‘Being Irish abroad is like having a subtle superpower’

A cold reception is instantly warmed when people realise where I’m from

Tom Daly with Hon Justice Gérard Niyungeko of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights and Prof Laurence Burgorgue-Larsen of the Sorbonne, at the third African Judicial Dialogue in Arusha, Tanzania.

Tom Daly with Hon Justice Gérard Niyungeko of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights and Prof Laurence Burgorgue-Larsen of the Sorbonne, at the third African Judicial Dialogue in Arusha, Tanzania.

 

Growing up on a farm in the tiny half-parish of Garrienderk in south Co Limerick, I never imagined as an adult I’d find myself post-dinner dancing outside on a warm November night in Northern Tanzania, shuffling in a circle with top judges from across Africa as an MC calls out each delegate’s country in turn.

“Cameroon!” “Congo!” “Côte d’Ivoire!” - and, after some prompting, “Ireland!”. Each time a rousing cheer rises up into the night sky.

Behind me is the president of Africa’s human rights court, both of us grinning at one another as the dance-shuffle continues. In front is a professor from the Sorbonne, her auburn hair bobbing as she claps to the music. The circle breaks and we’re taught a popular Tanzanian dance, leaning in, leaning back, turning in a square as the MC guides us. This is not how EU judicial conferences end up.

The feeling of having parted a curtain to enter a strange, wonderful and challenging new world has repeatedly struck me in the past year in my life as an academic-cum-development consultant. As the year began I was helping Turkish judges write a code of ethics while president Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantled the country’s democratic system piece by piece.

Tom Daly (second from right) with team-mates and Turkish judges on the Council of Europe project ‘Strengthening Judicial Ethics in Turkey’, in Izmir in February.
Tom Daly (second from right) with teammates and Turkish judges on the Council of Europe project ‘Strengthening Judicial Ethics in Turkey’, in Izmir in February.

Flying back-and-forth between Dublin and Turkey for meetings amid constant terrorism warnings, evenings were spent hearing wrenching accounts from my Turkish team-mates of growing fear, of endless fretting by female colleagues about what was now considered inappropriate dress, of fewer places to feel free. And yet we always found something to laugh about or a new Turkish word I should know, like “Serefe!” (Cheers!).

A move to Melbourne Law School in March expanded my stomping ground to the Asia-Pacific in one of life’s gambles that has happily paid off. Last month I spent a day in the Philippine Congress for a meeting about president Rodrigo Duterte’s proposed new Constitution.

I had to work hard to hide a grimace as I was handed a gift mug by a member of Duterte’s PDP-Laban party, emblazoned with the chillingly glib slogan “Yes to Federalism. No to Drugs”: the State has recently slaughtered thousands, mainly young men in poor urban areas, in Duterte’s “War on Drugs”.

Irish accents

Most people are aware of Ireland’s ability to punch above its weight in the EU, but the Irish are an unsung powerhouse in international governance and development more widely, compared to the small size of our population. The corridors of the Council of Europe ring with Irish accents (and Irish-accented French!).

From 2008 to 2013 the UN’s top lawyer was Patricia O’Brien, now serving as Ireland’s Ambassador to France. My cousin Emma worked for the NGO Children in Crisis in post-invasion Afghanistan before being taken by cancer at 32; a hazy sunlit photograph of her surrounded by Afghan children has pride of place in her parents’ kitchen.

My Irish friends have prosecuted war crimes in Kosovo, worked on environmental issues in the Galápagos Islands, and managed Trócaire projects in Malawi. The tradition goes back at least as far as Seán Lester, secretary-general of the League of Nations as it entered its twilight in the 1940s.

Advantage

I can’t fully answer why this is the case, but it has often occurred to me that the Irish benefit from a number of advantages in this line of work: we have feet in both the rich West and a poor colonial past; we occupy a space between the native-English-speaking Anglo-Saxon world and the non-Anglophone world beyond it; we have a good education system; we are a small, outward-looking country and have no “natural enemies” in our foreign relations with developing countries; and we have not been colonisers for a millennium.

Tom Daly at St Kilda pier in Melbourne: ‘Travel has become a constant in my life now.’
Tom Daly at St Kilda pier in Melbourne: ‘Travel has become a constant in my life now.’

I have lost count of the number of times a cold reception has instantly warmed at the realisation that I’m Irish. I also often find myself explaining where Ireland is, explaining that I’m not from Iceland, or recounting a potted history of our country over dinner to an almost-disbelieving audience. And certainly, some Irish abroad are not immune to acting with a sense of superiority. But in general, being Irish is like having a subtle superpower. Our good faith is assumed.

Travel has become a constant in my life now: following a summer trip to Mexico, the UK, Denmark, and Poland, next up are trips to Oxford, Florence, Paris, Edinburgh and São Paulo - punctuated by Christmas in Ireland - as I promote my new book with Cambridge University Press on courts as democracy-builders, and gather research for a second book, on democratic decay worldwide. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Asked some years ago by my (slightly concerned) mother what I wanted in life, my answer was: “A life less ordinary”. That is certainly what I’ve ended up with.

  • Tom Daly’s new book The Alchemists: Questioning our Faith in Courts as Democracy Builders is published by Cambridge Press.
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