"Better a stranger in a strange land than a stranger in your homeland," commented one of the many readers who got in touch, following the publication of my article 'My mental knuckle-fight with Irishness'. In the article, I related my befuddled relationship with Irish identity, having grown up in England with parents from Northern Ireland, and having moved to Ireland at the age of 18. I had always considered myself Irish, but on moving to Dublin I found my claim to Irish identity under almost-constant scrutiny.
It's a familiar experience for many people; "Having moved here from Zimbabwe as a child I can relate to both the children you describe and to your own experience," says Sam Huleatt-James, who finds it a pity that a "members only" attitude still exists around the idea of Irishness. "To avoid this I try to surround myself with people for whom nationality is not an issue," says Sam, "but unfortunately one can be sideswiped every now and then when one least expects it!"
A Maori welcome
Having her Irish identity questioned was an almost daily reality for Gail Fleming, who grew up in Belfast, but whose accent often led to classmates "accusing" her of being English. For Gail, the moment she experienced the deepest sense of belonging was on her first visit to New Zealand, where she now lives. She describes entering a Maori ancestral home - a Marae - "where they welcome you, your ancestors, and anyone who had a part in making you who you are". The Maori value each individual as the product of the unique blend of influences that have shaped them.
Gail says that among Maori, “I found I could be Irish, British, with my heart in Scotland, a Francophile, and be half way to becoming a Kiwi.” She describes the incredible sense of rootedness which the Maori approach triggered, enabling her to embrace both her British education and her identity as a passionate Irish woman.
But for Gareth Cassidy, leaving Ireland threw his Irishness into question. Raised in Co Meath, Gareth’s family moved to Norway when he was 11. Although he picked up Norwegian quickly, his Irish twang still marked him out as “foreign”, and he quickly found his Irish humour to be “either untranslatable or completely lost on whoever I was communicating with”.
Speaking more Norwegian than English throughout his teens, when he returned to Ireland on holidays Gareth had the surreal experience of finding that his accent had become “weird”. He no longer sounded Irish. Although he has now decided to remain in Norway, Gareth still doesn’t feel completely at home there, and yet Ireland is no longer “home” either. It’s like trying to re-enter Narnia through the wardrobe; is it the child or the world beyond those oak doors which has morphed?
Gareth points to the issue of the many new arrivals into Europe in recent years. Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in Norway from Syria, Iraq, and the Balkans. As Gareth says, “for integration to be successful, the exclusive right to feel at home in a country has to be dealt with. The struggles to adapt to a new country can be hard enough.”
A sense of homelessness
This feeling of frustration was best encapsulated by an email from a reader living abroad who wishes to remain anonymous, who has had a mental knuckle-fight with Irishness his whole life. Born in Ireland to an Irish mother and English father, he was raised with a mix of English and Irish cultural reference points; Radio 4 playing in the car on his way to the GAA pitch.
His accent was understandably mixed, and to compound things, he was raised with no religion in deepest rural Ireland of the 1980s. Partly excluded from the Irish Catholic community because of his “funny accent, English father and absence from mass on Sunday,” he wasn’t part of the Protestant community either because he went to Catholic school and played GAA.
The reader recalls how he “was never allowed to be fully Irish,” and says his feeling of being excluded led to a deepening sense of bitterness as a teenager. He left Ireland a few weeks after his 18th birthday and hasn’t lived there since. Now a father himself, married and living in mainland Europe, he wonders to what extent he should encourage his son to feel Irish; “I would like him to be able to avoid the homelessness I have sometimes felt.”
The queen’s speech
For other readers, issues surrounding Irish identity have been thrown into sharp focus by the commemorative events of recent months. As one reader asks, “how should someone half-Irish/half-English relate to the 1916 rising?”
For me, part of the problem here is the label “Anglo-Irish”, which calls to mind the burned-out carcases of stately homes dotted around our countryside, their glass-less windows like harrowing empty eye-sockets. “Half-English, half-Irish” still has the ring of an oxymoron, as if the two refuse to blend, like oil and water. One reader reflects on the jubilant reception Queen Elizabeth received during her visit to Cork a few years ago, recalling how a friend with mixed Irish/English heritage was deeply moved, “as if their mixed heritage was somehow suddenly ok”.
Almost as soon as my article was published, my lovely mum was on the phone. “You’ve used artistic licence in a couple of places,” she gently pointed out, reminding me that the “radio angled on the sill to catch the Irish stations” didn’t happen every day (“sure don’t you remember listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio Four?”). This made me think about the role of memory. I suspect “invented memories” are a particularly acute condition in the psyche of the first generation immigrant child; we create narratives to bolster our fragile sense of origins. We write our own creation myths.
Lessons from the past
“Irish people are terribly precious about what can be considered Irish,” says reader Katie Walsh. From around the globe, people have contacted me with stories of the various ways in which they were encouraged to feel Irish while growing up abroad. Frances Harkin, who is currently completing her PhD on the topic of the Irish in London says “I find the use of symbols - dance, music, sport- to create Irish identities abroad absolutely fascinating”.
This use of cultural symbols to forge a sense of national identity is nothing new. Leigh Cobley, who lives in Barcelona, points out that “we can’t really know the ethnicity of ancient pagan people’s such as the Celts, but when we say ‘Celt’ what we are really referring to is somebody who spoke a Celtic language and had Celtic culture. The same could apply to modern peoples as well, as it avoids the whole problematic argument (and politicisation of) who has the right to class themselves (or others) as belonging to a particular group along racial terms.”
While the very word “Celtic” has become a loaded term on this island, I think this concept is ultimately an enabling one; the notion that “belonging” comes from identifying with a culture, and isn’t confined to what’s on your birth certificate.
Despite the heartbreak it has sometimes caused, I’m still glad my parents raised me to think of myself as “Irish”, and that we moved to live here. Truth be told, living in Ireland gives me a sense of peace, as if I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else. Who knows; looking back to the lessons of the Celts might enable us to chart a way forward and to create a more inclusive definition of Irishness for the 21st century. As Gail Fleming says, “perhaps this wonderful, ancient culture we belong to can start to look at the more recent wounds, and maybe even imagine healing together”.
Roisín O’Donnell is an Irish short story writer. Her debut story collection Wild Quiet has just been published by New Island Books.