It’s safe to say that 2012 was a very British year. Between celebrating the Queen’s jubilee and show boating British achievements at the London Olympics, the Union Jack bunting wasn’t taken down until the Christmas decorations went up. And all hell broke loose in Belfast.
But Loyalist riots aside, in the interest of balance, 2013 seems set to be a very Irish year.
North of the border, Derry/Londonderry is celebrating its title as the first UK Capital of Culture – a city with such a rich history and diverse culture that it still can’t settle on a single name by which the rest of the world might get to know it. Perhaps the city council should consider adopting the celebration’s hash tag as a more permanent fixture on road signs, after all with a name like LegenDerry it would easily become the UK capital for stag and hen parties in no time. Jokes aside, it is wonderful to see the city of Derry being rightly celebrated by the occupying force who choked the economic life out of it for so long. And the goodwill doesn’t stop there. David Cameron is delighted to showcase the natural, rugged beauty of Fermanagh to the world when it plays host to the G8 summit later in the year, a place so unappreciated, almost prehistoric in its unspoiled (or underdeveloped) isolation, you might say, a world away from London or any other grand city where protests might cause inconvenient disruption to traffic and policing levels. Cynical maybe, but it will make a grand worldwide stage for the fleg protesters should they stick it out until May.
The Republic have also been doing their best to put our little troubled isle back on the map, dedicating the whole year to the tourist board’s latest initiative to attract big spending Americans, The Gathering. I really don’t mean to sound cynical about this, because its an idea that truly warms the cockles of my heart. In a series of events and celebrations throughout 2013, Ireland will “open its arms to friends and family from all over the world, inviting them home”. All its scattered sons and daughters are to be welcomed back to the emerald isle and shown a good time to remind them of the ‘town they loved so well’. Doesn’t it just tug on the old romantic heartstrings? Of course, its convenient that they are coming to visit now when Ireland has so many empty beds since the young’uns all took for Australia, America, and Canada. In fact, the visitors will probably pass them in the airport, waving to each other across the Arrivals and Departures lounges. They will be welcomed home, but best not get too comfortable, when the party’s over, there still doesn’t seem to be much worth hanging around for.
And while the tourist board might be rolling out the welcome wagon for the ex pats its appears that others won’t be offering their céad míle fáiltes so easily. This week a Facebook page titled “Irish Abandoners” caused outrage among Irish emigrant workers when they were accused by little more than 50 Facebook fans of deserting Éire in her hour of need. According to this, frankly ludicrous, Facebook page, those who had fled Ireland on the promise of work elsewhere until the economic climate improved would not be welcomed home to “reap the benefits of the crops we are sowing now” when the country begins to enjoy more prosperity in the future (touch wood, fingers crossed, God willing, etc.)
And what should we expect if and when we return, the prodigal sons and daughters of Ireland, for our fathers to slaughter the fattened calf and bring out the best wines? …I mean, it would be nice…
Because I suppose I am an ex pat. I have been living in Liverpool now for almost six years, a quarter of my young life. I came here to study and never returned, much to the disgust of some family and friends, and to add insult to injury I am still only working in a bar, a job I could easily do in my home town, granted for a lower wage and fewer perks, and the distinct disadvantage of cohabiting with my parents.
And after all, I am happy in Liverpool. I have a good job, a comfortable home where I can lay my head, a variety of pubs and clubs where I can let down my hair, and a kind of patchwork family I’ve stitched together from friends old and new. They come from all over, England, Scotland, Wales, and yes, a lot of fellow ex pats, friends from ‘the old country’. People like us, the Irish abroad, make up the Fifth Province, the Irish Diaspora. And most of us, welcome or not, still intend on returning home someday. We see the men in the Irish bars who came here in the last wave of emigration, who always thought they would go back home when the tide turned, but they settled, they married English wives, had children with English accents, and they’re still here.
As students we could always give our home addresses, make it known that we were only visiting, hanging our tricolours in student halls, filling the Irish bars for the All Ireland, leading the celebrations on St Patrick’s Day. But what now? We still lead the St Paddy’s Day celebrations, laugh soccer fans out of the Irish bars on All Ireland Day, hang our tricolours up in our flats and apartments. But we have English addresses, how harsh Hardy Street sounds compared to the dear old Rouskey Road. We open English bank accounts, work in English offices, fall in love with Englishmen and become evermore terrified that someday in the future our children will speak with English accents.
The idea of The Gathering really does warm the cockles of my heart, but it brings heartache as well because as long as people continue to leave Ireland in droves it’s difficult to imagine returning home any time soon. For 2013 at least, there will be little need to slaughter the fattened calf for us.