Growing up Irish in London, England in the 1970’s was a cultural identity minefield.
My parents were both school teachers, educated and bookish with Irish republican sensibilities. I remember my sister coming home from school one day and innocently asking my mother; “Mum – are we posh or are we common?”
My mother replied; “If anyone should be rude enough to ask - you can tell them we are ‘Educated Irish.’”
Looking back now, it was equally as snobbish a distinction, but even as a young child I grabbed onto the notion. I was already confused about my true national identity.
Because my parents were teachers we enjoyed two-month holidays in Ireland every year. In my mother’s home-town of Ballina, County Mayo we stayed with our grandmother and hung out with the neighbours children. We went to discos’ and ceilidhs – I had my first kiss on the bridge crossing the Rover Moy with a heartbreakingly handsome young man called Eammon Rooney. But still, we were “the English kids” with our hee-haw accents and our strangely fashionable clothes. We hung out with the local kids, but were never quite accepted as local ourselves. My parents and grandparents were Irish born and bred, their brogue was intact – their history, but we, their children, bore the stigma of their having abandoned ship. They left Ireland – not for the glamour and affluence of our friends in America – but for the traitorous advantages on offer from our oppressors, the English.
The 70’s and 80’s was a bad time to be Irish in Britain with republican paramilitary groups – the IRA and terrorist offshoots – blowing up nightclubs and department stores. “If an Irish person who seems to have a lot of cash moves into your area,” signs on the London underground warned, “call this number,” with a hotline to the special police unit set up for people to report on their Irish neighbours.
My politically motivated teenage years were spent keeping my mouth shut about my strong opinions on what I saw as the continued occupation of my parents’ homeland by the English. I did not agree on the planting of bombs in London. As a young woman I narrowly missed being inside Harrods of Knightsbridge when it was attacked and the blast blew in the windows of the hairdressing salon where I was working, but at the same time I knew more about the history and ongoing social injustice and politics that were leading this illegal call to arms.
Eventually, I moved to Ireland. Other people went abroad on holidays – we always went ‘home’. As a young adult, I spent all of my vacation time in my mother’s home in Ballina, County Mayo. I always said I moved to Ireland so I could start holidaying abroad!
The truth was far more complicated. I always felt more Irish than English and had always harboured a desire to live in the place my parents left. One of my sisters feels the same and followed me over here with her family, the other sister and our brother (who died, in London two years ago) were Londoners through and through, and mystified by my desire to live here. They see themselves as English, with Irish parents – which, in effect, is what we all were bought up to be. But it was never enough for me. I wanted to be properly Irish – somehow the English angle never computed in my soul.
I have been living in Ireland for twenty years now. I married a Dubliner, and we have two Irish boys with soft, sing-song accents. We live a few miles from my mother’s native Ballina in a fishing village called Killala in a house overlooking the sea. We burn bog-turf and bake soda-bread and have the radio tuned to R.T.E. For all that, I still speak with the North London accent I grew up with and am still, for all my family history in this area – if not a ‘blow-in’ (the name given to foreign residents) at least a “Plastic Paddy”.
However, I am generally considered a wholly Irish writer and I won’t bend on that point. My latest offering, City of Hope is the second of a trilogy and deals with the question of identity and moral values that I find myself constantly drawn to as a writer.
So for all my efforts to fit in do I feel truly Irish now?
The answer is – yes and no and either way it doesn’t matter to me any more.
The greatest thing my emigrant identity has given me is enough interest to question and explore the influences of my parent’s background on my life and, in turn, the political and social circumstances that influenced their lives.
Had they stayed in Ireland, and I had been born and educated here, perhaps I would not have had the questioning spirit that led me to become a writer? Would I have had the ‘outsiders’ view of the savage beauty of the landscape – the fresh ear for the unique, the curiosity to ask questions? Maybe. More importantly through living and writing in Ireland as the “pretender” to an Irish identity – I have learned that the personal path of the second generation emigrant carves it’s own peculiar place in a country’s history that is no less important that the people who were born there.