This was the title of Leaving Cert English essay question I picked on the exam paper back in 2001. It was a topical subject at the time as we had just voted and rejected the Nice Treaty. I am happy to say that I wrote about how much I loved Irish culture and how I was proud and happy to be Irish. However, at seventeen, I was keenly aware that I hadn’t experienced many other cultures or countries. I wisely stated that I could not know for sure until I went out into the world, away from the small rural village and town I grew up in. Now years later, I have returned to Wexford, not the exact same spot but close to the same town I went to school in. So looks like the question is finally answered 13 years later. But it is not quite as simple as ‘Irishness suits me’
Following my Leaving Certificate, I headed off to the ‘Big Smoke’ aka Dublin. Initially, I found it hard, in ways it was a different culture to rural Ireland, it was busier, the people were slightly different, however, I made friends who became my Dublin family. I lived my time in Dublin with the security of Wexford being just down the road for the next decade of my life.
On my travels over the next few years including a few months in Canada, a few months in Asia, New Zealand and then two years in China I have demonstrated my love of Ireland. Proudly, singing Irish songs (including a few controversial rebel songs in dorms in UBC, Vancouver with our new German friend who had tonnes of them on his laptop), subjecting hurling on anyone willing to sit still over the years (poor Czech Lucie and English Nicky), singing the National Anthem in the jungle in Thailand. I delighted in explaining how to pronounce my Irish name. Except for that time, I was referred to as ‘Onion’ for 4 days! I loved telling people that we had our own language as well as the Queen’s English in Ireland. I showed people pictures of Ireland; I had a coffee table book of Irish scenery in my Beijing apartment. In China, I became involved in Irish Network China, Beijing GAA etc., basically all the Irish stuff I could get involved in I did. I am happy, grateful and proud to be Irish for the culture, the scenery and for everything else it means.
However, in China I was immersed in a completely contrasting culture to my own. Here, a lot of great realisations dawned on me and I felt I could finally answer that Leaving Certificate Essay question with a degree of certainty. The difficulty I had in communicating (I couldn’t speak mandarin) left me with a lot of time to reflect and observe rather than being a motor mouth too busy talking to take anything in.
Picture flashback from the first few months in Beijing, I am alone in an apartment. No friends, freezing cold (winter in Beijing in pretty bleak) no job yet and struggling to learn the Mandarin. I looked out the window of our short term apartment on the 27th floor at the thick smog, so bad I couldn’t even see the apartment block across the road, I realised I didn’t miss Ireland exactly, I didn’t miss Dublin. I missed Wexford, I missed fresh air, quiet beaches, quiet country roads, I missed the locals (where everyone knows your name!), Irish food, Wexford hurling and basically I missed my family. The beach, quiet country walks, food and pride in Wexford hurling, simply sums up my childhood. It's familiar and secure.
The classic example is how much I missed Irish Food. During my time in Beijing, I explored so many different types of food. Beijing is a culinary delight. Foods from all over China and the world are available there. Yet I started making my mother’s stews, Shepard’s pies etc. when I was in China! It was comfort thing. In Dublin, if I cooked it was the latest Jamie Oliver pasta dish or a Thai curry– far from which I was reared. You couldn’t serve up my Dad pasta or rice – it’s not proper dinner if there are no potatoes!! This was a sign I was homesick, I was seeking the familiar in my mother’s cooking.
Homesickness wasn’t really about missing Ireland and Irish culture, it was more that I missed what was familiar to me, what made me feel secure and confident. I spoke to my Chinese friends about missing home. Luckily, they understood as they had all lived in Ireland and the UK away from the Chinese culture they knew so well and their families. Through talking to them I understood, how displacing it is to be away from your family, the familiar like the food, your own country and what ‘norms’ you grew up with. China is polluted and so highly populated that it can make their lives difficult. I assumed that maybe my Chinese friends would love to go back to Ireland for the fresh air, the space and the milder weather. However, their family and culture they grew up with, the foods they find comforting and even the crowds of people, which is the norm for them, are in China. All of them were happy to be back, happy to stay and rear their families there. Furthermore, other friends from other countries, all missed their family, friends and often like me, familiar foods. Some people, like my friends, and I, miss what the ‘norms’ they grew up with, the security and familiarly of their own culture. It doesn’t necessarily mean one culture suits you better than another culture, it just means that sometimes you prefer the ‘devil you know’.
It looks like after 13 years; I can answer that Leaving certificate question with a bit more certainty. The shoes of Irishness fit me well because they are the most familiar, snug pair I have. They broken in and well worn. It’s the pair that I hope I will guide my daughter to wear with pride.