Being Irish can be complicated. If absence makes the heart grow fonder it can be a slow burn, and, having left my homeland more than two decades ago, it has taken me these last twenty years to really appreciate Ireland and my hometown of Dublin.
I was back in Dublin with my family (British husband and two children) in March of this year. My husband tried to hide his Britishness as best as he could. Sensibly so, given it was during the Easter Rising celebrations. Along with consuming as much Guinness as he could, he did a pretty good job at fitting in, dropping the ever useful word “Grand” at every opportunity. I felt my Irishness seeping into conversations when I kept asking him how did that pint of Guinness compare to the pint he had earlier in the other pub? Only to be met with “It’s all pretty good.” I wanted a debate on which pub served a better pint, and did not understand his unwillingness to engage. I don’t drink the stuff myself, but it reminded me of the conversations I had when I lived back in Ireland.
I was happy to join in when my Grandad talked about where to buy the best ham, how it was cut, how it tasted. He would buy six hams every Christmas, one for each of his children. And I still remember the pomp and ceremony that went into the buying of the hams and getting them transported from Limerick to Dublin and London so all six children would have the ham for Christmas.
Proving that you are Irish can also be complicated. My two girls are both the proud owners of Irish passports although they were born in Singapore. And getting an Irish passport is not as easy as I thought it was. I was born in Nottingham, England to two Irish parents. We moved back to Dublin when I was one, yet I only get my Irish passport through my relationship with my late mother. My daughters also get their passport by virtue of their grandma. In fact the only person who can’t get a passport that way is my husband. No matter how much Guinness he drinks on holidays, he has no more right than the next man to apply.
Which is galling when the next man is a Kiwi. I had a colleague in Singapore who is Malaysian. She married a man from New Zealand whose grandmother was born in Ireland and left Ireland for New Zealand when she was a child. Her husband and three children have Irish passports, and have not set foot in Ireland. Needless to say my husband has researched his family tree and failed to find a trace of Irishness. The association with Irish relatives past and present remains strong and part of being Irish.
I left Ireland after those two weeks at Easter realising why just about everyone I have ever met over the years in different countries and different nationalities speak highly of Ireland and, more importantly, the Irish people. The Irish are generally welcoming, approachable, friendly and helpful. There is an easy manner that is hard to find elsewhere in the world.
In my experience, generally Asian cultures are more reserved than Western ones and so I did not expect the same interactions over the years in Asia that I had with my Irish friends back home. I got quite used to being the one to start conversations, to instigate debate or put my hand up and volunteer in public situations. I am not a natural extrovert so it was an odd position to be in but one I ended up being quite comfortable with.
I now live in San Francisco after twenty years in Asia (Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore). And it was moving to a Western country that made me really think about Ireland and the Irish. It could just be that as I am older now, I am more reflective. San Francisco’s Irish heritage, the number of great Irish pubs, the Irish people I have met here and the fact that I live around the corner from a Dublin school-friend probably helps too.
I didn’t compare Ireland to Hong Kong or Singapore when I lived there; everything was too different to do that. To live there and be happy you had to embrace the differences and respect the culture. And I didn’t spend much thinking about Ireland, I was young and having fun and everything was new and exciting.
Now living in America, I expected things to be more familiar. I imagined that it would be a piece of cake living in the West again. Sure, some things are easier; casual conversations with people are spontaneous and happen all the time. Too much, I sometimes think! I am no longer the person who puts their hand up first. There are so many people in front of me who will do that.
And just because the language is familiar and I don’t stand out anymore because of different hair colour and eye colour, I feel more like a foreigner here in San Francisco than I did in Asia. But as I walked around Dublin for those two weeks, I felt comfortable and at ease having conversations with taxi drivers, shop assistants, my old school friends, bartenders, the guys on the Viking tours and concierges. It dawned on me that, complicated or not, it’s grand being Irish. We have something pretty unique to offer: a friendliness and easiness that I haven’t seen in that many other countries (maybe chilled out places like the Philippines, Thailand and Bali). It’s not a huge revelation and is probably something many of us have always assumed but it’s only the years of experience of looking at Ireland from a distance that has proven it to me. While my husband will have to put up with being Irish by association I am proud to say I am Irish wherever I go.