turned to my long-suffering husband and said: “Look, what your people are doing now!”
It’s not helpful and it’s not really true either. Because “your people” are actually my people. I have now lived in England for 13 years in total, out of 44. We are all a little British in this house. But we are also all, even my husband whose cúpla focal are no disgrace either, a little Irish. We are the sum of our experiences and that means we hold Senegal, Ivory Coast, Spain and France alongside Kenya, Britain and Ireland in our hearts. What does that make us? Does sticking a label on us really make any sense?
Defining what identity means in the 21st century is not just a pertinent question for our family but for everyone because questions of identity have become so loaded, so coloured by politics. There seems to be a growing tendency to characterise one’s own identity in opposition to others. We are us because we are not them. It is dangerously reductive and feeds into an increasingly rabid, insidious form of nationalist-based populism. It was the hidden heart of the Brexit campaign, and not always that well hidden either.
Last year, British prime minister Theresa May said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
Maybe the problem lies in the fact that the words we use – citizenship and nationality – are no longer flexible enough for the topsy-turvy world we live in. The answer may lie in the rebirth of cosmopolitanism, in its truest sense. Now there’s a label we’d be happy to adopt in our house.
Clár Ní Chonghaile is an Irish author and journalist. She grew up in An Spidéal but now lives in St Albans, England, with her husband and two daughters. Her second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, will be published by Legend Press on July 15th. Her debut novel, Fractured, was published last February.