St Paddy’s Day Downer

About Life, Ireland

(Context: this was written before the Covid-19 pandemic)

What do you say or how is a person supposed to feel or react when someone says the following to you?

I wouldn’t want to be Irish. I wouldn’t want to be associated with people who are willing to kill

A conversation stopper, right!?

Straight out of the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” playbook. It had quite the impact on me, and when I share the full context of when it was said, your gobs are going to be even more smacked.

In the run up to St Patrick’s Day in March, I was in my local newsagent, shooting the breeze with the owner as we normally do. He’s a grand man for the banter and as he is from India, he loves to make fun of the fact that he and I are both blow-ins! He’s only been here 40 years and me over 26 of them…part timers!

On this morning I was telling him to prepare for St Paddy’s Day. You know the sort of thing: make sure you knew where his next pint of Guinness or shot of Greenspot was coming from on the big day itself and wear something suitably green. As we were laughing and joking, an elderly Englishman entered the shop just as I was saying to Hitesh “This Sunday…everybody is Irish! Celebrate!”

As the old man drew next to me, I turned to him, beaming smile on my face intending to include him in the good-natured back and forth. “yes Sir…I was just telling Hitesh that everyone is Irish on St Paddy’s Day…you can be too if you like.”

He fixed his eyes on me, adjusted his hat and replied in a rich, Surrey accent.

I wouldn’t want to be Irish. I wouldn’t want to be associated with people who are willing to kill

I immediately felt like I’d been punched in the gut. What had been a sunny, early morning bit of banter was instantly transformed. Good humour punctured by a heartbreaker of a sentence; I was suddenly dropped into the middle of an ugly, mean-spirited exchange.

I find that needlessly aggressive or bitter sentiment has an almost physical effect on me. My scalp literally tightens and my jaw locks. I have heard enough prejudice or casual bigotry in my life to be able to recognise it, but somehow, I still cannot build an immunity to it, whether it is directed at me or even some stranger in earshot. I feel instantly sick.

The look on Hitesh’s face told a story of its own, one of shock and discomfort. I, on the other hand, managed to stop my smile from leaving my face. It may have left my eyes, but not my face. 

I took a breath and replied.

“Well, that’s a great shame, especially as your ancestors were so keen to come and spend a lot of time with us in our land for the last 500 years and more. Hitesh, have a lovely day, mate.” And off I went.

Now, you tell me. What am I supposed to do with that? I may have come back with a slightly snarky reply in the moment, but as you can tell this man’s words have stayed with me well beyond the moment. I have thoughts about why he said what he said and how the opportunity to express such a thought has come about in our present-day Britain, but before we get to that, I must talk through my reaction with you.

I was angry. Still am to some degree. I was stung. I was also disheartened. And the fact that he had caused all of this rankles with me. It felt like an insult that had come from a long time ago, a swipe from another age.

It was a statement that relied upon stereotype and prejudice. When I wrote the first version of this post, I wanted to describe it as lazy. Lazy thinking based upon so-called “accepted wisdom” from a time when Irish people might be considered the enemy. But a wise and valued counsellor urged me to reflect on that use of the word lazy, and to be honest when she did, I reached a slightly deeper understanding of why it hit me so hard and perhaps how that man’s unpleasant slight was so easy for him to deliver.

His pronouncement wasn’t so much lazy as it was unevolved. Uncultured, Devoid of nuance.

And to make matters perhaps even a little more unsettling, my first version of this post was also full of knee jerk irritation. But I have since reflected on what the incident might have been set up to teach or show me? Where do I take popular opinion and pass it off as truth or rational thought? What assumptions was I making about him and his opinion? Perhaps he has suffered some personal tragedy in the conflict that was Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th Century and that frames his world view. I suppose what I’m saying is that despite being in a hurtful situation, sometimes it is better to move to understanding before engaging unevolved thought with an equally unevolved clap back.

I still don’t know if he has suffered in some way at the hands of the history of my home, but what did strike me was a more chilling thought. Could an out-dated set of assumptions about the Irish be making a comeback? Had they already?

Because we have been (relatively) peaceful in our green land for a fair few years, we have sort of been forgotten about. Now, in my view this is not a bad thing. It’s certainly a good thing to know that we had reached a kind of equilibrium to outsider eyes…even if we hadn’t. But you know what I mean.

Being able to set the Paddy’s to one side has allowed some to fall back on old attitudes and assumptions about us. Now at the risk of turning you off I’m going to mention the B word…you know the one. Starts with Brex and ends in chaos… But stick with me.

Such a return to those outdated attitudes towards the Irish kind of sums up why the whole Border/Backstop issue was simply ignored during the whole “B” word debate from the get-go. Of course, we now know it has become the ultimate Elephant in the political room.  And if leaders and citizens alike were NOT looking at that huge obstacle at the heart of this issue…what were they looking at? What messages were being pumped out to obfuscate examination of something so blindingly obvious?

Whatever…us Irish have hoved back into view, and I feel it is worth emphasizing that the overwhelming majority in Ireland want conflict to remain very firmly in their rear-view mirror…not to re-ignite it. It would be great if that shift in attitude from us was transferred to opinions about us too.

Have we been forgotten so completely that some can only remember stereotypical images of the Irish?  The answer is, sadly, yes. But forgetfulness can’t be the only reason why the issue of the border between the North and South of Ireland was able to grow big ears, a trunk and start eating peanuts in the very centre of our current political room…can it?

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© 2020 John A. Marley / Terms of Use / Privacy Policy / Website by Finding Nektar