I’m a first-generation Dubliner; my parents hailed from the country.
When I was young, myself and my friends sometimes had visitors from America; first or second-generation Americans or relatives who had emigrated decades earlier.
Concerning the latter, adults sometimes remarked “didn’t they get a bit stout?”, or “did you see the grand new teeth?” However, not only did they look different; they sounded different – they had American accents! They also seemed shinier; they had climbed a few rungs on the socio-economic ladder and were more confident, more affluent, and happy to spend “vacation” travelling the length and breadth of Ireland.
They’re “looking for their roots,” my disparaging eight-year-old friend remarked, holding his sides he was laughing so much. “They think they’re Irish but they’re Yanks,” he added, rubbing his tear watered eye with the sleeve of his jumper. This was in the early 1970s in North Dublin and my friend couldn’t understand why, given a choice, anyone would prefer to be Irish.
When his relatives came back from visiting the country, I gently quizzed them. They said they lived in Brooklyn, but were Irish. I asked his older sister about the confused “Yanks.” She told me not to use the word “Yanks,” but agreed they were slightly deluded. An adult insisted that they were “Irish Americans.”
They were the first Diaspora I had come across. They were still mostly perceived as “Yanks,” and humored on the question of their “Irishness.” To us children, it seemed a kind of innocent win-win. Kind thank you letters with dollars often followed Irish American relatives’ visits.
Then there were relatives who came over from England. Apart from having English accents and smarter clothes, they didn’t seem so different and weren’t bothered about trying to be Irish. Later on, I learnt that many Irish living in England during “The Troubles” (circa 1969-1998) would choose to maintain a low profile about their “Irishness.”
“The Guildford Four” and ”The Maguire Seven” were falsely convicted in 1975 and 1976 of planning and planting the 1974 horrific Guildford pub bombings. It would take 15 years for them to be proved innocent and those years were particularly tough for the Irish in England.
I left Ireland with the idea of definitely returning. My dream was to live in Paris for a few years, but as they say, “be careful what you pray for!” I never went back home to live.
Mostly, I enjoy the best of both worlds, being Irish in Paris and enjoying French lifestyle while geographically not too far from “home.” I can’t mirror the ease with which the Irish Americans of my youth, despite themselves, looked American. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t pass for French, and now it’s my turn to be quizzed by children who wonder “why I speak funny.” A flat Dublin accent speaking the language of Molière will never be taken for native French and then there’s that quasi unattainable, for a foreigner, chic French look… However, when I go home, after decades of absence, I don’t entirely fit the mold. Might I now be a Frenchified equivalent of the “Yanks” of yore?
During COVID, and especially during the complete lockdown, I heard the siren of home, but due to travel restrictions, I cancelled planned trips.
My yearning for home was lightened by the fact that since COVID I’ve been connected with more Irish and Irish Diaspora than at any other time of my Diasporic life! Irish embassies and Irish Associations dotted around the world have surpassed themselves. The London Irish Centre’s “Charity Night In” fundraiser (live-streamed on June 11on IrishCentral) rose funds of over £110k and reached a new global audience.
In France, the tireless, generous work of the “Irish in France Association” and other Irish associations kept the Diaspora connected, informed, comforted, and entertained since COVID’s onslaught.
Through the “Cercle Littéraire Irlandais” association I recently heard award-winning Irish poet Anne Fitzgerald recite “Districts Not Apparent” from “Vacant Possession,” her fourth collection. The poem describes her taking a DNA test, and the somewhat surprising revelations.
An excerpt from the poem Districts Not Apparent by Anne Fitzgerald:
[…] A dolly-mixture
the sum of my parts.
I am of Ireland.
Isles. Iberian. Ashkenazi.
I share trace elements
from Siberia, Western
Asia Minor and South
Yet, I am of Ireland
carrying a wealth
of geographies histories.
Fitzgerald’s book is arranged in four distinct and compelling movements, one of which is a record of, and an outcry against, the former practice of forcing unmarried mothers in Ireland to give up their babies for adoption. Anne Fitzgerald was one of those babies. Although the collection was integral to Fitzgerald’s rediscovering and repossessing the lost parts of herself, the universality in her writing shines illumination, love, and healing ubiquitously.
The echo of W.B. Yeats’s words “I am of Ireland” resonating in Fitzgerald’s poem comforts and wraps identity in the solidity and tradition of Ireland past, while the poem exposes modern technology which paradoxically reveals the poet’s Irish identity to contain exotic “trace elements.” It seems the chances of anyone being 100% DNA certifiable Irish are quasi impossible. In the future, when asked what I am, measuring my decades of absenteeism I’ll inwardly recite “I am of Ireland,” while mouthing a definite “I’m Irish.”
Finally, how can we define “Irishness”? My eight-year-old self looking on is slightly nostalgic for her old more homogenous identity comprising solely “Jackeens,” “Culchies,” and Catholics from across the Border. However, she absolutely delights in the inclusive kaleidoscope of today’s Irishness. She now believes the “Irish Americans” of her youth, along with Irish emigrants and their descendants scattered to the four corners of the earth – are Irish. She thinks “Irishness” is not dependent on being born in Ireland, on being Catholic, or on the illusion of “pure” Irish ancestry.
Since the 1990s, “New Irish” have also become an integral part of Ireland’s demographics. Our Irish identity on today’s stage is more heterogeneous and sparkling that that eight-year-old could ever have imagined. Our globally revered LGBTQ community, once forced underground, is often found at the vanguard. Our “dolly-mixture” selves, “carrying a wealth, of geographies histories,” coupled with wide-ranging life and “life abroad” experiences comprise a strong, eclectic Irish tribe!
Irish economist David McWilliams has been waiting for a future chapter of the Irish story “harnessing Irishness and turning our worldwide family into the greatest network the world has ever seen.” When COVID-19 is hopefully relegated to the recent past, and we emerge from this strange, reflection inciting period with new and stronger global diasporic ties, might it be the auspicious moment to finally write together that invigorating new chapter?
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.