Who is on the plum tree?
Bloodline or Accent?
When I was asked to write something about “my country,” the invitation gave me cause to pause. I have lived in many countries, Canada, USA, Africa, working in overseas Aid and Development, Scotland, England and Ireland. Currently, I live in the UK, but have a house in Ireland. So which of these constitutes my country?
I was born in Ireland. Not one drop of ancestral blood is anything other than Irish. Give or take Spanish or Viking invasions and various incursions between the ancient Celts, I can honestly say, I am a thoroughbred. Yet, what does that mean?
I decided to explore whether nature or culture defines our nationalism. Does my bloodline define me or does my accent?
The reason I am asking is because I grew up in England. I went to school here. This culture inspired me, helped shape my taste in Music, Literature, Architecture, Art and Dance. My close friends are English, my mannerisms are too, as is my accent – posh some would say.
Yet being an immigrant in 1954 post-war London defined my childhood and shaped my psyche. At that time, to be Irish in England meant being unpopular. Like many others, we crossed the Irish Sea, disembarked at Liverpool, traveled to Birmingham and ended up in London. We were economic migrants fleeing the inherent poverty of a beloved country in search of the farther, gold-edged shores of America or England. When we arrived, No Irish Need Apply signs greeted us and graced the windows of the Labour Exchange.
My parents were a strange mixture. My mother was from Co. Clare, which boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. She was educated, her mother holding the then lofty title of school head mistress. My mother was fluent in her native tongue, a champion Irish dancer and a woman ahead of her time. She ought not to have fallen in love with my father – a musician from Donegal and as wild as the black hills that bred him.
Without going into details, theirs was a violent, dysfunctional relationship to say the least. My childhood was difficult in the extreme. I grew up in London-Irish Public Houses amongst the navvies and builders of the Victoria Tube tunnels, juxtaposed with the singers, musicians, painters and ex-pat poets looking for a home-from-home. They found it in the sparkle of my mother’s blue eyes. She had oodles of charm and was the classic Irish pub landlady: glamorous, flirtatious, witty and kind.
Apart from the violence, the rows and the drinking binges, some aspects of growing up in an Irish pub were good. For example, The Dubliners stayed with us and performed in the bar in exchange for accommodation, food, and booze. It would have been cheaper if my mother had charged them rent. In those days, the Irish were renowned for, and excelled in, their capacity to drink.
As a race, the Irish are not known for openly having many enforced acts of etiquette. But, one extremely important, almost sacred courtesy was the nod and the wink to the bartender to line up a fresh round of the ‘Black Stuff.’ Pints stood in rows of creamy black and white atop the bar. They would not be touched until the last bit of froth had settled. Only then did the bartender move the glass to the table for the dark, heavy liquid to be consumed. Pints were nodded into existence long before they were needed, long before the existing pint was empty. ‘Keep ‘em coming, Michael,’ meant perhaps that twenty rounds would be lined up in a night. Sometimes, whiskey chasers followed. Obviously, as the whiskey chased the barley, the tone of the evening degenerated, as rivers of alcohol coursed through Irish veins and inspired everything from poetry recitation about the ‘auld sod’, to songs about Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, speech-making and politicising, which often resulted in punch-ups. The pub was a political breeding ground for dissolute and disenfranchised young men forced to live off the English pound far from Irish shores. History was never far from Irish lips, hearts, or memories.
Apart from the seedy side of pub life, I met some wonderful musicians and poets. Whistle players, pipers, fiddlers, singers, and dancers made many an evening transport me back to the peat fires and the wild, empty shores of my birth. To this day, I prefer a soft rain to blistering sun and the soft, muted autumnal colours of heather on mountains to those bright and coquettish colours of summer. When light shift-shapes on mountain valley and casts all manner of differently coloured shadow, I am put in mind of the painter’s palette and how those colours might speak through a delicate brush. Subtle mixtures of greys, purples and greens morph into deep blue. A shock of yellow when sun flickers though racing clouds seems almost incongruent with a black mountain. Just as suddenly, deep reds morph back to purple.
It is no wonder there has been a great revival in successful Irish Art. There is nothing static about an Irish landscape as rain clouds build, release, scurry away and relieve the tension for a quiet, still, gentle moment. And it is no wonder that most of the Anglo-Irish writers were inspired by local nature poets.
I have always carried the culture of the Anglo-Irish poets and writers in my heart as well as the music and love of dramatic scenery. These elements of my Irish soul live in me and influence all I write. But in truth, my mind is English. I prefer rationality to unbridled expression of passion. Discipline and minimalism are the structures on which I build my art. I guess that is why I love English architecture – the embodiment of an interaction of humans with landscapes – less wild, less lonely, shaped and tended.
Politically, I am liberal rather than conservative, cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic. I love differences in nationality, colour and creed. I think it makes for a more healthy balance of views. England is such a swirling mix of colours from skin tones, clothing, foods, tastes and accents. I am able to hide in England, maintain privacy, be anonymous among millions of nameless, faceless people. History does not dictate my being, role or identity. Rather, I move among it, always connected to great men and women of vision through England’s ancient buildings and visible structures.
Maybe I am a mixture of Anglo-Irish. Maybe that is a particular breed. I do not have to choose one or the other but am made whole by both. Maybe nationalism is unimportant. We carry the blood of ancestors in our veins, in our collective memories, in our hearts and souls. The past is always present, morphing, becoming tempered, informing the development of spirit and shaping a brand new future.