ONE thing I noted after moving to Ireland from England 20 years ago was the delight people showed on discovering that my ancestry didn’t peter out at a disappointing dead end in London, but could be traced back to Ireland — my father’s birthplace — in a short, straight line.
However, this didn’t stop the anti-English jibes from being flung in my direction.
I was surprised they were aimed at me: I’m a racial salad of genes — Catholic father from Dublin, mother from Venice — born in London with 8 million other hybrids, so I’ve had about as much governance over the Black and Tans as I’ve had over the FTSE 100 index or FIFA.
Before moving here, I’d never really thought of myself in racial terms; for Londoners, the common denominator isn’t shared lineage but the fact that we all breathe, eat and sleep. It seems daft to make generalisations about race, since they inevitably lead to a reductive ‘one-line entry into Wikipedia’ sort of thing eg:
The English: unbelievable ability to stand around on a village green for hours playing cricket, a liking for chips and pints of bitter. Dreadful history of colonialism can’t be ignored.
Or, the Irish: unbelievable ability to stand up in a pub for hours yelling, a liking for potatoes and religion. Drinking can’t be ignored.
But it’s St. Patrick’s Day so this week I’ve given Irish national characteristics some consideration. I’ve thought about the Irish wit, for example, and the colourful use of idiom such as, “she was the greatest hoor that ever pissed in her knickers” which is hands-down the best derogation I’ve ever heard. I’ve decided on my favourite national characteristic finally. My one-line entry into Wikipedia on the Irish is thus:
People that say robustly, “it’s no trouble” or “it’s no bother at all” after helping someone who’s undeniably caused them extraordinary, undeserved amounts of bother, albeit unintentionally.
It’s a quality that’s hard to pinpoint — a kind of good-natured forbearance or easy-going sufferance, splashed with grace, perhaps best illustrated by an incident that took place on Warren Strand circa 1996, which began with a knock on the door.
Opening the door with my baby on my hip, I find a neighbour standing in the rain, clutching a packet of biscuits and three of my children, each of whom looks like they’re auditioning for parts in a film called ‘Neglected Children’.
They’d left two hours ago with my husband for a beach walk, dotted with the last vestiges of chicken pox, fully clothed. Now they shiver in underwear, covered in mud.
I urge them all to come in quickly, appalled. My neighbour, at whom, up until this moment I’ve only smiled from the car, bustles in cheerfully, “sure your husband will be back in a minute,” she says.
I tell her to sit down and head upstairs to find towels. “Everything is grand,” she calls, “just he had a small incident down on the beach.”
“What kind of incident?” I ask. “Sure my husband’s gone down with the tractor and rope. We were out for a spin and saw a car out in the ocean and thought it might be your husband.”
I recall the fact that every time we’ve passed the slip-way down by the pier, my husband has said, “I’d love to drive the car off that slip onto the beach one day. It’d be brilliant.”
My apologies are profuse and heartfelt. “Not at all,” she said, “stop that…it’s no bother, it was just unfortunate the tide came in so quickly. Your poor husband is in an awful state.”
“And the car?” “Fit for scrap I’d say.” Her delicate delivery is kind but unnecessary, given that it was fit for scrap before being submerged.
My neighbour rubs down my eldest with a towel, swatting off my thanks with her hands like they’re midges.
“And don’t be worrying about school runs now, I can spin your children up for as long as you need.” I protest — the school is a 20 minute drive away. Then I thank her again for everything. “Stop,’ she says, swatting again, “I’ve told you, it’s no bother.”
I have a feeling there aren’t many places in the world where a tractor, five men, four hours, two cars, three poxed-up children, January rain and a tow-rope would be described as “no bother at all”.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.