Twenty-five years ago the phone rang. I’m a little hazy on the details- you have to remember, I was only seven at the time. I remember that I’d been excited, because my dad was going to see my uncle John living in America, and that uncle always sent me on the best presents. Toys you’d never get here- polar explorer play sets, a gorgeous illustrated hardback Hobbit that I wouldn’t appreciate till years afterward.
There was always a kind of glamour to our overseas family, wasn’t there? You’d only see them once or twice a year at most. Their visits were filled with drama- the excitement of meeting them at the airport or in a house stuffed with family, a few days or a week to fit in months worth of experiences, and before you knew it you were saying goodbye again.
I say ‘were’, of course, but the present tense would be just as appropriate, wouldn’t it?
Of course- this won’t surprise you, since I led with it- that phone call twenty-five years ago was different. The details I’m gonna keep to myself, but my uncle- less than a decade older than I am today- had died suddenly.
It happens. It was horrible, of course. Of all my childhood memories- almost all hazy- the feeling of walking into my Nana’s house later that day, the silence of the aunts, uncles and cousins filling the living room lives in sharp, full-colour contrast.
I don’t know the details. I was only a child. But I think that it took days to bring his body home.
Let’s fast forward a few years, shall we?
I’m.. eight or nine or ten, I’m not sure. I’m in a hotel in Killarney. Our extended family- the other side, this time- has booked out a function room for a reunion. It’s the first time in our lives that we’ve all been in the same place at the same time. Cousins closely related, scattered around a small part of Ireland and a few handfuls of US states.
Does anyone else remember the boxes? Showing my age here, but: the boxes that you’d get from your American cousins every so often. Full of clothes and toys and treats. In fairness, I mainly remember the clothes. The kind of stuff you’d never get in Penneys or Dunnes, right?
Fast forward again. I’m an adult now. I lived in London for a summer. Who doesn’t, right? In my case it ended up being the worst situation I’ve ever gotten myself into. But a couple of bright points in it? I tried my damnedest not to work with Irish people but the bar that ended up hiring me (and that I loved) was run by a woman from a village where I lived as a kid. And I knew that if push came to shove, my uncle- the little brother of the uncle who died so long ago and so far away- was just a Tube trip away.
And again. Another few years pass. After the disaster of my summer in London, I’d decided to give it another go: this time on a J1 student summer visa to the US. Me and thousands of other kids, right? Now, I didn’t quite do my J1 the way I was supposed to. You’re supposed to work for the summer. Me? I had some savings stashed away. I had family in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, small-town Oregon.. between them, making beds in hostels full of other J1ers, friends I’d met off the internet and, well, a wee bit of U-haul syndrome towards the end (queers: you get me, right), I think I paid for three nights of board in that whole summer.
I could go on, you know. Couldn’t we all?
You see, this story isn’t unusual.
There are twenty diaspora for every one of our four million residents. The overwhelming majority of people of Irish descent live scattered around the world.
This is who we are.We all have loved ones all over the world. We have all made decisions: stay or go is in the back of all of our minds.
A new political party was launched in Dublin yesterday. Called Identity Ireland, they oppose multiculturalism, immigration and the EU, and advocate a “zero tolerance approach towards demands to alter national life, culture and traditions to accommodate minority held beliefs and cultures”.
I remember Ireland before immigration.
I remember an Ireland whose ‘national life and culture’ included incarcerating women with no trial and no hope of escape for the crime of being pregnant, or opinionated, or being born too pretty. I remember an Ireland where one of my parents’ closest friends had to die in London, because life as a gay man with AIDS in his home town was inconceivable. I remember the Ireland where people who were different had to leave.
And I am grateful that they had places they could go to.
I see Ireland today- one where more of us (but not enough) can stay, and one where people from around the world want to make their lives. I see how we’ve changed. How we’ve opened, both to others and to ourselves. I see the Ireland of the Magdalenes turning into the Ireland of #hometovote, and I know that for every Irish citizen who travelled home, there were new Irish, people who’ve immigrated to our country knocking on doors and asking their community to vote because they couldn’t.
I don’t know what Irishness is. Not really. But I know that a culture that can survive being 20/21 diaspora is one that can handle- can grow and learn from and celebrate- diversity among us. Looking at Irish history, the common thread- the only common thread- is that people have always come here. Our culture and identity survived Christianisation, absorbed the Vikings and assimilated the Normans. We carry those differences around in everything from St Patrick’s constant cameos in our pagan myths to our very names.
And I know that the decades where we attempted purity- the twentieth century of Catholic Ireland- were some of the darkest in our history. They were the times when we turned in on ourselves. When our xenophobia towards others became a hatred of difference among us, and where that difference was punished, imprisoned, beaten, abused when they were too young or too vulnerable to escape.
What is Irish identity? I don’t know. But I would hope that as a country we remember that it can be one of welcoming, and that while we should never welcome for our own benefit, that from that welcoming we nonetheless gain more than we ever could have hoped.
And I hope that the thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia of Identity Ireland go the way of the Magdalenes, where they belong.
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