'I didn’t feel English enough, yet wasn’t accepted as Irish'

Fear of being ‘Plastic Paddy’ stalled my passport application, despite 99% Irish DNA

Miriam Foley: ‘I still remember the shock of realising that as an adult I would have an English accent.’

Miriam Foley: ‘I still remember the shock of realising that as an adult I would have an English accent.’

 

Eating those ice creams with the crunchy coating - Brunches - and bag after bag of cheese and onion Tayto’s, bars of Irish Cadbury’s with caramel, a different shape and flavour to British Cadbury’s.

Playing pool in Davy’s and getting so good that I often beat a string of contenders when it’s winner stays on.

Bumping our way over potholes to the shops, or gaping holes in the muddy earth to the fields, in a tractor and trailer.

Getting soaking wet in jeans and a jumper at Enniscrone beach, then tucking into sausage and chips in the campervan.

The smell of wood fires, damp bog, rain, looking for cows in the fields, then running for our lives when they came after us.

I didn’t feel English enough, yet wasn’t accepted as Irish enough

The long, windy drive to Holyhead, the salty air in our mouths up on deck on the Cat, the front room visits to relatives when we sat quietly and listened, until we were let loose on the fields.

Playing hide and seek, or burying animals we’d unsuccessfully nursed, in what I remember as a forest, but what was no more than a cluster of trees.

The soft fur of the small balls of pups that were invariably at our uncles’ and aunts’ houses each year.

The tears at leaving.

These are the gems of my childhood summer holidays in Ireland, where both my parents are from. The place, that, decades later, I still consider a home.

Invisible roots

It was actually my home, too, for a couple of years when I was around five or six, though the memories are hazy.

I remember the huge, posh hotel on the hill as you leave Waterford for Ferrybank, doing “evil knievels” on my borrowed bicycle and later counting my bruises, and a minor car accident on a dual carriageway that saw my Cabbage Patch doll and I both get a plaster.

I also remember missing my dad terribly - he had stayed behind in London to work - and not quite fitting in at school due to my English accent.

Despite living there only fleetingly, and it being just a place of holidays and the birth country of my mum and dad, invisible roots still reach out to me across the sea.

Home is not one place, it’s not a building with four walls, it’s not even the country

My ear twitches at the sound of the Irish accent, the way your ears twitch when you’re abroad on holidays, or have emigrated and hear someone from your home-country.

I feel as attached to Ireland as if it were my home, so much so that I spent my late teens and early 20s proclaiming my Irishness to English friends, Irish relatives, people I met in pubs.

With other first-year undergraduates at Leeds University, I discussed the ceilidhs on a Wednesday, and the Irish congregation in our local parish. We felt like poets as we talked about belonging and identity. The truth was, home was both London and Ireland, but it was also neither, not fully.

I didn’t feel English enough, yet wasn’t accepted as Irish enough.

Now I live in Madrid, I’m not in one country, or the other. I no longer yearn to assert myself, my identity, my feelings of belonging, longing. I know they are there, beneath my surface; that they make me who I am.

Accent

I still remember the shock of realising that as an adult I would have an English accent - my sister and I would always play in Irish accents, and I assumed we’d have one when we grew up.

This Irishness of mine is in my memories, in the stories I heard as a child, in the way I pronounce the word “any”.

It’s in the way my writing finds its way back, on a ferry, to Ireland, to the fields and the trees and the sea, to that cluster of trees behind my late uncle’s house, now demolished, a grand new house in its place.

My short stories, nuggets of memoir, and novel Her Mother’s Daughter - published with my nom de plume Alice Fitzgerald - go back and forth between London and Ireland, like my memories, and my life.

Though not autobiographical, the book is influenced by my life experiences, by those summers, as it explores a woman’s past, the impact of that on her daughter and their relationship.

Now with Brexit looming, my Irish passport forms are back on the table to be filled out. It’s something I’ve meant to do for years, but a mixture of blasé attitude, laziness, and then not wanting to be another “Plastic Paddy” getting their Irish passport, have all kept me from sending them off.

Maybe now I know my DNA, thanks to my sister’s recent ancestry test, I won’t feel so self-conscious about it: 99 per cent Irish.

I don’t own a house in Ireland to call my own. But then, I don’t own a house anywhere. Home is where I make my life now in Madrid, and it’s where I grew up in London.

And it’s Ireland too, the air and the smells and the taste, the people and the memories. Home is not one place, it’s not a building with four walls, it’s not even the country; it’s somewhere in me.

Miriam Foley is a writer and journalist. Her debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter (by Alice Fitzgerald) is published by Allen & Unwin

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