Sarah O’Leary looks back on her year in the Netherlands, and posits where her own personal Irishness came into her Dutch picture.
“We could have it with a nice mash?”
I regret these words as soon as I say them. I’m standing at a vegetable stand on the central canal of Leiden – basically, a miniature Amsterdam. I’m sandwiched between two Dutchies, Jelle and Michel, whose heights dwarf me, despite being reasonably tall back in Cork. It’s the Saturday market. We stand under the canopy of the stall, stationary, as dogs and bikes flow slowly between the tall, crooked, beautiful buildings along the canal.
Jelle looks at me like I’m some form of sweet summer child, and then looks at Michel, who chuckles and playfully requests that I stop talking. We’re trying to figure out what to have with the salmon that Michel has just bought; apparently my suggestion of salmon with mash was funny, but WRONG.
I’m not offended by the mash shut-down, this is simply what I had been briefed on several times by the UCC International Office. I had read the words CULTURAL DIFFEERENCE and CULTURE SHOCK in several different fonts on many a power-point presentation the year before my Erasmus, and while the words came with a colourful bullet-pointed summary, I had never really expected that this would be a concern so close to home.
After a year in Leiden, I had become accustomed to the varying looks and questions I received when pondering, what I would consider, the simplest of things.
“Ah that’s grand.”
Moment of hesitation.
“So… when you say something is grand, you don’t actually think it’s big and great…”
“No, sorry, I mean it’ll be fine – sorry.”
“She’s Irish, they say that.”
When living as an Irish person amongst Irish people, the fact that you are Irish is never really something that is brought to attention. Of course, we are patriotic, but our Irish identity is not something that we are acutely aware of as we go about our daily business. Most of the time, it doesn’t differentiate you in any way from your peers, so “Irishness” is not the first thing that comes to mind. But my friend group of internationals dramatically enhanced the aspect of my identity that had once been indistinguishable, and I had no idea what it looked like. I was Sarah from Ireland, the Irish one. While of course, my year abroad introduced me to a variety of different cultures, it also enabled me to experience my own identity as Irish. But to this day, I’m still not entirely sure what being Irish means.
While I can understand the correlation between “Irish”, “potatoes”, and “grand”, I feel these are merely the aspects of Irish culture that made it on to the t-shirts. At times, I propagated this image, and other times went against it. I love a good mash, but I’m also not that much of a drinker. I speak Irish, but not very well. I have an accent, but it’s not as strong as you would have thought. I found that sometimes, depending on who I was with or what I was doing, I was either sooo Irish, or, not really that ‘Irish’ at all.
There are the obvious aspects of my identity that one would define as Irish – my name, my accent and my colloquialisms, where I live (a housing estate with an Irish name), where I went to school (an all-girl Catholic school with an Irish name), and my (limited) knowledge of the Irish language. There were also the ways in which I was Irish according to my friends.
“How you doing?”
“Grand yeah, how are ye?”
There were also times when I wasn’t sure what was Irish and what wasn’t. When cooking a meal for my friends, a typical dinnertime conversation would be as follows:
“Sarah, this is like a typical Irish meal?”
“Errrmm, I don’t know, like it’s probably English, too?”
*Friend takes out phone and googles*
“Nope, it originated in the 17th century amongst the Irish working class, typically farmers.”
“The English version is made with lamb.”
Was I behaving a certain way because I was Irish? Or because I was an Irish woman? Did my Catholic school upbringing leave a mark on me after all? In spite of my attempts to shield myself from religious indoctrination? Am I a feminist because I am Irish, or in spite of being Irish? What aspects of my identity could have arisen from growing up in Ireland? Was it broader than that? Was I simply just a Western European?
My enhanced Irish identity was something that I could never define completely – I couldn’t see the edges of it. I felt that parts of it overlapped with other elements of my identity, and parts with other cultures. However, I also came to feel that, paradoxically, no matter how difficult it was to define, it was also the one definitive aspect of my identity. My identity is fluid in many ways, but the fact that I am Irish, whatever that may mean, is the one unalienable thing about me. Perhaps this is all that can be said – is the semi-fluid root from which all other changeable facets of my identity stem.
Or maybe, it’s as simple as loving mashed potatoes.