Monday, November 22, 2010

In defence of the Emerald Isle

We'd been in Ireland about a month when someone (the lovely MD of Penguin Ireland, to give him full credit), told me the truest thing I ever learned about Ireland. 'The thing is', he said,'the Irish feel a far greater sense of kinship to the English than the English do in reverse'.

Three years living in Ireland taught me nothing more useful.The Irish have generations-worth of layers of familiarity with Britain, be it involuntary or (a consequence of emigration) voluntary. The Irish husband of an American friend told me that, in his primary school in the Eighties, his class of 30 were asked to put up their hands if anyone had an aunt or uncle living in the UK or the USA. Every hand in the room shot up. This would have been an unthinkable phenomenon in Eighties Britain.

How this familiarity translates into everyday life is as follows. Many Irishmen (and women) actively support Premier League teams (though I've yet to meet any Vauxhall Conference die-hards). BBC programmes are watched interchangeably, if not more frequently, than RTE ones - when we were in Dublin, there was genuine outrage and consternation about the migration of the BBC to an all-digital service, which would mean that the Irish would have to start paying for the BBC rather than picking it up via the English transmitters.
Everybody you meet has been to England, usually to visit relatives/close friends and often for a few years. The Guardian was cheaper for me to buy in Ireland than in England (go figure) - and available everywhere the Irish Times was sold.

At the same time, Ireland's got its own thing going on. It most definitely isn't an outpost of England (when I commented once that, with all the consumption of British media, it was as if we were standing on the edge of Ireland leaning towards the UK, an Irish friend said, 'just don't start referring to Britain as 'the mainland'. Noted).

I said it when we lived there, and, eight months out, I stand by it; Ireland's an amazing place for a holiday, but as a place to live, you really need to be Irish. In many ways, and oddly for a country with such deep roots, it's still finding its feet, and the Celtic Tiger mess is that of a teenager let loose with a credit card.
Religion, despite a generation that claims to be beyond it, is still pervasive (just try getting your unchristened kid into school, even Protestant school). Family ties are strong in an utterly exemplary way; but that makes it harder to belong if you're not part of an Irish family.
Then there's the preventative layer of the language; both Gaelige, which still sounds like someone talking through a mouthful of Jameson's however long I twist and turn with it, and the Hiberno-English vernacular, which is glorious, but takes a while to come to terms with. 'The day that's in it'; 'the guts of a week'; 'messages' and 'press' and the difference between 'your man', 'your one' and 'yer wan' - don't try and emulate it if you're an outsider. You won't get it right.

I left Dublin before things got truly bad and for entirely personal reasons; simply put, our roots are in England, and a sum total of seven years abroad felt like enough. Given our utter lack of regret at leaving Ireland, I've been taken aback at just how protective I feel of the view of the Irish as reported in the British media currently. The English just don't care about the myriad differences between themselves and their country cousins. If they think of them at all, it's in cliches.

Still; all the front pages depicting Ballymun slums and piebald ponies; the co-opting of Michael Flatley as spokesperson for Question Time (not yet, but surely only a matter of time); the fundamental indignation that Britain's helping to bail out Ireland, a Eurozone country; it all speaks to one, slightly sad, truth.
Namely: though a strong percentage of the Irish people could take Britain as a Chosen Specialised Subject on 'Mastermind' and ace it, the odds are that the average punter in any English town wouldn't know the name of the Taoiseach if you stopped them in the street. It's peculiar, and it wouldn't have occurred to me as odd before the years spent in Dublin, but now it makes me angry at my fellow Englishmen. I know Britain's far bigger than Ireland, but still. The USA is bigger than them both, and the Americans, even on the Scandinavian-dominated West Coast, all seemed to know heaps more about Ireland than the British do.

These people fought in our wars, they helped to rebuild our towns, and they have their own country and culture. Let's let them keep some dignity, at least, and acknowledge that.


She Means Well... said...

I really enjoy reading your blog - it's always so refreshing and often makes me chuckle to myself.

As a transplanted Brit, it's always nice to get the perspective of others who have settled abroad. And being in Greece, I feel a particular affiliation for the financial woes folk in Ireland are facing.
(Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt - but may have to sell it)

I have recently set up - a collection of feeds from expat blogs I enjoy. Posts from featured blogs appear at but readers can also link to the original blogs to comment or see more.

I would like to include a feed from your blog. Would that be OK with you, or would you prefer to give it a miss?

Let me know by adding a comment to

Thanks a lot in advance!
Mandi xxx

Jane Travers said...

Sadly, I think the British attitude to Ireland is still a post-colonial one - to many, we're still the troublesome outpost that got away.

The very fact that the English government berated our government's celebration of the 1916 Rising, calling it a "glorification of a terrorist act", says more about the English attitude to Ireland than anything else.

And it is interesting to read English reactions to their government's loan (LOAN! Not gift!) of 7 billion euros to Ireland. Would the reactions be the same if it was any other country receiving that loan?

However, much of English culture still confuses me too. I use England, Britain and the UK interchangeably, and don't think I'll ever get them straight... ;)

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Sarah. And thank you.

I was born here in Ireland, my husband is about as Irish as they come (as are my kids) but my family are English so I stand with a foot on both shores as it were. In many ways, therefore, I'm a case in point! :) Personally I thought the loan offer from Britain to be generous and gracious. I fully realise that it has financial reasoning behind it as well, but still. I do wish all the negativity could stop. It doesn't help anyone.

What's going to happen here? I have no idea. But I'm (possibly naively, possible not) still hoping for the best.

J.A. Pak said...

A wonderful post! A US citizen, I lived in England for 11 years and experienced similar feelings. The English, especially the English media, was far more aware of the US than vice versa, and it was hard to meet someone who hadn't visited or lived in the US.

beccabrown said...

What an excellent and observant post!

If I can offer one theory of my own - I'm English but with an Irish passport and an emotional tie to Ireland that somehow repeatedly surfaces despite the fact that I was born & bred in the UK - it's that Ireland is more like a wild singleton than a teenager perhaps? Having spent the longest adolescence imaginable fighting for its freedom, it's gone slightly wild at being A Nation Once Again?

Anyway, you're quite right about the disdainful, arrogant post-colonial attitude of Britain to Ireland; and I'm sadly aware of my own ignorance about what is, on paper at least, my country.

Well done.

Scribhneoir said...

Good post with an interesting insight into a difficult relationship.

I lived in England for years having taken the boat back in the last recession and lived there from the mid 80s into the mid 90s.

I would have to agree with you about the English attitude to Ireland. I worked in London and noticed that the interest or knowledge of Ireland depended on where in Britian a person hailed from but in general you are spot on, as is Jane.

Londoners were parocial in attitude, not seeming to be interested in anyone not from London whereas those from northern England were certainly more familiar with Ireland. As for the Scots, it depended on whether they supported Rangers or Celtic....

Love your blog, will be back :-)

Shopgirl said...

eloquent, dignified, sensitive, and well said. I am glad to have found your blog. I traveled to and worked with Irish companies in Dublin a few times, but I've never lived there. I have a lot of respect for the people, and truly enjoyed their hospitality.

iandevlin said...

As G.K. Chesterton said: "the tragedy of the English conquest of Ireland in the 17th century is that the Irish can never forget it and the English can never remember it."

Anonymous said...

As an Irish emigrant living in London, it was really interesting to read about your experience in Ireland. London is very open to people from all over, but the rootlessness of the city can be difficult to adjust to for someone coming from Ireland. I think that your feelings about needing to be Irish to live in Ireland would be true of other parts of the UK, however. I too have been frustrated by British ignorance and media representations of Irish culture and society, and am tired of having to defend or explain my nation over here (particularly being told to feel grateful for the bail out) so thank you for highlighting this. Perhaps things will begin to change with the first state visit by the monarchy this year?

Anonymous said...

I found your website in the sad demise of the antiroom. I miss it. It was interesting to read your thoughts on Ireland and they were very well written. I completely agree with the whole finding it difficult to not be Irish in Ireland (tho my partner's parents have settled here after more than 30 years)

I was suprised with a couple of things you mentioned... in rurual Ireland you will most definetly not see the Guardian for sale everywhere. I love Dublin, and have been resident here since I had the choice but the other Ireland, the one outside capital is another place altogether.

And I'm the first to admit that the Irish language sounds like gobbly gook a lot of the time. I do have a liking for it but am not offended by others arguments against it, in fact most people I know have only a vague (if even) grasp of the language but to descibe the gaeilge (thanks for its proper title btw!) the language of a population that has been popularly depicted in rascist cartoons for centuries as drunken asses as being spoken through Jameson is somewhat unthinking and insensitive.

Really looking forward to reading your writing in the future and hope you don't mind my comments which are offered in spirit of dialogue rather than criticism. I applaud anyone who articulate their individual experiences particularly of being an outsider as I'm in the process of feeling that myself.