LOUISE O'NEILL: Why I'm proud to be from Ireland

We drink too much, we don’t talk about our feelings enough; the importance of mental health is still a nascent issue in our public consciousness, writes Louise O’Neill

WHEN I was growing up, I never gave much thought to my ‘Irishness’. It was just the standard. I was Irish, everyone I knew was Irish, and those who weren’t Irish seemed almost intoxicatingly exciting. True story — I once trailed American tourists around Clonakilty because I thought they must know Leonardo diCaprio and would introduce us.

It was only when I moved abroad that I began to think about my national identity in a more deliberate fashion. I was told that my accent was “adorable”, and I was “so Irish looking!” on a daily basis in the States.

At first I wasn’t sure if “so Irish looking” was a nice way of saying “hideous” and “your eyes are too close together because of years of marrying third cousins, gross,” until I realised it actually meant “corpse-level pale” and “red hair”.

What hope did I have of competing with all the eye-wateringly beautiful women of New York who were “a quarter Swedish, a quarter Indian, and half Korean, and that’s only on my mother’s side!”

Spoiler alert — None. (As an aside, one can only hope that the concept of what it even means to ‘look Irish’ will broaden as we become more diverse and multi cultural. It’ll make for a markedly more attractive nation of people, at the very least. Please note that when I suggested this on Twitter, fury rained upon my head from usernames such as ‘White Power’ and ‘Hitler Wasn’t That Bad, Now Was He?’)

But besides feeling like a troll on a daily basis while I lived in the US, it did make me appreciate certain things about the Old Country. And since St Patrick’s Day is supposed to be a celebration of all things Irish, I have decided to use this as an opportunity to consider why I’m proud to be from here.

1. It’s a cliché but I like how friendly we are. I went to visit my friend Angela in Brooklyn and arrived to her apartment 40 minutes before she left work. By the time she came home, I was sitting on the couch in her neighbour’s house, drinking iced tea. “Louise,” she said. “I’ve lived here two years and I’ve never met those people before. Why are you like this?”

2. I love how highly Irish people value humour, and how we prioritise having the craic. When friends in New York would tell me about their new boyfriends, they would usually open with something like, “yeah, he has an amazing apartment. Roof top terrace, you know?” I found this baffling because at home people would say “he’s hilarious” or in dire straits, they might say “and you won’t believe this, but he’s on the Cork team,” as the height of achievement.

3. Irish people are excellent story-tellers, something I feel was not appreciated by colleagues in an American clothing store I worked at. “Wow,” they’d say. “That’s funny.” (Is there anything more off-putting than someone saying “that’s funny” rather than, I don’t know, laughing?) As an author, I feel proud of the quality of fiction that is being produced by my peers. There’s an appreciation for language that is deeply embedded into our national psyche, and that goes a long way to explaining why we punch well above our weight on a cultural and artistic level.

4. I loved New York on a bone-deep level — I loved the diversity and the energy and the relentless ambition that is its very back bone — but I was constantly hungry for the open spaces of Inchydoney Beach or the breath-taking horizon of the Beara Peninsula. I wanted a night so dark that I could stare at the stars unencumbered by street lights, and I wanted a sleep so silent and deep that it felt as if I was drowning in it. Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to and the countryside feeds my soul on some primal level.

Of course there are many things I don’t like about Ireland. It can feel too small at times, and insular. The growing divide between wealthy and poor worries me, as does the dehumanisation of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds as ‘less than’ and ‘scumbags’.

We have a growing problem with racism; one that shouldn’t be surprising given the historic demonisation of the travelling community but it is a problem that seems to be dismissed far too readily.

We drink too much, we don’t talk about our feelings enough; the importance of mental health is still a nascent issue in our public consciousness. Our rape conviction rates are dismally low, and 12 women a day are still forced to take a plane or a ferry to avail of basic reproductive healthcare.

And yet — I still have hope. I have hope that most Irish people are fair, and decent.

I believe that we all want to work towards a kinder, compassionate, more inclusive, and progressive Ireland. I feel we are ready to do that. So today, on St Patrick’s Day, I have one question for you:

What do you want Ireland to look like in 2018 and beyond? What does being Irish mean as we move forward?

LOUISE SAYS

READ: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The premise of this book is ingenious — four siblings visit a fortune teller in 1969 who tells them the exact date of their death. What follows is a beautifully written and brilliantly well plotted novel spanning across four decades.

READ: Mollie on the March by Anna Carey.

I love this series about a young girl called Mollie Carberry living in Dublin in 1912 who becomes interested in the Suffragettes’ cause. The book is funny and charming and the historical element is deftly managed by Carey, and I found myself moved by the plight some of these women endured in their struggle to win rights that we take for granted today.


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