About ten years ago I went to a comedy event at the Royal Albert Hall. One of the acts, Dubliner Andrew Waxwell, came on stage and asked, “Are they’re any Muslims here?” A few lone voices yelled back. Maxwell’s response perfectly summed up my experience of being Irish in the 70s and 80# in London. “Fair play to you. We love Muslims. We Irish LOVE Muslims. Why. Because you’ve taken the heat off us.”
When I was a child, we’d were able to buy shamrock from the local greengrocer in the week before St.Patrick’s Day. Shamrock was notorious for dying quickly, so we’d buy it and keep it moist until the day itself. On the day we’d all pin it to out coats and jumpers and wear it with pride. As time went on it became more difficult to buy shamrock. We’d source it through the Church or even from relatives back home, but eventually we couldn’t get it at all.
Being an Irish adult living in London in the 1970s and 1980s, wasn’t entirely easy. Racism still existed. The “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish” signs may not have been as common as before, but that didn’t mean discrimination didn’t exist. Just because we have laws, doesn’t mean folk aren’t going to ignore it. I remember one conversation at work with a colleague after an IRA bomb had killed a passer by in Belfast. “I see your lot were at it again” was the flippant ill-judged remark. Pushing back diplomatically did little but entrench his position, so I did what most folk would do in this position. I walked away.
Many years later I’m married to an Iraqi Christian. We joke that because of our backgrounds, we’re both terrorists but that I’m an amateur and still on probation! Joking aside, what infuriates me about such ill thought out bigotry, is the association that because I’m Irish, I’m a terrorist willing to kill and maim. In the same way that not every Frenchman wears a striped t-shirt and cycles a bike with onions over the handlebars, I don’t condone activities that harm innocent individuals.
The 90s saw a sudden thawing in relations. Suddenly it was cool to be Irish. Nearly every High street had an Irish pub. The “Celtic Tiger” saw a resurgence in the Irish economy as tech company’s were attracted by an educated workforce. Riverdance cemented the Irish identity to the world in its own unique way. Seeing that performance at the Eurovision Song Contest still brings a lump to my throat. It perfectly captured the optimism of the day in a way that celebrated one of our customs in a modern, inclusive manner.
These days being Irish is just for the Irish. Every St.Patrick’s Day you’ll find folk in just about every bar wearing silly Guinness hats or wearing ginger leprechaun wigs. Yes anyone willing to look utterly foolish can be Irish for an evening, just so long as they get bladdered in the process.
17th March 2018 was a good St.Patrick’s Day. At 8:30am I joined around 400 folk for a run around our local park. Organised by the Park Run organisation, its a very friendly and inclusive event. A shoot out to any Irish in the event briefing, and I cheered back. One of the course marshall’s was dressed in a ridiculous leprechaun outfit, and cheered us on with an equally awful Irish accent.
Roll on a couple of hours and it was time for the big Six Nations game against England at Twickenham. Ireland had already won the Six Nations Championship, but had the chance of beating England and winning the illusive Grand Slam. Something they’d only done twice before. Talking to a friend of mine before the game, we both feared a fairly stale strategic game with lots of kicking. Whoever committed the least penalties would will. How wrong could we be. With Ireland 14-0 up inside 25 minutes and repulsing everything the England offensive line could throw at it, it was looking like an easy victory. And so it was, well relatively.
It’s been a good day to be Irish, but not every year has been the same. I remember the days when you had to keep your nationality under wraps. That’s a soul destroying experience. It’s a bit like being an gold medal Olympic athlete, but told you can’t tell anyone you won. I’m Irish and proud of it. I may not shout it from the rooftops, but I’ll never deny it.
So to Irish everywhere, or those that wish they were Irish, may I wish you a safe and very Lá Naomh Phádraig Shona.