Expat-ness, Irish-ness and American-ness

It’s funny how I get busy with projects and baby and life and almost forget I am a foreigner in a strange land until one day I stroll out of one of my usual haunts and get the usual, “Oh isn’t he a handsome baby!” and how big he’ll be when he grows up. To which I almost always respond, “Yes, his father is quite tall. We’re just not sure if the little Cork man will do Munster Rugby or GAA yet.” (with a humorous tone in my voice, of course). Almost everyone continues to dote on the little man. Taxi drivers usually respond with their true opinion, like “Munster Rugby. Then he’ll get paid.” or “My local GAA would love the little fella. I’ll write down the name for ye.” Then the other mothers say things like, “Oh, don’t wish him grown too fast. It happens so quickly.” (Don’t I know it!).

But this one occasion I received a completely different response than I have ever heard before. “He’s not a Cork man. He has American parents. He’s American. He’s not from Cork. Why would he be from Cork with American parents?” She wasn’t angry or arguing about it either, completely calm and curious how I reached such a silly conclusion as to think my son was a “Cork man.” At this point, I was stung. The place I now call home and have lived in for over four years (since moving here in 2008) was disowning my son. Sure, anyone can be American because we’re made up of every country, every culture and every faith (and non-faith) but the truth still hurts sometimes when I remember it doesn’t work in reverse.

My great-grandfather Gleason. Personal photo. All rights reserved

Almost anywhere you go in the world, if you tell a local about your roots there, the statement will be met with warmth, curiosity and, sometimes even, enthusiasm. Ireland is no different. Though anyone with any Irish ancestry in American calls themselves “Irish”, over here in Ireland “Irish” means being born and raised here. There is a nuance and specifics I haven’t figured out but that’s the gist of it. Sure, I have a name with Irish-ness and I know all about local things and can say a few words in Irish, but I am a foreigner. I am an American. Just like thousands of other Americans, I have ancestors who left Ireland with family in the famine and boarded a ship for a new start, brimming with hope. Sure, in the States I’d be considered “Irish” because of that. Here, I’m an American… with Irish roots.

To be “Irish” in Ireland isn’t to step dance, drink Guinness and get wasted on Saint Patrick’s Day (by the way, don’t even think of calling it “P Day” in my presence). No, that’s one American interpretation. Here, it is just what it is. It’s daily life. And even though the Irish here have survived the Famine, the Troubles and the Celtic Tiger losing its stripes, that part of Irish culture is overlooked so often by Americans in favor of the stereotype. And to walk back into Ireland and say “Hey, I’m Irish too!” overlooks the decades of oppression, adversity and turmoil those who never left have lived with and thrived in spite of. Yet, it’s a pint of Guinness that is the focal point for many tourists, thinking that’s what life is like here for the Irish. Not that the stereotype isn’t true, but just like anywhere it’s not a standard. In my experience, at least. I have met TWO people who do Irish step dancing since moving here (not counting these ladies). I knew dozens in the States. Guinness is ordered occasionally by my friends but usually it’s a local craft brew that’s favored or even BeamishMurphy’sBulmer’s or… Budweiser (don’t ask, I still can’t figure out its popularity). And getting wasted on Saint Patrick’s Day is a personal choice but let me just say that since being here I’ve seen more drunk people on the student night out in town than on Saint Patrick’s night.I don’t want to crush any American dreams (only one-sixth of this blog’s readers are in the States) of leprechauns and rainbows, but the Ireland I know is rich in a phenomenal food production and culture, amazing compassion and political awareness, acute understanding of global issues, and the sense that a cup of tea and a chat can cure anything. That’s the Ireland I fell in love with.

Yet, here is one of the people who also lives in my adopted hometown telling me the little human I nurtured for ten months with local ingredients and visits to CUMH is not a Cork man. The baby that while in my belly listened to jazz music and enjoyed a spiced beef omelet at last year’s festival and went to Bantry for lunch because I was craving tartar sauce. Many mornings, I would do my English Market run when it first opened with producers setting up and a peaceful feeling like the curtain was about to rise on one of the most delicious productions I know. It’s magical and each stall holds a promise of culinary adventure. My ever-growing belly along for the visit. Back then Óg, as he was known, was with me when I waddled to Tweet Meet Tuesday on the day I went into labor and each Tuesday before that. He was along when I went to my knitting group and non-fiction writing group. He listening to all the conversations and enjoyed all the meals, including the Cork Gourmet Trail, Cork Culture Night at English Market, Good Food Ireland events and Cornstore evening. He got to know his new home without setting sight on it and since then he was joined me for little adventures. But there I was with LB that day, thinking that as much as Cork feels like home to me, it may not feel that way about me. It was a sad thought I had only had twice since moving here. So, I told the lady how my son was born here after we’ve lived here for a several years. Still no dice. Whatever. I said a polite wish for her to have a nice day and went about my own day. You can’t change anyone’s mind unless he or she wants it to (or lets it) be changed. I wouldn’t have argued with her about politics or religion, after all.

This was weeks ago, I write this after the sick feeling in my stomach has passed. I still feel un-home though. How weird is that? I go to the English Market for my groceries. I stand in the same hellish queues at Tesco. I get taxed at the same high rate as everyone else here. But I’ll always be a blow-in. I understood that in California and didn’t mind, because I didn’t feel completely at-home there. It isn’t a concept I understood growing up though. In Washington, D.C. there are some natives (not many beyond one or two generations) but everyone else left their homeland or hometown to come to a political hub where every single country is represented. And it’s not that you just see them in a suit at a big meeting like the U.N., they live there. Ambassadors, diplomats, Congressional staff, interns, political experts and their families rotate through Washington, making it their home just like the natives. It changes the city’s personality, dynamic and economy and it happens every time there is an election. D.C. is organic and living with the new life and fresh perspectives arriving, hoping to change the world then leaving having done their best in spite of the traffic circles, muckrakers and political obstacles to policy making. It is a world away from Ireland. Cork is different. In the end, I must remember that we are expats and have a unique perspective of being from one place but having our hearts belong to another. It’s a blessing and a confusing twisted love triangle all at the same time.

Napping in Mommy's hand knit hat

Author: Evin

I'm a writer, photographer & foodie who loves manual typewriters, knitting/sewing, whole milk, argyle socks, garden gnomes, good grammar & smiling. On slow days, I'm just an American expat living and loving life in Cork, Ireland. EvinOK.com

24 thoughts on “Expat-ness, Irish-ness and American-ness”

  1. Evin, I wouldn’t let that ignorant ‘B’ get to you. You were probably looking too happy and if it wasn’t that hurtful remark, she’d have fired in another. Just her type.

    Your son is Irish through and through as he was born here. I was born in London and after a year my parents returned home. I’ve never been considered Irish as I wasn’t born here and if I want to be Irish I have to get naturalised! The jibes still remain but I tend to move around them now as soon as I can.

    It was even a struggle to get the Irish passport while getting my UK one was such a joy. Your son won’t have that problem with his Irish passport as oh yeah he’s Irish. No-one can take that away from you or him.

    1. Thanks, Marian. I know it was just one person’s words. Still… always tough to hear that kind of thing even if the person saying it isn’t worth listening to.

      1. I know certainly tough alright. A lovely post it may just alert others that such remarks aren’t funny. Good on you for writing about it.

      2. Exactly. I’m not hurt by it anymore but this blog is about my perspectives and experiences so, after internal debate, I decided to put it in words.

    2. I was born in Dublin Ireland and moved to a small village in county meath when i was four years old. Even tho my family called that place home for the next thirty years we were never really considered local by the “real local” types.
      I now live in new orleans louisiana with my american born wife and american born daughter. i love this city but i dont consider myself a local.
      I know my daughter can hold an irish passport but i know this wont make her real irish in the eyes of the “real local” mentality should we choose to move back to ireland.
      i think i have to accept again and again that, being accepted as real locals by real locals is going to be difficult for us as a family, wherever we live.
      then i remember that i never really like that “real local” type anyway.

  2. It will be a different story once the little guy is talking – with a Cork accent!
    I’m sorry someone’s negative words got you down. I don’t think people of a certain frame of mind are accepting that Ireland has seen some major changes in the way of folks from other countries are making Ireland their home. From China, to Africa to Poland to America; these new faces and cultures are creating a melting pot out of Ireland, and some fussbudgets just aren’t ready for it!

    1. Very good point. The world is a melting pot now. It’s possible she doesn’t like in city centre and may have been in from a rural area with limited newcomers, sheltered from such cultural changes. Personally, I think she was intoxicated.

  3. Gosh Evin, I’m almost crying reading this, and am almost ashamed to be Irish knowing that another Irish person has said this! I think what makes Ireland so unique is it’s acceptance of the mosh pit of ex pats/ natives/ new citizens as it wraps its culture around each individual. Our sons will always have been born in Cork. Noone can take that away from them. What do they say? Munster by the grace of God….

  4. Beautiful post! While I was only there for 2 years I agree my time in Cork was profound on learning about and wanting to experience the culture. I always lived with Irish roommates, can count on 2 hands the number of pints of Guinness (beamish girl) and worked for the university. I knew I was different as an American, but I wanted to see the real Ireland.

    I dislike St. Patrick’s Day in the US, and when I tell people all I want to do is find a trad session, I get so many looks, especially because I was near Chicago last year!

    Liam is Irish and don’t let people tell you different. And even better he is from Cork!

    1. Good for you! The real Ireland is hard to discover, unless you become friends with real Irish. But not in a trip to the petting zoo way but actual friendships. I shudder to think what we’ll face on St. Patrick’s Day if/when we move back to the States.

  5. Evin, a thoughtful post. Gives me insight – I am an Australian mother with my daughter living in Ireland after falling in love with an Irish lad travelling here in Aus. She adores living in his picturesque home village and our last skype session she very tactfully mentioned how difficult it will be to ever leave Ireland. As a mother my heart missed a beat – it is soo far from Australia though after visiting them recently and knowing how happy they are, what a beautiful family she has become part of I can understand. Though will she always be an outsider? That can be difficult at times – like your recent experience.

    1. Alison, thank you for reading my post and commenting. This was an isolated and rare occasion. All my friends here (mostly Irish) are welcoming and supportive. I’m sure your daughter will be treated well, especially with an Irish lad to watch out for her. Evin

  6. Enjoyed your post and having found your blog – I will become an expat myself come this feb- looking forward to new adventures!

  7. Evin- from Tampa Florida to cardonagha donegal – I know I’ve heard we r crazy from everyone – but we don’t think so ! I am excited and so very scared at the same time – hey What you find yourself missing the most from the states ?

    1. I miss being able to spend time with my family in smaller increments. I miss CostCo, Target and Old Navy. I miss tomatillos. But I know when/if I move back, my “what I miss” list will be longer for Cork.

  8. What a fecking eejit. Of course he’s a little Cork boy, it’s where he was nurtured and born. You should have asked where her parents came from, probably not all from Cork either.

    My mum was born in Tipperary from parents from Donegal and grew up in Wexford, some folk in Galway, 43 years later, still regard her as a bit of a blow-in, even though she married a man who can trace at least 7 generations back in the area.

    Reminds me of the idiot who told me I wasn’t “entitled” to use “go dhi mar ata” as a greeting as I wasn’t from the north until I explained that. actually I had grandparents from Donegal, thank you very much and he could feck off!

  9. Evin…I was just telling my husband about this blog…I moved here from Pittsburgh 11 years ago next week and I truly wish blogging was popular back then. It would be so interesting now to go back and see my reaction to water not be automatically hot out of the taps(lol), reception of the local people, longing for my American family, etc. I can feel my evolution to attaining some acceptance and to see this evolution in words through you in words is empowering! Keep your blog up in relation to your journey..It has it’s hills and valleys I know! I will be following it and reflecting on my journey and yours!!! With three children now, there’s no doubt that my children are Irish…with Wexford accents no less…with some strong American roots…and my husband says Galwegian roots as well!!!!

  10. Evin thanks for being so open and sharing a very personal experience. Unfortunately I know that it is not unique but by sharing it I’m sure you’ve helped many others. I was born and bred in Ireland but had one ‘foreign’ parent. Though I spoke with a Cork accent, spoke Irish better than most and even competed in Irish dancing competitions, I was always singled out as the foreigner in school. That was in the late 70’s and early 80’s when there were very few immigrants in Cork. Though I was upset at times I did grow up with a very unique perspective on Ireland and it’s culture. And my experiences have contributed to who I am today, a tolerant citizen of the world. Cork has a long way to go to being multicultural, but my hope is that all the ‘new Irish’ will bring a wave of integration, cultural understanding and tolerance that previous generations never had exposure to. I’m hopeful that the future is bright for Liam. And I look forward to revelling in his talents be they in rugby or GAA!

  11. Thank you for your honesty. The same mindset applies, no matter which small town (and small minded) place you end up residing, whether in Ireland, or some Appalachian backwater. Our accents, our speech patterns, our religious beliefs, all typify us. But one can hope that at least SOME civilized folk would take you into their homes and hearts, as has happened to me a number of times visiting the UK, and even France! (and you know how the French are..) But then, I speak French….lol

    I look forward to reading your blog, as this American family considers expatriate living in a country that at least recognizes the jus sanguinis on the part of my great-grandparents!

  12. Just wanted to stop by and say hello! I am also from California and am moving to Cork next month (I have been living in Florence for 8 years). I also write a blog and was hoping to find a fun community of expats and bloggers in Cork. Thank you for sharing all your posts!

  13. Being an expat comes with its own special brand of awkward conversations. I’ve been an expat now for 6 years, in two different countries, and I’ve long since started calling my country of residence, wherever that might be, ‘home’. I generally feel welcomed abroad, but when I return to the states I often face blunt “Why would you want to live THERE?” from strangers and family alike.

Enough about me. What are you thinking?

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