In Oz, Marianne would have told Connell: ‘Get stuffed, you gutless wonder’
Brianna Parkins on how Ireland and Down Under differ, from mammy syndrome to cult of GAA
Irish men will rarely tell you nice things to your face. That carry-on is for Americans in movies. Photograph: Enda Bowe
Normal People has turned GAA shorts, silver chains and being crap at communication into a full-blown fetish. It has definitely given Irish men a leg up (and maybe over) in Sydney, where my Australian friends have been plaguing me with questions about the series, shocked about all the riding that seems to go on in Ireland. I tell them, yes, sex has been in Ireland since at least 2018, but once the pope finds out it’s over for us all.
They loved the story, but they didn’t get it. I don’t blame them. If the novel was set in Australia it wouldn’t have been clandestine meetings and stammered silences and looks across lockers. Marianne would have marched up to Connell and said “Get stuffed, you gutless wonder” in front of his friends for full effect and would never have spoken to him again. It would have been a very short book.
In Ireland, the words held back can be more important than the ones actually spoken. It’s poetic on a page, but it makes living and loving here unnecessarily frustrating, especially for new arrivals
We Australians are not a subtle nation. We don’t pay attention to gestures or nuance. It’s a shock to move to Ireland, where a lot of life is lived in the unsaid and the words held back can be more important than the ones actually spoken. It’s poetic on a page, but it makes living and loving here unnecessarily frustrating, especially for new arrivals.
So here’s a handy user’s guide for us foreigners who have successfully tricked an Irish person into having romantic feelings for us. Or those who think they want a Connell. It’s made entirely out of my own broken and biased knowledge, gleaned from stuffing things up along the way. Apologies if it’s focused on blokes, but so far they’ve been the sole focus of my personal research.
Ready for some sweeping generalisations? Have I got some for you.
Sport takes priority
It takes priority. Especially if they play it and especially if it’s GAA. My boyfriend plays the run-kick kind, not the stick-hit one. In the last week and a half there have been two matches and four training sessions. Then he has to post selfies in the gym in between. From the outside it has all the demands of a cult without the perks of group sex.
“That’s what you think,” says the boyfriend. I still don’t know the rules, but it seems to end every night with him rolling his arse over a cylinder of foam and whispering “Jayyysus” to himself in pain.
There is no drinking all week before a match. Not even a sneaky wine with dinner, not even on special occasions. You get dropped from a game for going on holiday, so weekend trips are ruled out. This can be tough on relationships, given the season seems to go for 11½ months of the year. You might want to argue, but there is no hope: this is your lot in life now. Do not point out that it’s amateur sport and they’re not exactly playing county. Not if you want all offers of tea-making rescinded for the next week.
I’ve written before about the differences between how boys and girls are raised in Irish households. My brother was treated like a lovable but slightly dopey family dog, and to this day I think he could bring a dead bird into the house and my mum would heap praise on him. We call it the mammy syndrome in our house.
There is a certain type of permissible uselessness afforded to boys. Irish mothers express love through doing and, when it comes to their sons, doing everything for them. Which is a lovely concept – until you find yourself having to explain to someone in their mid-20s how an iron works. (In fairness, I did once have an Australian ex who YouTubed “How to mop”.)
But domestic incompetence seems to be much more widespread here and kind of accepted with a jovial kindness. “Jesus, Dec would burn the kitchen down trying to make toast. It’s like I have four kids instead of three,” a friend of mine said, smiling. Actually smiling. An Australian would not be smiling. Dec’s stuff would be out on the lawn.
No, it’s not fine. Something is wrong. But you’re going to have to pry it out of them. I’m probably too comfortable with conflict. Down under it’s not uncommon for a couple to be having a domestic (a loud discussion of relationship issues) in the front garden at a volume high enough for the neighbours not only to hear but also to adjudicate. And no one judges, because next week it will be their turn.
Here it seems you’re not allowed to be in bad form. Leading to things being pushed down and coming out in weird ways.
A wise Irish friend gave me the following advice on difficult conversations: “You can’t expect us to respond properly the first go. We won’t have the right answer. You have to let us go away with it for a while and come back.” She would know, seeing as she took two days to tell her partner that, on second thoughts, she loved him too.
Showing your feelings
They won’t always tell you, but they will show you. The same with Irish families. They’ll rarely tell you nice things to your face. That carry-on is for Americans in movies. They’ll just show it instead.
An unasked-for tea dropped next to you on the couch. The hot-water bottle between the sheets so the bed warms up before you get in. Airport pick-ups. Dinner on the table after a long day. New perfume appearing in the bathroom. Walking to pick you up late at night to make sure you get home safely. A Kinder Bueno shoved into your bag because you get hangry. Sharing chips with you and ordering extra because they know you were lying when said you didn’t want any. Small gestures so you know they’re thinking about you, even if it goes unsaid.
On the rare occasion when unfiltered emotional expression comes out, you know they mean it. It usually comes at the 11th hour, like when you’re getting on a plane or when disaster strikes, but they get there. Sometimes just in time.
And, yes, I can already see the comments section under this article. People furiously typing, “Who does she think she is, coming over here, riding our men, writing about them in the paper.” “She can go back to where she came from.” But I won’t. Because I like it here. And your men.
Brianna Parkins is a reporter with Ireland AM; Róisín Ingle is away