Am I an Irishwoman?

<strong>Taken from the New Statesman archive, 5 November 1965</strong>

Brophy (1929-95) was a freq

Ever since Mr. Bernard Levin demanded of himself on this page 'Am I a Jew?', I have been hearing a small voice which from time to time asks me 'Are you an Irishwoman?'

To ascribe this voice to a leprechaun would come easily to me, since leprechauns seem to run in – or, more precisely, run after – my family. My father once committed an infinitesimal misdemeanour on the island of Achill and was pursued down a quite empty, fuchsia-hedged lane by a voice asking 'Sean, Sean, what have you done?' Even at the time (I was six) I was interested, when my father recounted this to me, in the leprechaun's acumen. To reproach my father in English was no more than politic of it, since my father has little Gaelic, yet it made an appeal to his patriotism by translating his name – which is in fact not Sean at all but John. My fantasy, in which this story has been lodged ever since, could now go very fluently on to a hypothesis that there is a whole family of them devoted to pursuing with nagging questions the family of us. What's more, I'll bet I know where they come from.: a small place just about in the middle of Ireland, called (the existence of this place is probably not widely known, so I make a free gift of it to any New Statesman readers who, exasperated by my Irish rationality, may be searching for the apt adjective to prefix to my name) Ballybrophy.

However, the voice of that rationality within me knows very well how to answer the voice that nags me. The correct reply is 'Nonsense, you're no leprechaun and I'm no Irishwoman.' By nativity, schooling and economics I am English. I speak the usual modified cockney of a Paulina. Only on the telephone, whose tricks there is no accounting for anyway, is my intonation sometimes taken for Irish. Apart from the rationality I have mentioned, which occasionally irritates people in England (a country where 'reasonable' is not a word of praise when applied to thoughts or arguments but only when applied to prices), I possess none of the standard Irish characteristics. My pen may have the gift of the gab but my tongue hasn't. I am fond but distinctly frightened by horses in the horseflesh and bored by them as mathematical prospects to gamble on. It's true I go quite often to Dublin but only because it's a beautiful city and my cousins there are dears. I can (I've tested it) assume Irish speech well enough to pass for a native, but so can many an English raconteur of supposedly funny stories, and anything I gain on the spoken I lose on the written word. Ireland deprives me of my very literacy. I've naturally mastered the more elementary ones like D ún Laoghaire and Cobh, but I can't feel anything other than a foreigner in a country most of whose geography and history I have not the smallest idea how to pronounce.

And yet. The geography and history of Ireland hold my imagination in a melancholy magic spell. Dublin and Limerick are cities beautiful to me not only with some of the handsomest and most neglected architecture in Europe but with a compelling litany, a whole folklore, of tragic and heroic associations. At an Abbey Theatre performance earlier this year I discovered I cannot sit through Cathleen ni Houlihan without crying. Still, I don't believe this is because I am, if I am, Irish. There are some reasons for it in my personal and family history, but I think it is chiefly for the simple reason that the history of Ireland is unbearably sad.

To the voice which urges that I am mostly Irish by blood, I make the round reply that, nonsense, my blood is entirely Group O. I don't believe in 'blood' in that sense any more than I do in leprechauns. But it is true that my exact sociological situation is too complex to allow me to make the simple assertion that I am English. I reject what has sometimes presented itself to me as an Irish fatality in my personal life, whereby, set loose in an English environment, I seem to have made more Irish choices than chance would warrant: the dearest to me of my contemporary fellow-writers is Irish; and were I superstitious I would certainly make something of the curious fact that I chose to marry an Irishman without even knowing that he was one – and thereby ensured that, whereas neither he nor I are wholly Irish by ancestry, our child is more Irish than either of her parents. I rigorously refuse to read this as a compulsion in the blood, but I suspect it may reflect a community and affinity of temperament among people brought up between two nationalities.

Though in one pleasing respect I'm not treated as a foreigner in Ireland (it's the only place on earth where people spell my name correctly), I feel a foreigner there: but I feel a foreigner in England, too. I was brought up to do so. I belong by upbringing to a highly specialised class (though I wouldn't be surprised if numerically it's larger than the population of Eire): those who are reared as Irish in England. The Anglo-Irish came from English who went over, intermarried and grew into the Ascendancy. We're representatives of the opposite process. It is from a Descendancy in Ireland that we Irish-English originate. We were squeezed out from the bottom layer of the country by poverty and English oppression, and came to England to take advantage there of the affluence and tolerance the English never exported to Ireland. In England we remain, generation after generation, as immigrants. We are as unassimilable as the Jews – who have their own religion to set them apart from the rest by the fact that their fierce religious divisions set them apart even from one another.

People of the Irish-English class have, of course, distinguishing marks of speech and thought. They are without social snobbery and preserve an ancestral dread and detestation of the poverty which is the disease of Ireland. Not only do they wear shamrocks on St Patrick's Day; they are intensely pedantic about the word shamrocks, some of them insisting, as I was brought up to do, that it is a word which occurs only in the plural and others, of course, insisting the opposite. Indeed, they are more than average pedants in general ('Shaw is the greatest pedant alive', he wrote in one of his third-person accounts of himself, but the least of us could say the same) and are most particularly pedantic about the names of Irish things, where, now that I think of it, the point of the pedantry quite often turns on that question of singular or plural: heaven help you if you speak of the Custom House in Dublin as the Customs House (though you will get away very easily with not noticing that it's one of the most beautiful buildings in the world). Their other speech tricks result simply from perpetuating a literal translation of a language they have long forgotten in a language they continue to speak with the clumsiness of a foreigner. Ignoring the fact that English does possess the handy words 'Yes' and 'No', they, like characters in the New Testament, reply to questions by the cumbersome formula of repeating the words of the question re-arranged as a negative or affirmative statement. Since, as foreigners, they manipulate English logically instead of idiomatically, when it's their turn to ask a question they say 'amn't I?' instead of 'aren't I?' (This usage made me much laughed-at as a child in England, but though it's still the one that comes naturally to my lips I notice I have scarcely any occasion to use it now; one's schooldays must have been much fuller that adulthood is of rhetorical contexts requiring the self-vindicating 'amn't I?') And above all, of course, they entertain the vision of a Promised Land. Ireland inevitably figures to them as a terrestrial paradise which it is their life's quest to regain, because they all spent, as I did at six, the long, nostalgia-bearing holidays of childhood among its fuchsias and leprechauns.

But if this makes them all romantics, it should also make them all disillusioned romantics and thus give them at least the prerequisites for turning into rational people. The Irish-English, touched with two nationalities and belonging to none, should know, if anyone does, that the worst thing an oppressor imposes, when it holds down a nation, is nationalism; the ultimate wickedness committed by England was to drive Ireland into a nationalistic act of cutting off its nose to spite its face – whereupon it is not the nose but the now independent national face that withers. Likewise, they, if anyone, should know the bitter folly of religious intolerance. In Ireland there are three permissible answers, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, to the eternal question 'What is your religion?' I, who have to answer 'None', am in Ireland neither a foreigner nor an Irishwoman but an invisible woman; and my husband and I, an ex-Catholic and an ex-Protestant united in happy rationalism (which is the dreadful state each side has feared all along the other would lead to), are the invisible married couple with an invisible child whom it would be, I surmise, virtually impossible for us to educate in Ireland. For this or a hundred other reasons, the Promised Land of the Irish-English class is one most of them can't return to. The last and most ironic tragedy of Irish history is that though Ireland freed itself from the English it did not acquire English freedom. A year or two ago I stood, an invisible woman (and author of banned books), in one of the finest bookshops in Dublin and copied down the notice pinned to one of the bookcases: 'There are over 8,000 books banned in Ireland. If by chance we have one on display, please inform us, and it will be DESTROYED.'

I am not English but I am a British citizen, grateful for the tolerance which has given refuge to unassimilable, unrepatriable and sometimes awkwardly rational third-generation immigrants like me. And almost as soon as I have finished setting out the love and disillusion I bear in Ireland, my husband and I will be setting out for Wexford, there to hear a performance of La Finta Giardiniera or, as it will very likely be billed, La Feinta Giaoirdieniairaigh or some such. We shall, of course, be taking our more Irish than ourselves daughter with us for her first Irish holiday.