The problem of being ‘British’ when you’re actually Irish
In my lifetime I have never felt such tension between us and our closest neighbour
Mary McSwiney: ‘One of the great things about Ireland and the UK being in the European Union was, that instead of focusing on individual nationalities and our differences, we focused instead on what we had in common.’
I’m not a British citizen, I can’t vote in the UK, hold a UK passport or pronounce yogurt in that weird way British people do. Yet over the past decade I have countless times had to correct people that being from Ireland does not make be British and no, Ireland is not in the UK. No, we don’t “just not want to be” we are no longer part of it and no Irish pounds were not the same thing as pound sterling.
I’m not alone in having these awkward conversations, most Irish people abroad encounter people who think we are part of Britain, and for the most part it does not bother me. I cannot expect everyone in the world to have a good understanding of the geopolitics of a very small European country; I’m no expert myself. But when they tell me I’m wrong about the status of our country, or when the person who makes the mistake is British themselves, then I do begin to get annoyed.
While living in the United States my house mate asked where Ireland was, before her boyfriend called her an idiot and that “everyone knows Ireland is in the UK”. He argued tooth and nail that he was right. A co-worker in Australia constantly called me British and when I gently corrected her, she rebutted “no, you guys just don’t want to be in UK, but you are”. I’ve had these encounters over and over, sometimes getting to the point where I show my driver’s license (it’s an old-style paper one, which usually invites even further ridicule).
Conversations with British people on the topic sometimes leave me feeling so incredulous. Now living in Canada, I have an English colleague who despite correction, still calls me British. The thing is I really like her, and it does not bother me on a personal level but stuns me that people in the UK can have such a poor understanding of where their country ends. Perhaps it’s that they don’t see the difference, or think it doesn’t matter; because up until last June it didn’t matter as much.
One of the great things about Ireland and the UK being in the European Union was, that instead of focusing on individual nationalities and our differences, we focused instead on what we had in common. We popped up to Belfast for a concert, and groups of English stags landed weekly into Temple Bar. Those on the east coast only grew up with a British television station; now we all watch Graham Norton on Friday nights and Wimbledon every summer. We are islands on the edge of Europe, where every part of history has been intertwined - it’s impossible to imagine a time when they won’t be.
Culturally speaking the Irish and British do have a lot of similarities, and when abroad we’re often drawn to each other; we speak the same language, sometimes drink too much and enjoy a good fry up. So many British people live in Ireland and vice-versa, we have a shared history and not just the bad political history but the good cultural stuff too, from Anglo-Irish literature to comedians, celebrity chefs and music. These things in their own small way part of the peace process; divided communities on two islands learning to live together in peace, focusing on their prosperity and not their differences.
The commentary of past weeks has opened old wounds. As a nation we’ve felt a sense of foreboding since Brexit day. It’s been building ever since, and the pride we felt when Leo Varadkar stood up to Britain last month has grown to resentment and anger as British media and Brexiteers dismiss our border worries.
I’m not far off 30, and in my lifetime I have never felt such tension and bad feeling between us and our closest neighbour. It feels like we just fell out with our best friend, and we are only now realising that best friend has no idea who the hell we even are.