I’d like to be able to say this all started with Brexit.
I’d love to inform you that my application for an Irish passport and the shock of seeing my nationality being described as something other than ‘British’ brought me to a deeper understanding of the meanings of both citizenship and nationhood.
Love to, but can’t.
However, like Brexit, there is a bus involved.
A few years ago, I was headed to where I was living in Catford late of a Friday and listening to these two girls a couple of seats up making plans over the phone with a mate. I wasn’t eavesdropping, the whole bus could hear them. Chatting, laughing, mad with excitement for the night and the club and who was going to be there and – more importantly – who wasn’t.
The English language is a wonderful thing, constantly in a state of mutation, and these girls were glorying in its latest form. Threads of gangsta rhyme and Jamaican patois wrapped around their South London accents to create something achingly new.
There’s nothing to make you feel quite so old as teenage slang. That and your actual age.
I could never get away with that, I think as I listen but not eavesdrop. Not even when I was their age. Certainly not now I’m a pale male of middle age raised in Berkshire with a mum from Reading and a dad from County Clare. Dagenham gangsta patois is not on the menu for the likes of me.
We’re second generation Irish immigrants. Foreign, but not exotic. No one will pay good money to go to an Irish restaurant. How much cabbage could one kitchen take?
That’s what I think on that bus and that’s pretty much how it stays for the next couple of years.
Then comes that other bus.
The one that leads to that mad scramble for burgundy passports with a harp on them. Have you seen the figures?
Eventually I get one of my own. Irish bureaucracy is a wonderfully carefree beast but my God she can be slow. And just as eventually* I come to realise that this has been a remarkable sixty years since my father arrived from Ennis.
It’s not just the No Irish, No Dogs to backstop thing. It’s going from the “thick Mick” joke and suspicion of terrorist activities to Fairytale of New York and James Bond coming from Meath. The outsider has become the insider, but not without a price.
The sons and daughters of Ireland’s daughters and sons are considered fake and inauthentic. We are associated with misty-eyed recollections of “the auld country” and green Guinness on St Patrick’s night. We’ve gone from shamrock to sham.
We’re the Plastic Paddies.
Yet all the while, the green white and gold has been commodified and sold across the world. Ireland’s second biggest export, it seems, is Irishness itself.
That’s the journey we’re still on, and these are the stories we’re going to hear . Whether pure-born or plastic, elastic or passport, they’re all authentic. We all come from somewhere else.
It’s going to be one hell of a bus ride, I tell you.
*I’m quite the procrastinator. I should have mentioned that earlier.