English of Irish descent

I was reading this today and the comments got me thinking.

This St Patrick’s Day, I will be watching the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein at a cinema in Kensingston (the theatre was sold out). I may at some point drink some Guinness (’cause it’s tasty and why not?) and I love Dublin, drink whiskey and am a Dempsey and raised Catholic, but I’m not Irish.

My Dad (the first of his family to be born in England) used so say that he was English of Irish descent and it used to puzzle me. Everyone else I knew with Irish parents were keen on being Irish, they went to Ireland in the summer, called themselves Irish. My Dad didn’t. I never knew my Irish grandparents and my Mum was English, so feeling Irish and going to Ireland wasn’t the big thing that it seemed to be for the kids I knew who had Irish parents. I went to Ireland twice as a kid, at age 6 and 10, with my Dad’s sister, Jude and my cousins. Jude seemed to be the only one of my Dad’s siblings who went to Ireland and kept in touch with the Irish relatives, they went every year and I’m pretty sure that she took all of her nieces and nephews as well as her own kids to Ireland at some point.

I asked my Dad why he said he was English and only had a British passport (I know Jude had both British and Irish passports) and apart from pointing out that both his parents were technically British (born before Irish independence), he said that he wasn’t Irish because he was born in England and that England had provided work for his parents, housed his family, educated him, looked out for his health. England was where he’d paid his taxes, married, had children. That to grow up in England in the 50’s and 60’s was a great and liberating thing and to claim that he was Irish was pretty bloody insulting to his Irish family who had grown up in Ireland without the advantages and benefits that he had. So as far as he was concerned he was English of Irish descent. This didn’t prevent him behaving like his Irish father. Heavy drinking and feckless, my father was a bad husband and not a fantastic dad. You could blame this on belonging to a fucked up and damaged family or on his being Irish but I think the truth was somewhere in-between.

I have friends with a similar background to me and we often talk about Irish Catholic guilt as a genetic inheritance (I also have my mother’s Protestant work ethic, which pretty much means I’m screwed every which way) but I honestly don’t feel Irish.

Ireland didn’t raise me, England did.

So despite the Catholicism I can’t quite shake, the Irish surname and the guilt that is ever present, I’m not Irish. My two favourite Irishmen are Jonathan Swift and the Duke of Wellington (who both considered themselves to be English!).

I’m English, I would pass the Norman Tebbit cricket test and whilst St Patrick’s Day is a great excuse for drinking tasty, tasty Guinness, it’s not even close to being my national holiday. I will always be slightly confused by people who were raised in England, claiming to be Irish.

That’s all…

About nicdempsey

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