IF you were born in a town in England, Scotland or Wales to Irish parents, can you call yourself Irish?
When our columnist Rob Brennan put forward that question, based on his personal experiences growing up as a London Irishman, you, our readers, responded in their droves.
Last week, Niall O’Sullivan continued the deabte outlining why he’s proud to be called a Plastic Paddy.
This week we delve further into the second generation conundrum….
THE first thing that struck me after reading the feedback from Rob Brennan’s article was that I got off quite lightly.
Me, a second generation Irishman growing up in a London suburb in the early ’90s? It could have been a lot tougher.
There were some hard tales in those comments. Stories of people who were, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, judged not by the colour of their skin but the strength of their accents.
Like Rob’s story, the origins of a split along family lines for me took root in sport. It was one of my earliest memories.
My brother Liam, six years old, cranks his head over the bunk bed. “Who do you support?” asks Liam. “No one.” I was five at the time. “Who do you support?” I asked, with growing curiosity. “Arsenal,” said Liam. To which I replied: “OK. I’m going to support Man U then.” We had that kind of relationship.
And one day soon after the nationality question came up. I’d always assumed I was English. Having been born here, going to school and growing up here too. Apparently, I was wrong. Something which, to my surprise, was backed up by my dad.
To be fair, we’d had a fairly traditional Irish upbringing in our corner of South London. We went to Catholic school, along with second generationers from places as far away as Italy, Korea and the Caribbean. We were confirmed. And I’ve always felt pretty Celtic, having inherited the taste for a pint as well as a spot of premature hair loss (thanks for that, dad).
Our family, like most, has a complex lineage: my dad was born in Tyrone, while my mum’s side are from Kilkenny.
The English/Irish question would normally reappear during big sporting contests. Me being me, I’d often favour England just to spite my brother. Fortunately since the World Cup in ’94, the age when I could appreciate my first major football tournament, the consistent incompetence of both countries has kept them apart.
But during the Six Nations, each year, I come unstuck. The annual Ireland v England fixture fills me with an irrational dread when all around me — brother and dad especially — are relishing the occasion.
And it wasn’t until a birthday trip as an adult to Galway city many years later that I experienced something stronger than what at the time for me was a mere sporting decision.
On two occasions, I met with anti-English sentiments — one in a pub and one at our hostel — including the use of the dreaded term ‘Plastic Paddy’ and a few worse.
To be fair to the folk of Galway, those two incidents paled into insignificance in comparison with the great hospitality we received during the rest of our trip, including a memorable encounter with an official at the boarding gate of the airport who seemed far more interested in how our trip went than even opening my passport, never mind looking at its colour.
But now having lived for 26 years in the capital I’m quite content to go about calling myself a London Irishman.
You can call me a fence-sitter, or one of the undecided, or worse if you wish. And while during my time in London I may have acquired an over-priced arts degree and can on occasions be spotted in a scarf — whatever you do please don’t call me a European. And surely that’s something which may unite a fair few from England and Ireland.