I've rediscovered my Irishness living in Hong Kong

Question from my 11-year-old student got me thinking about my identity


It’s my first day teaching secondary school in Hong Kong, and my class of form ones are sitting perfectly quiet, as only form ones can do. Too nervous to approach each other yet and feeling homesick for the comfortable familiarity of their primary classroom, it is the only time of the year when you truly hold them in the palm of your hand.

I’m well aware these days of eager attentiveness are numbered, and I have no intention of wasting this opportunity on the impossible combination of vowels and consonants that make up my name. So, swiftly bypassing Fionnuala Lenaghan, I introduce myself as Ms Fin, and start to explain where I’m from. I don’t get far before a hand shoots up and starts waving frantically. “Ms Fin, after the Good Friday Agreement, were you the Britain or Ireland person?”

I’m bowled over, to say the least. This was the last question I was expecting from my class of 11-year-olds, but it turns out they actually learn about Northern Ireland as a case-study for power sharing in their history classes. I feel impressed that kids halfway across the world even know of the existence of Northern Ireland, and more than that, I’m proud that they’re encountering it as a success story.

I could explain that it’s a complicated question, that Northern Irish identity isn’t black and white and that being Northern Irish often means occupying a space somewhere between Britishness and Irishness. But I can’t disappoint him. He thinks it’s magical that we got to choose - British or Irish or both if we want. So, I embrace the simplicity of his question, and offer him a simple answer in return. “I’m the Irish person.”

In truth, the answer to this question has always been a simple, straightforward one for me. Growing up Catholic in South Belfast, it’s probably not that surprising or unusual that I’ve always considered myself Irish. I grew up with Irish dancing classes, mass on a Saturday evening and holidays spent listening to trad music in Peter Oliver’s pub in Donegal. I honestly never questioned my Irish identity, and despite enjoying 24 years in Belfast, I have never actually described myself as Northern Irish, and certainly not British. So it’s slightly ironic that I ended up leaving Northern Ireland to live in a former British colony, when I came to Hong Kong back in 2011.

When I moved to the other side of the world, I was excited to embrace the new traditions and culture of Hong Kong. Wandering through Victoria Park during Mid-Autumn festival illuminated by lantern glow, exchanging gossip with friends over a lazy Susan at the wet-market and sailing out on a junk boat on Victoria harbour to watch the Chinese New Year fireworks, have been just a few of the incredible experiences that have punctuated my time in Hong Kong.

What I didn’t anticipate was while discovering this new, Asian culture I would simultaneously rediscover my Irish one. Hong Kong has a surprisingly large Irish population of around 3,000, out of which has sprung Irish societies, professional groups, the Hong Kong GAA, Irish dancing schools, choirs and trad groups, all ready to welcome newcomers with open arms and adopt them into our Irish Hong Kong family.

Around one year into my time abroad, I found myself hit by a wave of homesickness. Feeling lost and nostalgic, I ended up Googling ‘Irish Dancing Hong Kong’, and came across Echoes of Erin School of Irish Dance, run by Catriona Newcombe, from Ballycastle. At this stage, I hadn’t danced in almost eight years. I was completely out of shape and a spectacularly inflexible version of my former dancing self, so it was with trepidation that I went along to my first class. I managed to huff and puff my way through a reel and came home with blisters on my feet and a smile on my face. My homesickness dissipated, and my love for dancing was instantly reinvigorated.

Picking up dancing again in Hong Kong gave me the chance to start fresh and renegotiate my relationship with dance. I got to divorce dancing from the insecurity and pressure that had held me back while competing in Belfast growing up. No wigs, no fake tan, no gaudy costumes. Instead, I got to experience the thrill of dancing to beautiful choreography, the energy of performance free from competition and the pride of representing Hong Kong and Ireland when we accompanied The Chieftains during their Asian tour in 2015.

I will always feel a debt of gratitude to Echoes of Erin and the wider Irish community in Hong Kong for allowing me the opportunity to carve out a future in dance that seemed impossible back home. Living abroad and the people I’ve met have enabled me to embrace, celebrate and live my Irish identity with pride, wherever the future takes me.

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