Archive for the 'identity' Category

Lost in exile

2 September 2009

I’ve been listening to Christy Moore’s song Missing You (written by Jimmy McCarthy) and realise that it is – in some ways – a reworking of the traditional Irish song Carrickfergus (versions here by Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry), about the pain of exile and the impossibility of returning home. In Carrickfergus, “I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober”, and home is simply too far away: “But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over/ And neither have I the wings to fly”.

In Missing You, the singer is a building labourer, closer to home in England, and the song captures the casual discrimination of the sites in one fine stanza:

To where you’re a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick
Good for nothing but stacking a brick
Your best mate’s a spade and he carries a hod
Two work horses heavily shod.

The singer can’t afford the price of the flight home, but in any case. sleeping rough, “I’ll never go home now because of the shame”.

Both songs are cautionary tales about the losses of exile, but in Carrickfergus there’s still some of the delusions of the blarney (he’s still “a handsome rover from town to town”). Missing You, in contrast, is bleak; almost too bleak, in that it is a song with a rich melody which the lyric strips of hope.


Irish routes

25 March 2009


I’m going to the north of Ireland on holiday quite soon, so I’m tuned in to stories about Irishness at the moment. The writer Nick Laird was complaining about the way he had been classified by his publisher, as an Irish poet (the Heaney effect?) but a British novelist:

On forms, under nationality I write Irish/British, though I’d be happier with Ulsterman, since Ulster itself (incorporating Northern Ireland and the Irish counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) is a province administrated by both Dublin and London. The poet John Hewitt put his own position thus: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

It gets more complex. Later in the same article Laird explains how he evades the certainties which Americans try to pin on him by establishing his religion – by drowning them in the detail of family history:

In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic? … I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I bamboozle them with detail. My mum was raised Covenantor in Armagh and my father Church of Ireland in Donegal – part of the republic but in Ulster. My mum’s family’s originally from Cork (where, as Protestants in the 1920s, they were burnt out and fled north). They glaze, and change the subject. But why should the situation not be complicated?

I come from England, as does most of my family, albeit from one of those peripheral regions far enough from London to have an identity of its own. But some of my family detail would be complicated, too, for despite the trite conventional wisdom (that in the olden days everyone grew up and died in the same village) in the past people moved around far more than we imagine. It should be complicated, for our histories and identity lie inside that complexity.