I’m tired of being asked where I am from

Irish people’s relentless search for connection can also be a daily reminder to migrants that they don’t fully belong

Ten years in Ireland, and I’m asked the same question every day: Where are you from?

I say the States — and it’s always the same from there. Whereabouts? Is that near Chicago? How long are you in Ireland? Ah okay, I thought I heard something in your accent. Do you have any plans to go back?

With immigration and emigration at the heart of the Irish narrative, it makes sense that there’s a deep-seated curiosity about any accent — as well as that charming small-island compulsion to root around for a connection with anyone you meet. This line of questioning has led me into hundreds of wonderful conversations over the years. And as a white, third-generation Irish, native English speaker, I can assume people are just being friendly — a privilege I don’t take lightly.

And yet, with around an eighth of Ireland’s population (12.9 per cent) made up of non-nationals, is it not growing tiresome — even tactless — to use someone’s most obvious difference as the default catalyst for conversation with them, however innocuously? After 10 years, I find myself wishing that this search for connection was not also a daily reminder that I don’t fully belong.


In my experience, the inevitability of this query is uniquely Irish. When I lived in London, people asked about my accent so infrequently that I nearly forgot I had one. That’s London, sure, with a population of which 37 per cent are born abroad. But I also notice that when I’m travelling in Europe, or even living for a time in other cities, people don’t often ask about my accent. I come home and that’s when the questions start.

I’m asked constantly. On buses. At the Tesco check-out. In pubs and cafes. In the queue for the portaloo at a race in the Phoenix Park

Part of it is just friendliness. Part of it could also be a keen national pride. People like to find out why visitors and immigrants come to Ireland because the answers are characteristically lovely: it’s beautiful. The people are so friendly. I’d always dreamed of coming.

But whatever the reason, I’m asked constantly. On buses. At the Tesco check-out. In pubs and cafes. In the queue for the portaloo at a race in the Phoenix Park. At weddings. At the fleadh. On the phone with an A&E phone operator.

Last week, in my local coffee spot, I was chatting away with the barista. At a break in the conversation, an Irish man turned and said: “Australian?” I replied no. “New Zealand?” No. “Okay, where then?” he asked.

I believe people are just trying to make conversation, find points of intersection — to be warm, to be welcoming. But it can feel invasive when someone demands to know my nationality before even saying hello.

Some of my immigrant friends feel no offence at these questions and are happy to answer. One suggested that because I am ancestrally Irish, and feel so connected to Ireland culturally, professionally, and socially, I’m more sensitive to being categorised as an outsider.

That’s definitely true. It’s not a matter of rejecting my nationality — it’s just that America doesn’t feel particularly relevant to my life when I’m drinking Lyon’s or working for an Irish company or playing camogie (not well, in fairness). And, in part, because I go to the states spouting phrases like “your man” and “cop on” and “washing-up liquid”, I feel increasingly foreign there. So the stakes are higher for belonging in the place I’ve made my home.

But it’s also simple attrition. I’m tired of being asked how long I’m visiting, given touristic advice, being expected to act as the mouthpiece for the entirety of American politics, and having basic elements of Irish history and politics explained to me every day. It’s well meant, and not a hardship — just tiring. It makes me feel conspicuous and transitory.

In moments when I don’t feel up to these conversations, I’ll answer “where are you from?” with “I live in Dublin”. I want to hug the people who accept this answer and move on, but hardly anyone does. They’ll say “but before that?” or “that’s not an Irish accent”.

So here’s my humble suggestion. If you can’t wait for someone’s backstory to come up in conversation, how about asking: Are you local?

For me, the best acceptance is when someone has an entire conversation with me without asking about my background. It’s like when you get talking to a stranger for an hour and only upon leaving do they say, sorry, what’s your name? Because it’s not the most important thing.

So here’s my humble suggestion. If you can’t wait for someone’s backstory to come up in conversation, how about asking: Are you local? — or otherwise leading with the assumption that they belong. Tourists will be delighted. Locals will be relieved.

And if you do ask someone where they’re from, it’s good form to accept the answer they give — allowing them to decide what they want to share about the complex backstory that has landed them in this place, with this accent, right now, talking to you. There are so many ways to make those proverbial Irish connections without undermining someone’s sense of belonging.

Because that’s what this is really about. Belonging. Letting everyone who lives on this extraordinary island, among all you wonderful people, feel at home.

Kathryn Phelan is a copywriter and editor in Dublin.