My mental knuckle-fight with Irishness
How can we hope to create an integrated society if Irishness remains a closed club and if generations of children are growing up feeling excluded from their country of birth?
Roisín O’Donnell: when we were little we prized anything from Ireland: Club Orange, Mikado biscuits, clove rock, brandy balls – valued contraband rationed to outlast the summer. Photograph: Daithi Taylor
Perhaps it’s because of my uneasiness with my own Irishness, but I’ve always written characters from elsewhere. I’m fully aware of the irony of my position as an Irish writer of short stories.
I spent most of my four-year English-studies degree at Trinity College Dublin avoiding any module with the words “Irish” or “short story” in the title.
With the passion-fuelled outrage of a scorned lover I had declared a personal vendetta against everything Irish, including Irish stories.
When I was growing up in Sheffield my Irishness was insisted on at every turn. I’d hardly started to walk when my Derry parents abandoned my English first name and started calling me by my second name, Roisín.
As a child I took Irish-dancing lessons in a damp church hall, where our chain-smoking teacher coughed out sporadic instructions above the blare of jigs and reels. Wilted clumps of imported shamrocks were pinned to our school collars each St Patrick’s Day.
Summer visits to Derry were always referred to as trips home, although in fact my sister and I had never lived anywhere other than Sheffield. Many of my parents’ close friends were Irish, and from immersion in their accents I developed a Derry lilt that still confuses people. (But you grew up in Sheffield . . .) It might sound strange, but I never had any doubt that I was Irish, not English.
When we were little we prized anything from Ireland. Club Orange, Mikado biscuits, Twirl bars, clove rock, brandy balls and crinkling bags of purple dulse: these were valued contraband rationed to outlast the summer. After stick figures and scribbled lines of sky, the first thing I remember learning how to draw is the shamrock, its heart-shaped leaves meeting at a curly stalk.
Our kitchen radio was angled on the sill to catch the Irish stations, and through our hall would float farmer grievances from west Cork, traffic updates for Limerick city and GAA fixtures for Mayo. Our house was an Irish space station that had drifted off orbit.
Ireland filled our oxygen tanks while England beckoned us on stupid and unnecessary moonwalks. All our lullabies were Irish, and all our prayers. Each morning we chomped cornflakes to the drone of the Irish shipping forecast. Rosslare. Valentia. Malin Head. These places were our landscape.
Betrayed by my voice
When I was 18 my dad got a job in Dublin, and I thought all my teenage dreams had come true. The journey back to Ireland had taken my parents 30 years, and it took us all night. Contained on a cargo ship, which we had somehow managed to book online by accident, we were imported back to Ireland along with surf-rusted freight.
When we drove off the boat in Dún Laoghaire it had just stopped raining, and the roads were blinding. It was a hosed-down, newborn day, and I’ll never forget the feeling of hope and excitement.
Yet almost as soon as my family drove back on to land that pale March morning the first question most people asked me was, “What part of England are you from?” I was betrayed by my voice: the Sheffield accent I’d been avoiding had seeped in somehow, and my assertions of Irishness didn’t convince people. “Well, where were you born? Where did you grow up?” people would ask. My naive attempts to argue that birthplace doesn’t determine nationality were met with a mixture of bafflement and hostility.
One night my college friend Tamara and I were in the Stag’s Head, being chatted up by a leery guy who pointed a wavering finger at me: “Your accent is affected.”
“Affected by what?” I asked.
“No: I mean you put it on, to sound more Irish.”
It was just a chat-up line, and his comment should have been nothing more than fodder for our gossip in the taxi home. But when you’re that sensitive about something . . .
This incident was followed by many others, in which people confidently corrected me about my un-Irishness.
Being caught between two identities can make you feel invisible. And it can make you feel angry. And nothing, absolutely nothing, angered me more than the Irish language.
I would turn off the radio whenever Gaeilge was spoken; I’d feel my skin bristle at the sound of a cuplá focal being slung around by college friends. The language came to symbolise everything I resented about being excluded from a nationality I had grown up believing I was part of.
It was towards the end of my first year in Ireland that my crusade against Irishness began. If Ireland didn’t love me I wasn’t going to love her back. At college I drifted away from Irish writing and began to sign up for modules on India in English literature and on Afro-Caribbean literature.
I discovered the fantastical world of Ben Okri, the quiet grace of Bessie Head and the sheer wackiness of the Mozambican author Mia Couto. I remember picking up a battered copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons in the college bookshop, reading it in one sitting and feeling as if a door had been blasted open. I had discovered a new way of writing, and there was no turning back.
Maze of nationality
Five years later, after completing my teacher training at the University of Ulster and returning to teach in Dublin, a Nigerian boy tugged my sleeve. “Teacher, am I not allowed in this school?”
“What’s that, pet?”
It was home time. My fingers were blue with whiteboard marker, my clothes were musty with classroom dust, and I was standing in the poster-paint-smelling corridor, waiting for the last of the stragglers to be collected by parents.
“What do you mean, Abdul?” I asked.
He nodded to the school logo, which was emblazoned across the main entrance: NO CHILD IS AN OUTSIDER.
“I’m an outsider,” he said, blinking stoically. “So does that mean I’m not allowed in this school?”
Stumbling over words with which to reassure him, I was struck by just one question. What made this seven-year-old define himself, in such a no-nonsense way, as an outsider?
Abdul had been born in Ireland and had never lived anywhere else. He spoke Irish – already his was much better than mine: it’s funny how you can be determined not to learn something – and yet this bright youngster asked the question with as much common sense as when he’d asked me the previous week, “Teacher, what’s the final number? You know, after a million . . . after a billion . . . if you keep counting. The final number: what is it?”
It made me realise I wasn’t alone in my befuddled relationship with Irishness. Over the next three years, teaching in Educate Together schools in Blanchardstown and Navan, I began to take a real interest in the perspectives of children for whom nationality was as much of a maze as it was for me. I taught young people from all over the world. I met young GAA players from Estonia and Congo and Brazil. I taught a Nigerian girl who was an incredible Irish dancer.
“Well adjusted” was a phrase said around the staffroom with pride. But then there were the pupils whom the teachers didn’t boast about. Those who lashed out. Who acted up. Who tussled with identities. Like the Somalian girl who, caught between worlds, had decided to give up on language entirely, and who inspired me, years later, to write the title piece of Wild Quiet, my first collection of short stories.
Weaned off an addiction
As for myself, I now I faced my nemesis. Having completed teacher training outside the State, I was required to pass an Irish-language exam in order to continue teaching. For two years I kicked and bucked against the notion. But with just nine months left I surrendered, hands up, to learning Gaelic. I enrolled in an evening class, bought the most encouraging-looking book I could find, and booked a course in Connemara.
What I learned over the next nine months is that it’s far easier to continue hating something than it is to come to terms with it. My three-week stint in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht was emotionally on a level with being weaned off an addiction.
It’s an experience that still comes close to the marrow of my mental knuckle fight with Irishness. Perhaps that’s why, when I came to write about it, I needed to distance myself by writing from an unusual perspective, and by making the protagonist a different nationality from my own.
I’d spent time in Brazil, a country whose charm continues to seduce its way into my writing, and so Luana da Silva was born, along with the story that became How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps.
Since arriving in 2002 I’ve attempted to emigrate from Ireland many times. I’ve lived in Spain and Malta and spent time in Italy, Brazil and the US. But each time something has drawn me back to Dublin. Perhaps this repeated leaving and returning has been an attempt to re-enact that moment of arrival. To get it right somehow.
At least, having invested more than a decade in this land, and having learnt its native tongue, I now feel entitled to claim my badge of heritage. But it’s still not easy.
Just this week I noticed a tweet asking for suggestions of Northern Irish writers to include on a Twitter list. When I replied that I was a writer with family roots in Derry, and about to publish my first book, I received a curt response: “Sorry – we are only looking for writers born here or living here.”
The feeling this provoked in me was one of unravelling. I’m not from England; although I was born there I can’t identify with that. All my relatives are from Derry, but I have never lived there. And although I’ve lived in Dublin for more than a decade I can’t claim to be from here either. I’ve found myself effectively stateless.
As an adult I can handle this confusion, but I worry about children I have taught. Generations of young people are being made to feel like welcome guests but unwelcome locals. They are allowed to participate in Irish culture up to a point but discouraged from considering themselves Irish.
How can we hope to create an integrated society if Irishness remains a closed club – Members Only – and if generations of children are growing up feeling excluded from their country of birth?
It’s funny how attitudes to Irishness differ outside Ireland. My husband, who is from the United States, sees his Irish-Italian-American identity as something to celebrate. In the US nobody questions your credentials if you claim to be Irish, although in many cases the Irish connection isn’t even fully substantiated. There’s a pride. An inclusiveness. A festive exuberance.
Recently my husband has started learning Irish, and after much sighing, procrastinating and complaining I’ve agreed to teach him. His learning technique is to Post-it our apartment with Irish labels. Seomra Folctha on the bathroom door, Leathras above the loo. I came home the other week to find Baile on the front door.
The word drew me into a vortex, my key paused midmotion. Baile. Home. Perhaps one day I’ll figure out where exactly that is.
Roisín O’Donnell’s debut short-story collection, Wild Quiet, is published by New Island Books on May 16th 2016