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I moved to London and put on the coat of Irishness. Now in Australia, I can’t take it off

Returning home to Ireland didn’t feel like a viable option. And so we’re in Canberra

Irishness is something that happens when you leave. It is the lens through which other people see you once you’re gone from home, the place where everyone understands your references, and where saying “now” with intense satisfaction after completing any household task is completely standard.

I left six years ago because despite our national reputation for producing writers, we have a job and housing market that doesn’t really make space for them. Since then, I’ve been in London – until last week when I followed my own great-great-grandfather and countless Irish people before and after him by emigrating to Australia.

There’s a coffee shop near our apartment here in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. My English husband is the type to serially befriend strangers and quickly wooed the barista, who hails from Sri Lanka, upon our arrival here just six days ago. When I went into the cafe alone this morning, he declared with the expression of a man intending to pay a compliment that I must be British, because I sound like Emily from Friends.

You remember Emily, I presume? She was Ross Gellar’s insufferably nasal and unacceptably English wife. Everyone, without exception, hated her. I contemplated the comment sniffily as the jolly barista simultaneously made three cups of coffee and then I decided to let it slide, recalling that I’m very far from home.


Like the agonisingly dull Emily, Ireland is merely a distant concept to the friendly barista. A pastiche of stereotypes and very vague ideas. He doesn’t know about Kerrygold butter or the Aisling books or Ryan Tubridy’s pay. He doesn’t need to.

Interestingly, this distant concept appears to be equally difficult to parse for Ireland’s British neighbours, which is in part why, after five years in the UK and despite finally buying our first home there two years ago, I felt ready to pack up and head to Australia when himself received a job offer.

Britain carries a dissonance that is exhausting for anyone coming from one of its former colonies to navigate. It is a country amid a deep crisis of identity. You’d almost want to give it a moment and avert your eyes, like someone trying to fight the dishonourable urge to slow the car down and have a good gawk at the site of a helicopter crash in an adjacent field. You’re really hoping everyone is all right, but a morbid part of you is still scanning the horizon for misallocated human heads.

Britain is attempting to assemble, or reassemble, a collective identity untouched by the dark blot of its imperial history. This is a task at which it is failing, since its history is one of a culture that quite loudly laid claim to almost 14 million square miles of the planet, obliterating and displacing other people and cultures.

The empire was handsy, but while it took with one hand, it gave (albeit with a spot of coercion) its own enlightened culture in return, so I’m writing this in English. Of course, they don’t really teach that part in British schools. As a result, when you live in the UK as an Irish person, you’re generally the only one in the room (apart from people from other formerly colonised places) to have much awareness of that.

Each time a British colleague mimics your accent at work, you wrestle down a strong urge to grab them by the shoulders and start shouting about the Famine, which would do little to counteract the stereotypes.

When you leave home, you shrug on that coat of Irishness, or rather it is placed upon you for all it may stink of turf and feel tight under the arms. I became Irish in London not because I dug down on an inclination toward patriotism after landing on British soil, but because other people saw me as Irish and wouldn’t really leave it alone. The longer I was away from home, the less comfortable and more performative the identity felt. Whether you deny it, lean into it or try to ignore it, you’re still wearing the coat.

Returning home to Ireland didn’t feel like a viable option. There are plenty of things we can’t blame the British for, however thrilling a hobby we may find it. The housing crisis is one. Depressingly there is consensus among friends my age and younger that Ireland is no place to be under 50. With 68 per cent of Irish 25–29-year-olds still living with their parents, adults are infantilised. We cling to the phrase “young people” to overlook the frightening fact that even Irish people in their 30s and 40s often cannot obtain a decent standard of living in their home country.

Once again, people are leaving Ireland to obtain the basic elements of a dignified and independent life. A home, autonomy, somewhere to use the bathroom without their mother folding towels outside the door. When I go home and witness the increasing intergenerational inequity, James Joyce resounds in my head – “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

And so, we’re in Australia. My great-grandfather Jonathan was born here, along with his brother Robert. Apparently, Jonathan worked as an undertaker. The 1911 census places both brothers back home in Tipperary, though. Like so many emigrants, or children of emigrants, there was something about Ireland that summoned them back home. My brother returned from London to raise his own family. I’m hopeful about Australia, and excited to be here, but I’m not naive, despite my joy at witnessing wild cockatoos waddling about and the high standard of plentiful rental property. The future is undetermined, and Irishness is a coat you can only take off at home.