'The country is shaped by emigration, but the Irish in Ireland have no idea what it means'
Life & Style

'The country is shaped by emigration, but the Irish in Ireland have no idea what it means'

When I sat down to think of it, it makes quite a list.

I’d just read a history where the author stated that ‘emigration is the fundamental fact of modern Irish history’ and it got me thinking.

I thought of how much it continues to amaze me that in a country so shaped by emigration so many people seem to completely misunderstand it.

I’m only speaking from personal experience here, but in my nearly twenty years of living here in Ireland I’d say the Irish born know more about Coronation Street than they do the nature of Irish emigration.

Which, considering how many must have family members who have emigrated, is pretty amazing.


Which, considering emigration is as Irish as bacon and cabbage, is pretty hard to fathom.

Now the list doesn’t include every daft thing said to me because then I’d have to include all the daft things I’ve said too.

It also doesn’t include the things complete strangers have said to me when they’ve made understandable assumptions on hearing my accent.

This consists more of those who would know that I come from a family of Irish emigrants and that both my parents are Irish.

This is about the continually surprising understanding, or lack of, that so many Irish born display again and again about the nature of Irish emigration.

If they acknowledge it at all they just seem to accept that people left and beyond that? Nothing.

They seem to have no grasp of what those Irish lives entailed once they were being lived elsewhere.


One of the best on my own personal list is someone who spoke to me after that European football match where Iceland beat England.

Not long before this I had happened to have a conversation with her about being from a big Irish family and some of the aspects of Irish life in Britain.

The more I think about it I realise it was one of those strangely detailed chats and I’m still not sure why I  was recounting it all.

To be honest I’ve given up having those kind of self-explaining, self-justifying conversations.

After nearly twenty years you just stop explaining yourself.

Anyhow shortly afterwards I bumped in to the same woman and it happened to be the morning after England had lost.

I’m sorry, she said, for what happened to your team.


I was a bit nonplussed at first and then quite astounded.

I nearly said, but I’m not English until I remembered the conversation we’d already had.

If she didn’t get it the first time around.

It reminded me of the time I explained to someone about why St. Patrick’s Day was such a big day for us growing up and how I wasn’t English and he said, not meanly or maliciously, oh, so you’re British?

Then there was the man who thought it was at least a positive for me in attending a recent family funeral that I got to attend a real Irish funeral.

I didn’t have the heart to ask him how he thought we buried our people over in England.

Then there was the man who explained to me, in a voice that suggested I might not just be from England but also deaf, that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were Ireland’s two main political parties.


And the man who asked me if I’d ever heard of Joe Dolan.

All people who knew I was from an Irish family, remember, all people who clearly believed that you grew up in an Irish family in Britain with all those other Irish families but without any knowledge or reference to Ireland or being Irish.

As if being Irish might be something our parents only occasionally mentioned.

Or the man who asked me if I’d ever been to Ireland before I moved here.

And that was someone who knew both my parents.

Now they all sound quite petty on their own but they represent something bigger.

They reflect the fact that the Irish who stayed in Ireland have little to no knowledge of how the Irish outside of Ireland lived.


They seem to recognise some vague idea of Irish America whereby JFK, by virtue of an Irish great-grandfather, is as Irish as they come, but the child of Irish immigrants from Birmingham, London, or Leeds most certainly isn’t.

In that way Irish Americans are Irish, even if mockingly so, but those of us who came ‘home’ every summer aren’t.

I can’t explain it to be honest.

I’ve tried but the likelihood of being understood seems as high as the chance of England not falling apart at a major football tournament.