There’s not much I like about Ireland, so I live in London
I am an emigrant, but that feels too grandiose a term for a girl who works in an office in London
Niamh Mulvey: “We ask each other: ‘Do you ever think of going home?’ Mostly, we answer vaguely: ‘We don’t know, maybe, depends’.”
There’s not much I like about Ireland. I prefer London’s cosmopolitanism, America’s fiction, Scandinavia’s politics, France’s sex scandals, Spain’s food, the way Japanese girls wear flat shoes, Berlin’s exuberance. I’m also a fan of Paris after the war, New York in the 50s, St Petersburg in the springtime. And I like subways, huge suburbs and getting lost and not knowing anyone, anyone at all, as far as the eye can see…
There’s not much I like about Ireland, so I live in London. When I moved here a few years ago, my boyfriend and I lived in a shared house with several others, people we didn’t know. A Polish builder, in his 60s at least, rented the sitting room. It was one of those deceptively enormous Victorian terraced houses built as part of the south London railway suburbs in the late 19th century.
According to Charles Booth (this guy who walked the thousands of streets of the city in the 1890s classifying neighbourhoods and describing his findings in meticulously swoopy handwriting), back then the house would have been home to an upper middle-class family who would have been likely to “keep a servant, or at least a girl”. (Perhaps Irish, right? From Cork, like how your basic Irish servant girl is always from Cork.)
Anyway, we had the front room of this lovely but draughty old house, while the Polish guy lived in the next room, what used to be the living room. He was handsome - incredible cheekbones - and he used to try to get my fella to watch YouTube videos of Christian proselytising in the sticky little kitchen we all shared. He paid little attention to me, and would direct all questions to the male of our relationship, which I didn’t really mind. I think he meant to be gentlemanly. When he walked down the hall you could smell the dusky smoke of his weird cigarettes in the air for quite a while afterwards. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant smell, but he wasn’t supposed to smoke in the house.
Upstairs lived an unfriendly BBC worker who informed us, coldly, when we asked - we always had to ask, back then, we had to know - that she was Iranian-Finnish. Later, a curiously dead-eyed young man from the north of England moved into another room. He worked in an art gallery and was always in his room, throttling the internet connection with his dubious bit-torrents.
A woman of Caribbean extraction owned the house. She was funny and generous and allowed us to pay the deposit on the room over two months because, she said, this must be an expensive time for you. Her surname was Walsh, so I asked her about it (of course). She shrugged and said something about a priest in Jamaica several generations ago who christened a load of people with Irish surnames. Why are you moving to cold grey London, she asked, laughing a bit at me.
I viewed the house one freezing day in February having spent weeks crashing on an friend’s couch and house-hunting in the dark evenings after work, stupidly scheduling viewings in Shepherd’s Bush and Hackney half an hour apart. I’m from Ireland, I said. And then she laughed a bit more. I took the room with huge relief.
When you wake up to news stories about Sudanese people trying to scramble across the English Channel straight into Farage heartland, you think of all the times you’ve thought about your Irishness and you blush very deeply indeed. I am an emigrant, I suppose, but often that feels far too grandiose a term for a white girl who works in a shiny office in central London and can afford to come home a couple of times a year.
So, I am very much into checking my privilege, because this is about the extent of it: every year your “r”s get a little flatter and your “th”s softer and you find yourself saying entire sentences in some strange bastardised London commuter accent: Can you move dahn, please.
On the way out of Dublin airport on your way back home, you see those signs about cash prizes for bringing companies into the country, lovely Saoirse Ronan’s lovely face reminding you to do your bit-and you do feel annoyed, for a moment, by the desperation of it, the “we really don’t have a clue how to keep you here, but got any change on ya” of it all.
But you forget about it pretty quickly. And then when the Guardian is running opinion pieces on the latest Ireland cock-up, people don’t usually ask you about it, because they’re not interested, but you want to tell them about it anyway. You want them to know-yes, they forced that girl to have a Caesarean; no I can’t vote, unless I go home, and even then I’m not really supposed to-and you want them to be a bit shocked. Why? Because, as Tommy Tiernan once said: What does being Irish mean? It means you’re not f**king English. This is England, after all. The whole thing, it’s still there, sort of, in the way you bristle when someone makes a joke about the “potato” famine and the way you respond to your colleague when he asks you about getting his (British) passport renewed: I don’t f**king know, mate.
But it’s not that you’re ungrateful, oh no. It’s London that trusted you enough to give you a job in the industry you wanted to work in. It’s London that gave your partner a job within days of arriving, following months on the dole and a joke of an internship on a JobBridge scheme. But it’s not that you blame Ireland, either, oh no. It’s your own fault for wanting to do something different. It’s your own fault for not wanting to stay working in a take-away in the evenings while you interned during the day. It’s your own fault for not filling in those HDip application forms. So that’s where you end up-grateful to London, and not angry at Ireland, no, not one bit.
And really, in this day and age, what does it matter? Britain isn’t even owned by its citizens anymore-the whole country is being sold off to the highest bidder, and central London is populated almost exclusively by foreign millionaires though these people never feature in the endless debates they have here about immigration. If you bring enough capital to a country, it seems you can enter yourself, soundlessly and without fanfare, though arguably this wealth distorts British society in a far more radical way than any amount of ordinary people from Eastern Europe. We’re never mentioned either, English-speaking, white as we are, UKIP considers us “kith and kin”, and, if you’re not careful, you end up in the curious position of demanding acknowledgment of your “otherness” while those with real challenges do all they can to overcome it.
So it’s not a lot to worry about, is it? Do Pennsylvanians living in Florida write anguished pieces about their feelings of dislocation? Maybe they do (I’d definitely read them), but likely they don’t, much. So us “new” Irish in London, with our education and our sexiness, and our wheely suitcases perfect for Ryanair weekends at home, we’re nothing like the depressing number of older men you encounter, like the one I saw last weekend, arguing in pure Dublinese while topping up his electricity card in the corner shop, drunk as a skunk at midday, or the man who asked me for change in Soho last summer and who, it turned out, was raised in an orphanage around the corner from where I grew up.
We’re nothing like that. Us new snazzy Irish 2.0, we’re grand sure. And because of this - our diluted, lily-livered emigrant experience - there’s not a huge amount we can complain about. We ask each other, do you ever think of going home? And, mostly, we answer each other vaguely: we don’t know, maybe, depends, and then we change the subject because maybe it’s too much effort. Maybe we’ll just stay forever, because why wouldn’t we. Sure it’s no distance.
And sometimes, I think about going home and being older, and my own kids coming back over here, or going away somewhere even further and staying there, and what’s the point? Why would I give up all of the things that are so much better for me here, just to go back to some notion of home, only for it all to work out in the exact same way again? And then you’re slap back up against the politics of it all - what’s going to become of our little country? And of course you’re excluded from all of that anyway. (Even your friends back home tell you, nervously, that they don’t think emigrants should have the vote. Maybe in the fun stuff like the referendums. But not for the Dáil. That would only distort things.)
You don’t want anyone to feel sorry for you. You don’t say “press” for cupboard anymore, so what? Us Irish, we love our drama and our tragedy, and sometimes, there just isn’t any. Sometimes, there is just living somewhere that looks exactly like home, but feels completely different. Sometimes homesickness goes away, and then you’re left with just another choice.
So what does it matter? There’s not much I like about Ireland anyway. Except my family and friends, of course. There’s not much I like about Ireland. Except, you know, thinking about it quite a lot. There’s not much I like about Ireland. Except being there.
Niamh Mulvey is acting editorial director at Quercus Children’s Books. This essay appears in a special London issue of the Stinging Fly, which will be launched at the London Irish Centre next Thursday at 8pm. There will be readings by, among others, Gavin Corbett, Martina Evans, Maurice Leitch and Patrick McCabe. The London issue is available in bookshops or can be ordered from stingingfly.org.