Lately we’ve been taking short-cuts through back-streets to shave a few minutes off the lunch-run. All in an effort to get her to the minder then back to work on time. So we turn left instead of right; left again, another left, then right. Past the corner shop with perennially balding shelves, then onwards under the bunting that salutes us over speed-ramps through to the main road.
Against every instinct, I tell her the locals must be having a party when she presses me on the union jacks overhead. Wrong answer, she asserts. They’re having a disco. I guess she’s not far wrong, if the disco is a slow-set in a draughty school hall somewhere in the early ’80s. In many respects, the town is not unlike the equivalent of two species awkwardly lined up against opposing walls. One too paralysed by fear to ask the other out; the other convinced they’ll never be asked. While everyone knows The Specials’ Ghost Town is impossible to dance to anyway.
With eyes still misty from centenary celebrations over the border, I’ve been living down to stereotypical behaviour expected of me by taking a great deal of time to think about What It All Means. This Irishness. Of ours. Of mine. And my Mary Robinson Claw™ is still very much up in the air.
Member of the Mnás gives the fingers
I’ve gone through the mandatory motions. I reverently stroked my chin to Minister for History, Diarmuid Ferriter; shuddered at the prospect of Sean Gallagher presiding over poetic state-of-the-nation addresses; had odd where-were-you-when-Riverdance-was-first-performed conversations following its comparison to Centenary (I can’t remember – should I?). And before you ask, yes, I heaved a sigh of relief that Onob resisted urges to swing the arms of Martin and Enda aloft to usher elusive peace to The Dail as only a true messiah can. I tried to be a better begrudger. But alas, I am no further forward in cobbling together any convictions. I shall probably defrost the Centenary as I do Bjork albums – ambivalent at first, then raving about it a year later.
Perhaps it was to be expected given my internalised Irish O’Phobia. The same syndrome that had me giving wide berth to Irish bars abroad; and enclaves of diaspora during my brief years in London. Not the upwardly, neutral-accented, confident generation of new; but those of old who jived at the crossroads of survival. I deliberately chose not to work with the ‘disadvantaged’ London Irish ‘community’. Rightly or wrongly, they provoked frustration and sadness in profuse and equal measure. Sadness that many were exported against their will; frustration with a variety of elements that kept them hemmed in to the margins. It was an emotional push-pull operation of delicate avoidance. I was unable to face the black side of our soul, expressed through various valves: their language, shorthand, the veil of silence, the melancholic shadow of God knows what. I couldn’t escape them however. I heard their stories daily through the mouths of Brazilians, Poles, Columbians. All sharing the status of fugitives from their homelands. United in isolation and loneliness with a nostalgic yearning for an idealised nation while in pursuit of better. Small surprise the Irish are held aloft the international shoulder, they had the English language to help accelerate integration.
Throughout these neighbourhoods, the cultural clock stopped a few generations back. Each summer I could hear the trad bands on Peckham Park at the annual Irish festival. What was a celebration of ‘Irishness’ seemed to me a bizarre exercise in time travel. Some frustrations are impossible to hang anywhere because that’s just the way it is. The interaction of emigration with time. Traditional modes of cultural expression survive unevolved, enabling the exiled to huddle together on foreign land, but eventually alienating them from their home soil. Too often it seemed they were suspended in a cultural time-warp. The commonly reported disorientation felt by returned ex-pats pointed to this. Many retreated back to their host. One version of their tale suggested disdain for the lamentable loss of ‘traditional values’, another… the unavoidable modernisation of a country, the cultural landscape of which was now fluid and beyond recognition. One interpreted in terms of attack, the other in less malevolent terms of change. The way it is.
There’s no doubt the Celtic Tiger era left many every which way at sea. Alienation and mental health problems prevail yet remain largely ignored. Consistent poverty persists. However, they have always existed. Just like the attack on ‘traditional values’ has. As have the competing strains of ‘Irishness’ and what it means to be Irish. Independence propped up a cultural infrastructure vertically imposed by church and conservative elements of the state, and many Irish people have always felt at odds with a certain narrow notion of ‘culture’. Irishness is ultimately an exercise in self-definition; as broad as it’s long.
I don’t consider myself nationalist in the classic sense, but I’m anti-colonial. I understand why the Irish language became politicised in the North, but still break out in hives when I hear the cupla focail appropriated and trotted out as a deliberate act of division. I could listen to Iarla O’Lionaird all day, but would rather overtake a session stuffed with air-punching patriotic songs. My heart stops watching hurling, but I could cheerfully burn Michael Flatley at both ends. I love reading about the women caught up in the Independence movement. But I would like to learn more about the United Protestant men before them. Many ‘Irish’ people have been overlooked in official history.
The idea of the Irish as a homogenous group sharing a common reverence for emblematic cultural cornerstones has always rankled. It’s erroneous. We only have to look to our silenced exiled writers of the past as evidence. Embedded in this, the dominance – and struggle of – ‘national pride’. What do all those terms mean? Who defines them? And what aspects can be defended and why? One person’s lament for ‘traditional values’ is another’s dismissal for naively ignoring the much needed introduction of freedoms and fight for equality. It would be disingenuous to deny the prevailing doctrine when the period of ‘traditional values’ flourished. The establishment of an authentic moral code is an evolving process, progressed on a rights-based agenda. To have it colonised and shaped by institutions in the business of moral absolutes undermined the project of humanity itself. As we saw.
Ireland is at an interesting, if precarious, point. Time and Europe dragged it out of its monolithic conservatism. It just needs the balls to retain the favourable values of yore. That responsibility hinges on everyone. It necessitates recognition by the defenders of ‘traditional values’ of the legitimacy of diversity of opinion and identity. One of the most enlightening and optimistic days I had recently was spent in the company of a group of aging nuns.There’s a sentence I never imagined writing. They fiercely articulated the need to discard the singular thinking and championed the arrival of diversity, in all its guises. Even though it has always been here.
Modernisation isn’t an attack on traditional heritage; traditional heritage is not the full expression of Irishness. Listening to the Peckham parade didn’t fill me with sneer. It frustrated me that the continuum of Irish culture, traditional – and contemporary – couldn’t be captured. But here it is. And strands compete for eminence within it. Gaelic is still sniffed at by the Dublin 4 rugby heads. The west-brits suffer their own cultural superiority complex. Many judge U2 on their artistic merit, not their nationality. ‘Irish culture’ in the South has been given room to evolve as it hasn’t been vulnerable to attack. It hasn’t served to unite a minority through a codified system of culture as it has in the North, so it has been less rigid. The pace of the removal of homogeneity of ‘Irishness’ proceeds in different gears either side of the border. Irishness played out differently for reasons that don’t need repeating.
Yet, it is in this context that this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin was led by a student activist campaigning for the rights of those with disabilities; while in this town it was headed by prominent clergy and ‘nationalist’ politicians. The old guards haven’t gone away, you know. Another reminder of the gulf that persists between the ‘Irish’ on the island. Fractures that run parallel with the cultural divisions between broad sections of the local British and the other ‘British’. The London Irish have more in common with their brethern up here where the cultural and clerical clock lags 20 years behind its Southern neighbour, and further still from those across the water. It is partly why ‘socialist’ Sinn Fein can sit with ease at the high table of Irishness alongside elite members of the clergy. Their unquestioning of Catholicism mirrored by the anchoring of fundamentalist protestantism to the other crowd’s celebratory outings. It is why the status of women is not up for consideration by either extreme. It is why issues of equality and reproductive rights are forsaken. It is certainly a contributing factor in why some grown women lack the gumption to do anything but to sublet their conscience and grass an unrepentent teenager to the cops a week after she induced an abortion on her own.
Unlike the London Irish, these devout Irish will not be flirted with by the Republic in a bid to woo them down ‘home’ for a reminisence date; and your average British man has as much in common with a bowler hat wearing marcher as he does a Morris Dancer. Indifference is probably the best either group can avail of.
And between them all sit the Northern Irish. A chequered, complex, and refreshingly defiant entity. The Other. Under pressure to declare which team they’re going to play for when the Olympics come round. Southern commentators can always been relied on to adopt a keen interest that only appears when the critical topic of sport arises.
And then there’s me, straddling both jurisdictions and never fully feeling a sense of belonging in either. Southern heart, Northern Soul. I am border. If home is a sense of belonging, then I belong best along the Donegal coastline at 60 miles an hour with the speakers pumping. It’s not very practical.
So I’m here. For the foreseeable. Softer of vowel, eager to join forces with the Other. One of them, but never one of them. An insider outsider. Under pressure from my four-year old to guess which Michael Jackson song they’ll be playing at their disco.
He ordered two drinks and we adjourned to the side table of a bar overlooking Great Victoria Street.
“You’re from Boston, right?”
“I work in Boston. I’m from New York”
“Big Irish interest in Boston, isn’t there? Keen to see peace break out all over here, I suppose.”
“You could say that”
He lifted his glass to me, swirling the half-finished drink. “It’s made nearby, I understand,” he said.
“Aye. Up the road. Bushmills. It’s popular with tourists”.
“I’ve had it before – but I have to admit it tastes better in Ireland”
“Like Guinness tastes better in Dublin. And stick to calling it Northern Ireland. Although you’ll hear variations. If you’re a Loyalist you’ll call it Ulster, if you’re a Nationalist you’ll call it the North of Ireland or the Six Counties, if you’re the British Government you call it the Province.”
“And what do you call it, Mr. Starkey?”
From Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman