When Obama visited Ireland last week and spoke movingly about the impact the Irish immigrant community had made in America, he knew how to get the crowd onside. Irish people get emotional about their diaspora in a way the British don’t. Historically, whenever the British moved abroad they were either inspired by the spirit of opportunity and adventure or off to expand the Empire. When The Irish left their homeland it was usually because something depressing was happening.
Even now, Irish people still feel a twinge of guilt and responsibility for those forced to make their home aboard. That’s nothing compared to the guilt felt by the people who actually emigrated. If Ireland could somehow channel this guilt into a form of fuel, George Bush would have invaded us years ago.
I had an auntie and uncle that moved to America during the last big recession in the 80s. The heartbreak of their leaving was matched only by the awkwardness and stress of their visits home. Every two years or so, they’d return with suitcases full of strange sweets, accents warped like old records and speech studded with strange Americanisms like “soda” that we’d all sneer at behind their back. For the length of the visit they tried to slip back into the family roles they abandoned years ago, with siblings they didn’t really know anymore, before returning exhausted back to their real life.
My family never asked questions about their new home; it was as if for those two weeks everyone wanted to forget they were ever away. America was the other woman they wouldn’t speak of. The day they flew back was always the worst. Like a wake the family reunited to say goodbye, bottles of whiskey were gruffly given, neighbours called and hands were shaken. We were ordered to kiss our departing uncle and aunt goodbye, a strange intimacy we treated with giddy embarrassment. Nanny always cried and there was always confusion over she whether going to the airport would be too much for her. Years later, when it was my turn to move abroad, out of choice rather than necessity and only as far away as London, she sobbed as keenly as if I were off to deepest darkest Alaska. Don’t forget me she’d whisper as I hugged her goodbye and guilt sagged like a wet leaden raincoat.
It’s not helped by the fact most of the Londoners I met had gaps in their knowledge of Ireland whole conversations could fall into. I didn’t want to be the clichéd Irish person trotting out Famine statistics and sobbing to Christy Moore, so I didn’t know whether to explain that “southern Ireland” wasn’t a country that Britain isn’t “the mainland” and the Irish language isn’t just pronouncing film as “filum”. Britain seemed clueless about Ireland; it was like discovering your best friend has no idea how old you were and the countries seemed separated by much more than the Irish Sea.
Even now, every trip home, I dread the car journey with my dad back from the airport, where I always get paranoid I’m getting an English accent. As I talk I can feel the strange London vowels in my mouth and my voice sounds awkward and clumsy like listening to a message I left on an answering machine. Now I’m the one bringing home sweets for my nephews and flinching when I accidently say “cupboard” instead of “press”.
Even something as innocuous as watching the Royal Wedding in Trafalgar Square brought a rush of guilt no other European Royal event would bring. Had my head been turned by London with its fancy Palladium architecture and transport system. The Queen wasn’t just the head of a crazy family; she was the head of the British State. What was I doing waving her flag?
So watching the Queens visit to Ireland I wasn’t expecting much. I certainly wasn’t expecting, all the way in Archway London, to feel a lump in my throat and a flush of relief, when she bowed her head before the memorial to the men who had died for Irish independence. The Queen of England, the head of the British army wasn’t just publically acknowledging my past, my history, my version of events she was honouring everything that mattered to my family, my Dad, my Nanny. Britain and Ireland were finally on the same page: London and home feel slightly nearer and I felt slightly less far away.