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.