Subscriber OnlyLife & Style

I have unlocked a new level in the game of Dublin parenting

Una McCaffrey: Even after 25 years living in the South, I can still be baffled by soda bread, the Primary Cert and the ‘Gaeltacht special’

“Is this soda bread?” asked a woman holding a small loaf in front of my face in my local supermarket last Friday. I had to get her to repeat the question — it had been a very long week and I was not at my most intellectually nimble. She was clutching the kind of brown bread you might see accompanying a chowder in the west and explained that she was shopping for a neighbour. The neighbour had requested bread, but specified that it should “not be soda bread”. This condition had led to doubt and complication.

The loaf, in my Northern view, was clearly wheaten bread, not soda bread, which is entirely different. I know this because of the number of mornings I spent accompanying my mother to McCrumlish’s Bakery in Dromore, Co Tyrone, many decades ago. The soda bread we took home in white paper bags with twisted corners was white, not brown.

But I also knew, having spent close to 2½ decades living in Dublin, that I was veering into the middle of a potential bread minefield. My brown bread was another woman’s soda bread and my soda bread was somebody else’s…something. I paused for too long. Then I muttered about being from the North and calling this wheaten bread but not really being the best person to ask about this kind of thing, sorry. Quite understandably, she practically sprinted away to the next shopper, who was presumably able to answer the question immediately and without doubt. I scuttled away, feeling like the blow-in I am and will always be.

Junior Infants, you say? I say Primary One. They played with Marla at Montessori? Oh, you mean Plasticine. They need 10 copybooks for school? Aha, that’s 10 exercise books for me

This wasn’t even my first time to feel this during that week. A day or so before, I’d heard somebody talking about the Primary Cert, a label that meant nothing to me but seemed to be familiar to everybody else who was listening. Google later told me this exam for primary-school pupils was instituted in 1929 and ran to 1967 (infuriatingly, with obligatory needlework for girls). It was understandable that I had never heard of it, but I doubted that people of my age who had grown up south of the Border would have been in the same boat. More likely, it would have been part of their innate memory. The blow-in needs to take that small extra step to fit in, usually without even realising it’s happening. This often involves nodding and smiling, but not speaking.


The whole business reaches a new level of potential discomfort when children enter the picture, especially when you’ve married a fellow Northerner who can offer no help. You’re constantly trying to figure out how really basic things work. Junior Infants, you say? I say Primary One. They played with Marla at Montessori? Oh, you mean Plasticine. They need 10 copybooks for school? Aha, that’s 10 exercise books for me. The extent of these daily micro requirements to learn new things means I sometimes feel like more of a blow-in now than I did when I moved to my country’s capital city 25 years ago.

And just in case I ever begin to think I’ve cracked it, there will always be some kids around who will be more than ready to highlight my deficiencies. It can be quite chastening to be knocked down to size in your own kitchen by groups of innocently vicious four-year-olds mocking your pronunciation of “scone”. I shudder to think what they would make of my Northern accent suggesting they look in a “mirror”.

The older the children get, the more the potential problems mount up. You need to figure out how transferring to secondary school works (no 11-plus here) and then all about the logic of school finishing at the end of May, not June. The Junior Cert and Leaving Cert loom before you know it, extending existing gaps in knowledge to oceans of ignorance.

And that’s just the stuff you have to know. Where things get really messy is in the world of non-essentials, such as the Gaeltacht. Now, we have these in Ulster (nine counties) too, but they just seem to occupy a somewhat more intense position in Dublin society. There are so many choices, so many different reputations to consider and apparently so many ways of getting it wrong. Did you know you need to book nearly a year beforehand? I did not. Did you know there are “Gaeltacht special” trains that travel to and from Dublin every summer just to transport these teenagers to their latest life experience? I did not. Did you know that if you plan to visit your offspring during their period of immersion in the national language, you need to book accommodation about six months beforehand? Well, you know what I’m going to say.

But, I got there. As that Gaeltacht special pulled off from Heuston Station in early June last year, I felt I had unlocked a new level in the game of Dublin parenting, a new badge to disguise that I mostly have no idea what I’m doing.

What I do realise, though, is that there are always other people around me who know so much more than I do. And, lucky blow-in that I am, I will manage to find the nice ones who are always willing to help me to avoid the latest potential faux pas in my path. These are the North Stars (or should that be South Stars?) of friends, the ones who tell me what I need to know before I’ve even realised I have a question. Without them, my blow-in paranoia and lack of Dublin bread-naming instincts could be even greater.

As with so many parts of my life, though, you should probably double check that with a Dubliner to be sure.

Una McCaffrey

Una McCaffrey

Una McCaffrey is an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times