Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. I grew up in Britain, and never visited Ireland until my late 20’s. But I grew up in a country where my name marked me out as “other”, and it was only on meeting (other) Irish people that I came to see the racism I had grown up with. So, while my ancestors had left Ireland during the famine and settled in England, there was an element of denial at work. So much so that my father had dropped the “O” from his shop, and at one point considered changing the surname the same way.
So, this picture, of my dad in his youth, and the name corrupted for his business, is a testimony to the racism we both grew up with. This was the shop above which I grew up. Remnant of a long-forgotten wave of immigration to North London. I am glad he kept the name, as over the years I have become proud of my name, and the connection it gives me to a country, people and culture that has brought me only joy.
I understand the disdain with which people from Ireland view those who romanticise and fantasise about some lost Irish connection. It is a pretty grim history, and the tragedy that led to my being English is not something I would want to celebrate. I have celebrated St. Patrick’s day, when I have been in the right company to do so, but it is not my culture. Nor is the broken religious division that has troubled that Island for so long part of my culture, as I was raised an Anglican, and the altar I served was in the CofE.
How I came to find myself raised in the CofE is itself a long story, because he was taught by Jesuits, and raised a Catholic, but his father left the Catholic church following a row with the priest over his donations at a time when most of his money was being used to fund the treatment of three of my dad’s siblings who had TB during the 1930’s. My dad was pretty sure that his mother was of Jewish descent. The East End of London was always a cultural melting pot.
So, when I read about racism, it is not something I am personally unfamiliar with, because even though I am white, it is something I have experienced because of my name. It is what drew me closer to others in the UK who had similar experiences because of their accent, whether Catholic or Protestant. It is a racism that is not confined to colour, as many from Eastern Europe and Poland now experience in the UK. It is a racism that led to my own internally-conflicted relationship with the country I grew up in.
If I do take a drop this March 17th, my toast will be the same silent toast I make every time I take that first sip of whiskey in a bar, to the man who introduced to whiskey in the first place – my toast will be to the man I still miss over twenty years since he passed away.