Monday, 17 March 2014

Irish Blood, English Heart

In a taxi in Dublin quite some years ago, I was chatting with the driver when I decided to try to 'form a bond' with him by telling him that I have Irish roots.  It is possible that he was sick of people who are not Irish laying some claim to his nationality, it is possible that he had had a long day and didn't fancy indulging some excitable tourist.  It's possible he was just a rude man as when I explained my dad's family is originally from Limerick he was less than complimentary.

In truth I'm personally about as Irish as a baguette but the presence of the Irish part of my family was writ large throughout my childhood and continues to this day.  Surnames of Walsh and Daly, first names of Maime and Cornelious, Margaret and Mary and accents that would become impenetrable after a gin or three at the local Labour club.  There was also the small matter of the person we spent almost every Sunday morning with throughout my childhood: my dad's mum, Nanny Walsh.

I can still picture her house today.  Go in the front door and directly in front of you was the telephone table.  Hanging on the wall to the right of the table was an image of Christ on the Cross, a crown of thorns on his head and nails in his hands and feet.  Don't enjoy yourself too much on that call - Christ is watching...  

Above the phone on a hook was a silver whistle, reserved for heavy breathers.  I don't know what it was about the '80s but heavy breathing seemed to be 'a thing' for a while and I find myself wondering now if my poor old nan got enough of them that it caused her to buy the whistle, or if she was secretly a referee...  Whatever the reason if you made the mistake of heavy breathing down her line you were going to get a thousand decibels right down your ear hole in return.

In her living room was a polished dresser, the top of which served to display black and white pictures, including one of my dad and his sister dressed for their first holy communion.  I thought they looked beautiful - just like a wedding!  And in that house, my lovely old nanny would let me and my eldest brother sit and watch Pob and Black Beauty on her black and white television whilst she made us fish paste sandwiches with real butter in her kitchen.  I don't know if there was any other food in there apart from that but they tasted like heaven.  

She had a 'set and perm' and American tan tights that she'd hang in her bathroom to dry and a nice line in neat polyester dresses.  She'd joke about how the postman was "oh right up my street, Toni" and told us tales of working in London as a young woman and how she and her friends would go out on the town after work and not return until the morning. 

We'd watch the London Marathon together so she could coo over the city that she moved
to from Ireland and loved as her home. As we left she'd give us a packet of cigarettes and four cans of Courage Light Ale to take home for our dad (like I said - things were a bit different in was the 80's - or maybe it was just my family..) and she seemed to be always, interminably, incredibly chipper.  And yet she was a widow three times over and had outlived both of her children - my dad and his big sister Mary no longer in her life but captured forever in their communion clothes.  

When she died, I was asked as the eldest grandchild to read the call and response at her funeral and I didn't know how it worked, so the priest had to step in and help me out.  Not only am I not-Irish, I am also not-Catholic but at least I now know how 'and also with you' should be said.  

I wasn't originally sure where this piece would go but having got this far and reflecting back on that cab ride, I think that my clumsy attempts at sharing my heritage with others is perhaps less about jumping on a bandwagon and more about trying to connect with part of my family history that in truth I know very little about.  Maybe it's a bit about trying to find meaning in the absence of knowing all the detail, a way of connecting with some history that I'll probably never really know.

So this St Patrick's Day I will raise a glass (alright have raised a glass!), because whilst my heart may not be entirely Irish, it is in the right place.

Soundtrack: Irish Blood, English Heart by Morrissey


  1. You've brought back some memories of the 80s for me - my Nan used to send her kids to the shops to buy a packet of cigarettes too! Seems really odd now. In fact my own kids asked me what smoking was the other day because they don't know anybody that does it! Anyway, I also have Irish roots but they are so distant that I only discovered them in my thirties. Like most Irish people it turns out my family left Ireland, probably looking for work. They ended up in Glasgow so our family always assumed we had a Glaswegian roots, I'm not sure they still believe me about the Irish ones if I'm honest!

  2. Hi Helen, I know - so different then! My two ask about smoking too although they call it 'cigaretting'! Really enjoying your blog, just about to hop on over again :)