It’s a question with no real, honest or direct answer, one that is longer that the questioner wants to hear, an answer that is often wrapped up in hidden shame and overt pride - where are you from?
Most people now make the assumption I’m from Essex cause I sound common and I live in Southend. Those who make this assumption or ask it as a question often have a connection to Essex, they want to feel connected to you. I shatter their hopes and respond that I was brought up in North London.
Londoners of a certain age and similar background ask me which area am I’m from - this is to see if we know each other from back in the day. Again, this is us establishing a connection or if they are from south of the river enacting our rivalry.
When I meet Irish folk I ask them where are they from - they always respond “...erm, Ireland”
If I had an Irish accent they would tell me the county they were from, because I don’t sound Irish I’m treated with suspicion.
My cultural identity can be described by using the name of a popular premiership rugby club. I am London Irish. My mother's parents are two Irish migrants that arrived in London a few years before her birth. The first grandchild of a traditional catholic family I was raised or what we would say ‘reared’ by my grandparents. My parents had to work, my dad a roofer, my mum a cleaner so I spent most of my time knocking about with Nan and Grandad who cleaned posh people’s houses in nearby Hampstead.
I grew up on an estate that was predominately first or second generation Irish. We were the kids or grandkids of migrants. I went to the local catholic school, attached to the local catholic church which I had to attend with my nan every Saturday and Sunday. These factors contribute to my Irishness, factors that were pushed to the forefront and wholeheartedly endorsed by my Nan.
I took Irish dancing lessons, I was often reminded that I was not like the ‘untidy’ or ‘unkept’ English, that I was better. I wrote letters to those back home, I spent summer holidays being told by my Great Aunts that I was too fat to wear certain clothes to mass. I was told I had a good head of Irish hair, I was built like those back home, I was the image of my grandfather, named after my great grandfather, a man who fought English occupation - I was raised Irish. To muddy matters my lovely dad is a Londoner, an ex-soldier who toured Northern Ireland - he is everything my Nan warned me about.
My mum did everything (and continues to) do everything for my illiterate grandparents, deciphering the English world and English word for them. Something that many of you might find strange is that I grew up with a Mum with two accents - London Mum and Letterkenny Mum. One voice for home, another voice for the outside world. The Irish voice is reserved for my grandparents and Irish elders in our family, the other voice is the product of migrant assimilation. I just sound common, but my turn of phrase and syntax is often remarked on or ‘upcast’ by those with Irish ears.
Unlike Nan, Grandad didn’t want me or his children to take pride in their Irishness. Grandad rarely went back home, in his own words, when asked if he wanted to be buried in Ireland or have the tricolour placed over his coffin he responded “Why? The country couldn’t even feed or clothe me, man!” However, Donegal was always referred to as ‘back home’.
Last year Grandad lost his battle with multiple cancers, with his death came a mourning. Not only for a brilliant role model but for a loss to the authenticity of my cultural identity. My Irishness or claim to it felt as if it had begun to slip away. My Irish sounding heritage is disappearing and with it my Irish identity? There is now only Nan left as my cultural stakeholder - when she goes do I just become a Londoner? My friend Debbie, another working class Irish Londoner warned me this would happen after she lost her father a few years previous.
This weekend my nan came to stay at ours, to see our Southend home for the first time - this kickstarted a lot of the thoughts I’ve offloaded here. To celebrate her arrival I made Nan the same dish she’s been making me since I was not old enough to eat - braising steak and soda bread. A recipe from her grandmother, a staple in our family to mark an occasion. As I began to prepare the slow cooked dish nine hours ahead my husband said “I’ll leave you to prepare with your ancestors”
I’m not sure why I’m writing this blog - I do know that it’s not to prove my Irishness or my London-ness. Not to disclose my pride but perhaps to uncover the shame of feeling a bit like a cultural fraud, questioning myself on the parameters of cultural appropriation. Perhaps I’ve written it to unearth the mucky relationship with identity or the legacy those of us with migrant identities hold. Perhaps it’s about the confusion of a legal British identity when Britishness represents (or what some in your family back home call) occupation or colonisation, or maybe it's about what it is to sound like one thing but to feel and look another.