Friday, March 1, 2024

We Irish are more than folks songs and whiskey

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I first got to call myself Irish at 30,000 feet over the English Channel. It was the summer of 1984. On that Amsterdam to Dublin flight, my Egyptian seat mate, en route from Cairo, started to make small talk.

“Oh, yes, I’m Irish,” I told him.

It felt really weird saying so. Until then, Ireland — the landscape, my family, our languages — had been the backdrop to the rest of my life; I’d never had a need for a national identifier.

The following summer, I took the ferry across the Irish Sea and the train to London where, at the time, roasted stuffed potatoes — or “roasties”– were a foodie fad. I took a job in a town south of the city, in a cafeteria-styled café where I was immediately assigned to the potato bar, “because you’re Irish.”

A few years later, I traveled to the United States for the first time. While working in American restaurants, I learned how to pronounce “pastrami” and “rigatoni.” Most of my upstate New York restaurant customers were extraordinarily kind. One woman wanted to loan me the family car. Others wanted to make me a home-cooked meal. Yet another took me aside to lecture me on my employee rights as a food server. 

The author, in a sweater she knit herself, in upstate New York during the 1980s. (Courtesy Aine Greaney)

They weren’t all so concerned with my well-being. Like that man who squinted at the name above my uniform shirt pocket and demanded to know why I wasn’t named Colleen, “like all you Irish chicks.” Or all those smiley diners who parroted my words back to me in a vintage-Hollywood, Barry Fitzgerald accent.

Over the years, I’ve been called that name — the one that rhymes with stick — three times. I’ve also been reminded that “you people” all love beer. (For the record, I hate beer.)

Of course, it’s not just Ireland. We assign countries traits that are often as much about nostalgia as real-time realties. In the case of Ireland, I think the offshore brand has been equal parts history, Hallmark and Hollywood.

By my third year living in the U.S., it no longer felt weird to name or claim my Irishness. But I often found myself wondering about its component parts. Each time I assembled a list, I wondered what was real and what I had been told.  When I read or watched a fictional story full of the usual tropes — say, singing or drinking or what one recent film critic called “gregarious men and pious, conservative women” — I instinctively pictured my relatives or school pals who were préacháins, or tone deaf, or those who were lifelong teetotalers or primly reserved.

The U.S. and international film industries have been good for Irish tourism, but too often, it has rendered a reductive and clichéd version of a country that, like all nations, has its nuances, contradictions and dualities.

Hopefully, this year marks the trend toward better movies at least — starting with “An Cailín Ciún,” or “The Quiet Girl,” the Irish-language movie that transcends both the tropes and the language barrier to tell a story that is universally relatable and human. Kudos to Irish actor Paul Mescal who, during a media interview at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards, responded in our native language to the Irish-language TV interviewer.

Meanwhile, in his BAFTA-acceptance speech, Dublin actor Barry Keoghan, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” evoked his lived experience and sent a message of support to youngsters who, like him, had come of age — not among cinematic stone castles or misty green fields, but amid urban blight and deprivation.


Recently, someone sent me a TikTok excerpt from a video of an Irish standup comedian. “We live in a multicultural society,” this funny man quipped.  “And every tribe brings something to the table.” He claimed that whiskey is what the Irish and the Scots bring, and, unlike fine wines, whiskey is “anger trapped inside a glass.”

I know that Ireland and the Irish culture contribute more than whiskey. Still, it got me thinking: As a long-tenured Irish immigrant in America, what do I bring to the multicultural table? And what contributions, if any, derive from my Irish birth certificate and upbringing?

Over dinner the other night, I asked my American-born, non-Irish spouse: “The first time we visited Ireland and my family, were there general things you noticed about Irish people?”

“The stories,” he said. “Nearly everything over there is a story. It’s great.”

Good answer. Back there and over here, I’ve been told that I tell a good story, including all the subplots and diversions. But for more than three decades, I’ve been trying to rein it in. I’ve been trying to teach myself to speak in bullet points, which I find really, really hard.

It’s more than making a cultural adjustment or trying to build or hone a professional skill. It’s about that old, ancestral feeling that “the talking points” are a prosthetic version of the real thing, that I’m short-changing folks by not giving them the full story.

So, here’s a story.

In the early 1990s, about four years after I had emigrated to the U.S., Irish author John McGahern visited our local state university in upstate New York. McGahern is widely considered one of the most influential Irish writers of the 20th century. In addition to his dexterity with language and story, as a rural author, his work — especially “The Dark,” his once-banned novel — had a huge influence on me as a teenager. The night of the event, I left work early to snag myself a premium seat and to really wallow in “Irish pride.”

After the auditorium reading, a man in the audience shouted some questions, most of them prefaced with, “As an Irish writer …” On stage, McGahern graciously interrupted. “There’s no such thing,” he said (I’m paraphrasing here). “No such thing as an Irish writer. A writer is a writer.”

When it was all over, I was too intimidated to join the queue of American academicians and students waiting for a one-on-one audience with him. But as I walked alone down the university corridor, I felt as if I had been granted a hall pass — a license to tell and write and live my own version of Irishness.

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