Apologies for my third post in a day, but I must share this blog written by a young woman in Belfast, Aisling Gallagher. I found it because someone re-tweeted it into my feed via the obnoxious twittering of a “famous” Northern Irish right-wing journalist who called it “hysterical”. That Gallagher is the NUS-USI Women’s Officer is of course relevant here. Journalists ply their trade in words, and when they deploy the word hysteria to demean a young female writer, they know exactly what they are doing. I don’t think the piece is hysterical, or moping or any of the other insults thrown at it. It is helpful for my own thinking. It might be for yours too.
She begins by recounting how as a child she dreamt of being something other than Irish. I can empathise with this. Five-year-old-me wanted to live in a land where people spoke like they did on the TV. Five-year-old-me wasn’t even able to talk properly yet, but what words I could construct came out in a strange Irish accent. I took it as a secret source of pride when travelling as a teenager to find people mistake me as German (!).
She got involved with student politics and that’s where this happened to her:
At one of my first conferences, we all had name badges, and a lot of people didn’t know how to pronounce my name. When they asked, I told them. And that was usually the end of it. But then a woman told me that that wasn’t how my name was pronounced. She laughed, like it was obvious to everyone but me. I told her that it was Irish, it was a different language. The language didn’t operate by the same rules that English did. That was the reason it was pronounced the way it was. But she refused to accept it, and kept telling me I was wrong. That has stuck with me for a year, and it is something I often think about. I have never told the woman involved how hurtful it was. I was too scared to. But I suddenly became aware of how much I stuck out, the minute I opened my mouth. The Irish jokes came thick and fast throughout the conference. I smiled, but inside I wanted to cry.
At the end of her first year in college my sister went to America to work for the summer on a J1 visa. She got a job as a chambermaid in a fancy guesthouse owned by the family of a very famous pop singer. Her progressive employers couldn’t crack her name and instead settled on calling her “Ass-ling”. She still tells this story with a laugh. What else can you do? Around the world, hundreds of millions of people can empathize with the difficulty of having a name that is exotic. That is why the east Asian working in the McDonalds drive-through in Bridge of Don has a name badge that says Paul.
Better to obscure the difference, even though the attempt clearly underlines the difference.
I got further involved with NUS, and was flying out to meetings or conferences every few weeks. I became so much more aware, again, of how different I was. I felt like I was six years old again. People constantly told me to slow down. People made jokes about Irish stereotypes and the food that we ate and how much alcohol we drank and thought it was the most original, hilarious thing ever. I smiled weakly, rarely having the courage to tell them to fuck off.
This is my experience too. I worked for a Christian organisation renowned around the evangelical world for being a sane and wonderful place that nurtured leaders who lived with grace. At a training program run in conjunction with the British branch I was greeted every morning with leprechaun jokes. I went for a pint with a guy I struck up a conversation with and came back to the conference centre to jokes about alcoholism.
At my current university, as a travelling scholar dispatched by my national university, I regularly field hilarious jokes about spuds and Guinness. One postgrad student sitting in my living room insisted Elizabeth Windsor was “Ireland’s queen too!” Someone else was fascinated that Irish people had their own language, aside from, you know, English. Just last week I had a conversation with an English person who was surprised that Ireland didn’t use the sterling pound.
I carry with me every single privilege that comes with having white skin. I am not stopped and searched because I am white. Shop attendants do not follow me around thinking I might steal something. There are a magnitude of hair and beauty products in shops that are tailored to my skin tone and my hair. 107 of the 108 politicians sitting in Stormont reflect my skin colour. Northern Ireland is full of white people being represented on every possible platform, I see people who look like me on television and in plays and when I walk down the street. I have white privilege.
This is absolutely true for me as well. I have a friend here, a brilliant student, a graduate of an Ivy League school with the social skills of a diplomat and the character of a saint. They have to choose their clothes very carefully when flying, even to the extent of dressing as if for a wedding. Even though they are as American as apple pie, they lack my pigmentation. Life is more complex for them in complex ways.
I wrote all about this a few weeks ago, but Gallagher puts her finger on an aspect I haven’t yet managed to address:
I am angry at what has happened to my ancestors at the hands of the British state. I am sick of having to defend this anger to people who think that because they were not directly involved, I should be polite and respectful to them while they disrespect and desecrate the memory of my family and the people who fought in defence of my country, labelling them as scumbag terrorists who deserve everything they got. I am Irish and I am working on trying to stop letting the rest of the world make me ashamed to be so.
This paragraph might annoy people like Newton Emerson, but his Twitter tantrum is proof of its relevance. I would nuance the crap out of this paragraph before I could appropriate it for myself but it seems as if this angle of Irish/Northern Irish/British discourse needs to protected. To shut down the ways that in which the junction of cultural memory, political aspiration, Irish identity, republicanism and paramilitary violence can be expressed is just another way to de-norm Irish people on the island of Ireland. This paragraph does not speak for me, a pacifist who disavows nationalism and entirely suspects nation states. But the way that paragraphs like this provoke a censoring mentality speaks to the ways in which Irishness is still less than full on these islands, and around the English speaking world.
Anyway, enough cant from me. Go read the piece.
Your Correspondent, He’s got an enchanted jock strap!