Am I English or Irish? - the second generation question
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Am I English or Irish? - the second generation question

AM I English or Irish? It's a question those of us born in England to Irish families have to face at some stage.

Having attended a discussion at the London Irish Centre, where the subject was 'Britishness and Irishness: Shared or Separate?', it’s clear from listening to the panel of Sean Doran, Margaret Ritchie, James Winston, Peter Sheridan and Sean Sorohan, plus the 100 or so people gathered, that the debate is not going to finish any time soon.

I see myself as a London Irishman.

I was born in Hammersmith, west London, to parents from the west of Ireland. So far west is my mother's village in Achill Island that the next stop is America – a journey many from the area have taken.

For their own reasons, when my parents headed across the water in the 1960s, they both landed up in west London. Shepherds Bush for my father, Ealing for my mother.

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Irishness was never forced on us but my sister and I soon grasped the fact that we weren't "proper English".

My parents spoke with a different accent to our neighbours, Gladys and Frank. And it was only at university years later that I met young "proper English" people for the first time.

In my school we were the sons and daughters of immigrants from Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Iraq and Poland - no royal bloodlines at Cardinal Wiseman.

We spent our summer holidays in Mayo and Sligo. We attended Catholic primary and secondary schools. While my sister was off Irish dancing, I was training with the local soccer team, Greenford Celtic.

My sister now lives in Dublin and I write for The Irish Post, have an Irish passport, and often say ‘I'm English by birth - Irish by the Grace of God’.

I don't like the term 'Plastic Paddy', I find it insulting - and I've heard it a bit.

I first questioned whether I was English or Irish on a beautiful June evening in 1990, when Ireland faced England in the World Cup.

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My hero then was John Barnes, who was in the England team alongside the likes of Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton and Paul Gascoigne – players I'd been watching on the TV every week.

But this match was different to any other I'd seen. The first oddity was that it wasn't just me and my father in the sitting room. My mother, sister and an aunt visiting from Kildare were also engrossed.

There was a lot more at stake than Group F points. Those 11 men in green jerseys were representing us all, Irish-born or not.

I was just a bit too young in 1988 to notice the spring in my father's step when Ireland beat England 1-0. Two years on was the first time I saw my parents show how much they cared for the land where they were born.

When England raced into an early lead through a Gary Lineker goal, I cheered. But the reaction in the room was anything but celebratory.

My family wound me up until half time then said, seriously, it was okay if I supported England. But for some reason it didn't sit right with me.

On 72 minutes I found out why. Packie Bonner, one of only three Irish-born players in the starting 11, launched a long punt forward. The ball dropped for Kevin Sheedy (born in Wales), to drill home. The room erupted. Pure joy. "You'll never beat the Irish." Heaven knows what Frank and Gladys were thinking.

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Since then, I've realised my Irishness is an inside job. If I'd have been born in a garage, it wouldn't have made me a car. I was born in England, but my spirit is Irish. When I come off the plane at Knock and my feet touch the soil, and my nose smells the Irish air my soul is stirred – it feels like home.

The bogs and fields of Mayo and Sligo are where I experienced some of the happiest times of my childhood. Coming from the concrete jungle for a six-week break in the 'Wild West' was like being transported into a dream world.

People would stop to say hello In Achill and Sligo. "Welcome home, how long are you back for? How are mam and dad? Be sure to call to the house." Drivers would signal to acknowledge you were very much a local.

However, the generation of Irish kids my age weren't always friendly.

I don't like the term 'Plastic Paddy', I find it insulting - and I've heard it a bit.

The thing that amazes me with some Irish people is how quick they are to claim us English-born Irish as their own when they help Ireland qualify for the World Cup, or become one of the biggest bands in the world as the Gallagher brothers did with Oasis.

Success brings acceptance, but we - the non-famous members of the second generation – will never be as Irish as those born and raised on the auld sod.

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And what about the loyal English-born supporters who follow Ireland over land and sea, yet take abuse from their fellow supporters because they don't sound like Robbie Keane?

It brings me back to those summer holidays in Achill. We’d start off in Ted Lavelle's and then head to Keel for a few drinks in the Village Inn, before moving on to the Achill Head Hotel for the disco.

If it didn't kick off in the club then the queue for curry chips was always a good spot for some "banter". "I see the Queen's lads think they should be getting served first," is one particularly gem I remember.

With drink flowing, it was fairly common for a few fists to be thrown. We brought ID with us to get into the Achill Head but never thought to bring a copy of our family trees.

In the year of The Gathering I have one question. Are we all welcome in Ireland? Or is it determined by how successful we are? Because you either have us all or none at all.

You can't just take the good and the great. Like those born in Ireland, not all of us are soccer rock stars. But like you, we are not without our charm.

The BibleCode Sundays sum up my experience of Irishness in their songs, Maybe It's Because I'm An Irish Londoner and The Kids From The City Of Nowhere.

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"You can hear it in my accent when I talk, a proud London Irishman. We built the roads and the docks and the railways ... Ain't nothing but pride on this west London Irish face."

When Ireland play at Wembley in May, it will be a chance for many of us to watch our country take on England in an area where many of us grew up.

Just don't call us plastic – some day you might want to claim a few of our number as your own.

Some day you may even claim want to claim every one of us.

Now that would be a reason for a year-long party.