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Every three months or so I’m reminded I’m not quite Irish enough



I was in the line for Christy Moore when a group of girls behind me took exception. 

 We had asked them politely to give us space. They were drinking bottles of beer they’d taken from the pub out on to the street, and had boots and coats on with all the suggestions of a night of going “out, out”. One was coughing. “It’s just from the fags,” she said. 

“I know, but do you mind just giving us a bit of space,” I said, telling them my personal health reasons for being cautious. She turned to her friend and started talking about me. 

“You don’t have to do that, I just asked you to move back,” I said, turning around.

Silence.

“How do you even know what she said? It was in Irish,” one eventually piped up. Because I’m Australian, love, not deaf. I was also with Irish speakers. Anything I might have missed, they picked up. Irish isn’t the enigma code: other people speak it. 

My response to the group of girls was not in Irish but in Australian, which translates as telling someone exactly what I think of them, with the word ‘f**k’ in it a lot

My response was not in Irish but in Australian, which translates as telling someone exactly what I think of them, with the word “f**k” in it a lot. What they did was ugly and ignorant but very minor when you consider what immigrants of colour face here. I got off easy. No one called me a racial slur. But what they implied stuck. 

When I’m in Australia I feel Irish and when I’m in Ireland I feel Australian. Always too much of both cultures to fit into either one.

Every three months or so I’m reminded that, despite my citizenship, the taxes I have paid and the members of The Corrs I have hugged, I am not Irish enough. Someone will always come along and take it upon themselves to remind me of that. “Plastic Paddy” and “You don’t speak Irish” are the usual. 

I don’t speak Irish because my family did not speak it to me. They were immigrants in Australia at a time hostile to outsiders. You got ahead by fitting in. They worked in factories to achieve the immigrant dream of buying a house with a big yard – an achievement almost unheard of for people like my grandparents, both from Dublin’s inner-city public housing.

They didn’t have time for the cúpla focail. They had moved across the world with four children. No family, no friends, no car, no idea how anything worked. 

My grandmother, growing up in the Five Lamps locality, was denied a proper education. She left school without learning to write English properly, never mind Irish.

We are the children of the people whose country let them down, whose country did not provide jobs or shelter or opportunities for our parents 

My grandparents left Ireland because they did not see a future here. There was no education, no jobs; not for working-class people like them. There were no uncles in the public service to give them a start, no land to pass down. 

Often I meet people who ask me if Australians dislike the Irish because “the worst ones always go there, to work on sites”. My family went there to work on sites. Lots of Irish come to work in high-paying manual-labour jobs. By worst, do they mean working class? These are the people who are most vulnerable when jobs evaporate and they have to leave – by necessity, not choice. 

We are the children of the people whose country let them down, whose country did not provide jobs or shelter or opportunities for our parents. We do not have the luxury of learning Irish at school. Many of us don’t even get to have Irish names. Our parents had to make a decision when we were born. Did they want us to carry their culture or have a lifetime of “Sorry, how do you pronounce that?” 

There are more like me born every day in Australia – the land, despite its troubling racism, in which people still choose to settle when they think they’re out of options. Every time Ireland’s economy can’t provide, more come, more settle, more have children.

My generation saw an exodus after the economic crash, and I’m seeing the beginnings of one again. I’ve waved three sets of Irish friends off to Australia this year, all put off living here by their inability to buy a house, the poor condition of the health system in which they work, and the perception that they can’t get ahead here no matter what they do.

Those girls don’t know the privilege it is to have parents who got to stay in their homeland, to always know their place, have extended family nearby, have helpful intergenerational connections and be able to speak Irish

Some are having children, many with Irish names, fadas and all. I am hopeful this generation, buoyed by cheaper flights home and FaceTime, are able to cling to their Irishness. I hope they are proud of where they’re from. I hope they find their place between two cultures. I hope when they come to Ireland they feel welcomed. I hope they never know the term plastic Paddy. 

As for those girls, well, looking back, I should have walked away. They don’t know the privilege it is to have parents who got to stay in their homeland, to always know their place, have extended family nearby, have helpful intergenerational connections and be able to speak Irish. I should have said nothing, but I couldn’t. Because I was raised by inner-city Dubs who taught me not to take an ounce of sh*t off anyone. Especially not in their own language. 

Christy finished the night with Spancil Hill. I heard the girls belting it out. That famous song about Irish immigration. The one I’ve heard hundreds of times sung by the Irish who miss home but cannot be there.



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