I’M glad I wasn’t born in Ireland. It took me a long time to realise that.
In fact, I felt the lack of not being born here for a long time.
I yearned to have been born here. But now, as an Irishman, I’m truly glad I wasn’t.
Why this matters is at the core of diaspora identity.
As second generation Irish the fault line in my identity, even more than my accent, was the place of my birth.
I was born in inner city Birmingham and that is how I sound.
Therefore, in the simple world of Tebbit’s cricket test or the only Irish if born on the island brigade I was excluded.
Wasn’t born here. Doesn’t belong. Even the copper fasting of my identity that Jack Charlton’s football team offered was met with England B taunts by the English and mutterings about plastic paddies by the Irish.
Wasn’t good enough to be English. Can never really be Irish.
Now that I’ve lived back in Ireland for well over twenty years, though, not being born here is something for which I’m grateful.
Living here has let me see clearly what that would have meant.
Being born and brought up in Ireland to the kind of Irish I’m from would not have been misty glens and sing songs.
Wrong Irish. Too poor. Too uneducated. Too disposable. Too, in fact, Irish.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that England was the land of opportunity.
I’m not suggesting it was the land of milk and honey.
It was a country where the Tories and Margaret Thatcher ripped the heart out of their own communities.
They weren’t likely to be treating the lives of immigrants with more kindness.
What it was though was just bigger. More anonymous.
Emotionally colder? Yes. Socially freer? Yes.
My father always said he did not want to stay and be beholden to the wink or the nod from a big farmer or the family with social influence.
Of course, that was Ireland then and it is now a much changed place but I’ve seen enough of rural Ireland these last twenty two years to see the remnants of that linger on.
England is rotted by its class system. But it’s at least acknowledged.
Ireland apparently has never had one. Yet certain Irish always got the boat and certain Irish didn’t have to.
And the unrecorded Irish class system meant you couldn’t even point this out.
If we’d never left my family’s opportunities would have been bound by a system that, apparently, didn’t even exist.
For instance, would I have gone on to third level education in 1980s Ireland? Not a hope.
It was a push from the inner city streets of Birmingham to do so. Not many around us did.
But a northern polytechnic at least suggested to me that some other kind of life was possible.
That northern polytechnic didn’t even exist in Ireland.
Not that England set us free. England couldn’t have cared less about us.
But being so big and so impersonal, and let’s be honest, so much more politically advanced, it left a lot of cracks for us to climb through.
There is another thing too. Another thing that we’re not supposed to mention.
But is there any possibility that the best left? The most imaginative, the most adventurous, the most liberated?
We’re talking in massive generalisations here, remember, but those Irish I grew up with, dismissed by their own country, derided by the new one, were one hell of a generation.
They’d had none of life’s advantages, a fair scattering of its disadvantages, and yet built profoundly dynamic Irish communities in a country that was often hostile to that very identity.
Why would I have not wanted to come from them.
I’m Irish. It’s been at the core, amongst other things, of who I am. It’s been denied me, forced on me, officially accepted and socially declined.
It’s been a joy and a frustration. It’s been a life that was always between the most city part of the city and the most country of the country.
Between the most neon streets and the darkest fields.
From being part of a very big Irish family to being part of very big English city.
To making all of those parts fit together. It’s been drinking too much. And laughing too much.
It’s been my name and my face. It’s been my Irishness.
For one thing, though, I have gratitude. That Ireland was not my birthplace.