Getting there

Getting there

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Irish Vs. English - And I Don't Mean Football

I've been watching the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland with some degree of bemusement. The last time a British monarch visited Ireland was in 1911, and frankly that event sparked a revolution in Ireland. It's been a hundred years since that last visit, and one would think that over time the Irish feelings for the English would have mellowed. After visiting Ireland recently I can only say this - they haven't really changed. In fact what I found was that the Irish continue to pretty much despise the English, and are quite happy to tell you why, too. They also aren't shy about sharing those feelings, either, as I found them expressed by almost every Irish person I met if the topic of the English happened to arise.

When I arrived in Ireland I quickly realized that my lovely new Aspinal of London purse, proudly emblazoned with the Union Jack and just purchased in London, would need to stay under wraps until my return to Canada. The first day we were there we heard anti-English sentiments and it didn't take a genius to recognize that sporting the Union Jack would be, as they say, a bloody bad idea. Fair enough, I thought - many Canadians aren't fond of their American neighbours, either, so it seemed a similar sort of antipathy - except that the roots of anti-English sentiment run much deeper and for far darker reasons than anything North Americans could imagine.

The English have, over hundreds of years, treated the Irish horribly. They have been starved, enslaved, imprisoned, outright murdered, and otherwise abused. It's a desperately dark history, and once one learns about it one quickly understands why these anti-English feelings have managed to last so very long. The Irish are a long-suffering people who have been oppressed, and, while they are generally an incredibly genial and good-natured sort, their treatment at the hands of the English has quite reasonably left them bitter.

One night in a pub in Dublin we were waiting for an Irish friend to join us. While we waited we met a man named Connor. Connor had red hair, a strong Irish accent, and introduced himself as an Irish native although he now spends much of his time overseas pursuing his career in photography. Connor also happened to be one of the musicians who would play for us that evening. He knew all the Irish ballads and traditional songs by heart, and sang them with great gusto when the music began.

Shortly after meeting Connor my husband made a comment about our recent visit to Westminster Abbey in London. The musicians in the pub were tuning up and he made a joke about some note the musicians were playing and how we had heard the organist at the Abbey tuning that same note. I almost kicked my spouse under the table as you could see Connor visibly recoil at the mention of the English, and his response was swift and vitriolic. No comparison between the Irish and the English was welcome, thank you, and it was clear he held deeply seated hatred for the English. Connor was clearly one of those Irish folks who held those deep feelings of anger and enmity very close.

When our friend arrived I introduced him to Connor. A few minutes later my Irish friend quietly leaned into me and whispered in my ear "He's not really Irish, you know". I looked at my dark-haired, lilting-accented friend with astonishment and replied "Whaddya mean?". After all, Connor had an Irish name, Irish accent, had grown up in Ireland, and carried an Irish passport. He hated the English with a passion, which seemed fairly typical of most Irish we had met. He knew every traditional Irish song. He looked at women like they were a sandwich and he hadn't eaten in weeks (a behaviour shared by most Irish men, I must say - they study a woman like no other men I've ever known - there's a blog post in that!). As they say, if it talks like a duck(Irishman) and walks like a duck(Irishman), then most likely....

But no, our friend explained. Connor was "Scots-Irish", meaning he likely had Scottish roots, and therefore didn't count as Irish. I was mildly amused and a bit baffled, too. It seemed the division between the Irish and the British/English was even more complicated than I thought. It seemed this Canadian would never fully understand, and truly I guess I gave up trying at that point. There is a compexity to these feelings and relationships that I suspect can only be understood by those within the country, and the attempt of an outsider to understand it will only end in failure.

When we arrived home I met someone originally from England, Yorkshire specifically. He told me a story about a time when he and several English friends went to Ireland. They had gone to a pub in Killarney and had been warned to stay away from certain towns and pubs because their nationality would put them in serious danger. The Irish were, to us Canadians, warm and welcoming and kind - but my new English friend said that this was not true of the Irish he encountered.

So, the Queen's visit might be a "reconciliation", as they claim in the press. Perhaps it will build some goodwill in Ireland, but I must say I have some serious doubts as to whether it will truly have any significant impact on Irish feelings about the English. The fact that an improvised explosive device was found and defused just hours before her arrival indicates to me that the Irish have no intention of letting go of that long-simmering resentment and anger (incidentally I took some heat, perhaps well deserved, for referring to that explosive as "impromptu Irish fireworks" - never claimed my sense of humour was politically correct!). And really, you know what? I don't blame the Irish one little bit. I think they have bloody good reasons to be angry, and in this I side quite firmly with them. But dear friends, one thing - don't tell my Irish friends about my Union Jack purse, eh?

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