Exiled, bitter and full of self-pity: Maybe I do feel Irish after all
There are upsides to being an immigrant. Yet I fear I will end up like one of John McGahern’s placeless people
‘There are upsides to being an immigrant. I get to be judgmental about British institutions, brag that there isn’t a class system in Ireland and celebrity culture doesn’t work because everyone knows someone that knows someone who knows Bono’
A shocking confession for St Patrick’s Day: I don’t feel very Irish and I never have. I come from a very Republican family and our national history seemed like one long miserable rant told by a bitter ex-wife in the kitchen at a house party. “The British starved us, locked us up and, when we had to go to America, they hated us there” “We get it, Mam,” my sisters and I would moan. “Can you stop ruining the episode of Friends where Ross marries the English girl.”
I rebelled by idolising the glamorous London city life I read about in the Sunday supplements.
I was going to run away to London, become best friends with Kate Winslet and never have to think about hunger strikes again.
I hated Irish at school. I spent my one stay at the Gaeltacht listening to the Manic Street Preachers and comparing everything to 1984 in a diary I thrillingly kept in English. Winston Smith had nothing on me. The only Irish people I really admired were Wilde, Beckett, Edna O Brien, the ones that escaped, the ones that got the best parts of being Irish without having to live there.
Yet now, living in Britain, when I meet people for the first time, my Irishness is my most prominent feature. My nationality is the most defining thing about myself, just as it becomes more elusive to me. They will invariably mention a granny from Donegal or Wexford and I will do a half squint of recognition as if I might have gone to school with her. I feel pressure to live up to what I think is their idea of Irishness. Full of craic, friendly, loquacious, ready to be the life and soul of any party that might be about to start. That is not me: I am awkward, terrible at small talk. If was born in earlier Celtic times, I’d probably be drowned in a village well.
There are upsides to being an immigrant. I get to be judgmental about British institutions, brag that there isn’t a class system in Ireland because we’re too small and celebrity culture doesn’t work because everyone knows someone that knows someone who knows Bono. Inherited institutionalised privilege such as what the royal family has doesn’t exist in Ireland, I explain smugly. Unless you want to get a job at RTÉ.
We don’t have your obsession with who went to which private school, because the Catholic Church just runs all of ours and that hasn’t caused any problems. We also, don’t have an empire or slavery to worry about. Racism didn’t even exist until the Noughties because we didn’t have any ethnic minorities – apart from Travellers, but that was different. Posh English boys love my accent, mainly because I remind them of servants their mother would disinherit them from going near or a kindly nanny that looked after them before being packed of to boarding school aged three.
Though for every immigrant success story, there are warnings of failure. For every Graham Linehan, there’s an entire GAA team of old lonely men in Camden, forgotten and lost like unvisited gravestones, always on the verge of saying something racist. The fear is you’ll end up one of those placeless people who pop up in Brian Friel plays or John McGahern books who don’t fit in anywhere. That aunt who lived in London all those years and now her nephews and nieces have to drop firewood up to her when it’s cold and make sure she has enough Complan in. Irish folklore is full of warnings of people who stayed away too long, then could never quite come back.
But I don’t equate that with some existential homeland longing.
People who take real personal pride from their country of birth are grasping at self worth straws.
It’s like taking pride in people with the same star sign as you or an historical figure with the same first name. Most countries are nice; most nations have produced something of merit at some stage. Just because I was born on the same landmass as Seamus Heaney or Maud Gonne, doesn’t mean it endows me with any special privileges. If I bump into them in the afterlife, sure, it means I might be able to string out a five -minute conversation about Irish Christmas traditions but it would run dry very quickly? Besides, why are we talking about the Late Late toy show in heaven?
What exactly so great about being Irish? As a woman, why should I swell with misty-eyed pride for a country that denies me autonomy over my body, with a leader that swoons over Mike Pence on Twitter and is about to give a state visit to the leader of a religion that locked so many of us in slave labour camps for the majority of our countries history? A nation that let women fight for it’s freedom and then spent the next 100 years shutting us up? Because Riverdance was good? Oh. Okay.
I can’t be British, though. There is no getting away from the fact that they are a lot of work.
They think puns are funny; they are obsessed with whether they are middle class are not. All their sitcoms are about awkwardness. They know absolutely nothing about their own history and 50 per cent think telling you they consider Ireland part of the UK is a compliment. They take everything too seriously and they’re weird about dogs.
So why pick either team, I thought? Why not just use my London-sharpened comedy brain to poke loving fun at all things Irish? What could go wrong? So last year, after rolling my eyes at someone I considered a bit of a try hard tweeting “as Gaeilge”, I mini-blogged that I thought people who tweeted in Irish were creepy. What a silly stupid thing to say, I thought as I fell asleep. No one will that at face value. It will probably get two favourites and a retweet. Its like claiming to find joggers sinister or vegetarians two-faced. I am obviously taking the Mick. Micks can do that right?
In the end I only had to block about 40 people and luckily most of the hundreds of abusive messages were in Irish so I hadn’t a clue what they were saying. I tried to Twitter translate them, but Twitter doesn’t recognise Irish as a language and I thought mentioning this this might make things worse. Then the Welsh speakers got wind of my blasphemous tweet and I had to block a lot of profiles with daffodils. Then, a week later, an article about my tweet in appeared in an Irish language newspaper. It was becoming obvious that my joke did not translate. It was bitter-sweet: getting all this attention and not being able to understand a word of it. The same question appearing again and again – what sort of Irish person did I think I was?
So where does that leave me, a London-based Irish comedian, making jokes on Twitter that one side doesn’t get and the other side doesn’t find funny? So spare a thought for us other immigrants, the left luggage neither wants to claim. Exiled, bitter and full of self-pity. My mother was right all along. I have never felt so Irish.