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Grainne Gillis Headshot

Is it Cos I is Irish?

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About seven weeks ago, I had to renew my Irish passport. I had never actually done this outside Ireland; but one of the prerequisites of getting a passport was getting signatures and a confirmation of identity from someone who worked in what Irish people deemed to be "respectable" professions many moons ago (bankers, priests, politicians - you get the picture). Doctors were also listed on there, and since I have hitherto had a good relationship with the surgery I attend in South East London, I decided to pay them a visit in person to get the form signed.

When I got there, there was a receptionist who I had never seen before sitting at the front desk. I went to her and explained to her what I needed. "Oh we can't do that with Irish passports" she said rather superciliously. I looked at her, puzzled. "Why not?" said I. "Oh - well the doctors won't take the risk of signing an Irish passport", she replied - and then possibly seeing my gobsmacked face, added in sotto voce tones, "You understand?" Then rather peremptorily, and in a manner designed to read as being finite: "You can phone and ask my manager in the morning, but she will tell you the same - they just won't do it". Stunned, I nodded and left the surgery. As I made the 15 minute walk home, I went over the conversation again and again in my head, my anger increasing with every step. Was what I had just experienced racism?

It is a curious thing to be Irish in the UK, and sometimes I wonder how I, the descendant on one side of my family of a Fenian who was deported to Australia from whence he escaped to New York, and on the other side, the descendant of hard-core Kerry republicans who hid Roger Casement from the Black & Tans, ever ended up living here.

There was a slight precedent for it in my family in that two of my grand-aunts, now deceased, worked as nurses for the Red Cross during WWII, and ended up living here their whole lives thereafter. Auntie Madge, the renegade older sister, used to tell me about running around Westminster with mattresses on their backs, as protection from the bombs. She managed to be very much a Kerry-woman, and a bit of a Royalist - she was very fond of Charles and Di - and they both had received an MBE for their services during the war. But in truth, most of my family, when playing the emigration game that is so embedded in the Irish psyche, had opted to go west.

I always liked London; I normally was just a visitor passing through on my way to mainland Europe, but there was something about the quirky individuality of the city that appealed to me from an early age. Though by birth a native of Queens, New York has never appealed to me in quite the same way; even when I had the opportunity seven years ago to be part of a sell-out show attended by various celebrities, including the Clintons, I couldn't quite warm to my native city. But when my degree and an important relationship ended, and I knew for my own sanity I needed to leave Ireland, London seemed like a pretty good emigration option. Close enough to Ireland so that if anything went wrong, I was literally only a plane/ferry ride away; but far away enough and big enough to lose any trace of my former, heartbroken self in.

When I had passed through London a few years previously, I had experienced what it was like to be Irish when a bomb alert was announced. Although no one had told me to do so, instinct told me to keep my head down, and under no circumstances to speak to anyone. A girl I had known at an acting class in Dublin had the misfortune to fit the identity of a suspect some years previously. She told us about how the Metropolitan police had detained her for close to 30 hours, and she was close to breaking point, when she suddenly realised that she was an Irish citizen with rights, and told them in no uncertain terms that they could not detain her any longer. They released her immediately, but the experience had left her so shaken she opted to move back home.

But when I moved to London, it was just after the Good Friday agreement; sure, hadn't most of the Republic voted for the agreement,and suddenly, being Irish in London didn't seem like such a daunting prospect.

However, despite my sunny outlook - I was constantly entering into conversation with people on the Tube, and doing my damnedest to be a good ambassador for my country - I met with, if not outward hostility, some rather patronising jibes about accent and my background. (The irony being, of course, that in Ireland myself and my family were known as "the Yanks" because of our mid-Atlantic dulcet tones).

The most frequent jibe from strangers on the Tube, which I found hugely mortifying and historically insensitive was "Ah go on, love, sing us a song about potatoes". I found out later that this was supposedly based on a Sinead O'Connor song; but since this is a trauma so deeply embedded in the Irish psyche that even 160 years on has the power to reduce people to tears, this comment which I seemed to unwittingly elicit every time I opened my mouth on the Tube in that first year or so led to me speaking as little as possible to strangers. And they wonder why people don't talk to each other on public transport in London.....

The Irish are in a unique position in the world, as we are the only race of people who are white, who, within the parameters of the UK, can be genuinely said to have experienced racism in these isles.

Outside the UK, it is a different story. We benefit from being white as much as the next white person. But given the particular history of the Irish in Britain, we are still deemed an "ethnic minority" in this country (although given the amount of English people I have met that have confided that they have "a bit of Irish in them", the term "minority" may be slightly misleading!).

This classification has an historical justification, going back to Edmund Spenser's tract "A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland" whereupon he recommends radical social engineering via the genocide of the native Irish, which went on to be ideologically justified in "The Faerie Queene"; the deportation of Irish slaves to the Caribbean under the Cromwellian mandate; the Great Famine, in which the Irish population was decimated beyond repair through the deliberate exportation of crops that led to starvation and mass emigration; the Punch cartoons of the 19th century depicting the Irish as sub-human "bog trotters", monkeys, pigs, monsters; the famous signs of "No Blacks No Dogs No Irish" and "No Irish need apply" of the twentieth century, right up to more recent times, when the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1974-1989 allowed the police unprecedented power to detain Irish people, and which, as we now know from the cases of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham and Maguire Seven, and from over 3,000 Irish people detained unnecessarily, were not always used judiciously.

It is interesting as well being Irish in the UK, as there are two things that happen when you work with English people here. Either they'll say "I love your accent" and/or they'll repeat sentences back to you in what I have come to term their "Begorrah" attempts.

When I was at drama school, it became slightly irritating to have every other sentence I uttered repeated quietly under someone's breath, in an attempt to "do" an Irish dialect; but at least there was a professional justification for this, as compared to times when I have worked at a so-called "real" job, where an attempt at "doing" an Irish accent is delivered in such a patronising manner that it cannot be misconstrued as anything other than a put-down.

I've had friends in a similar position to mine who have been dubbed 'Pikeys' when they enter into conversation with people; and the image of the Irish as somehow stupid and inferior was shown not to have left the British psyche this summer, after Daley Thompson's distinctly anti-Irish joke, when he put the misspelling of a tattoo for an Olympic torch bearer down to the fact that the tattooist "must have been Irish". And this is in 2012. As an educated, intelligent and very middle-class Irish-American, it is sometimes frustrating to be put into that box marked "Irish" with all that it connotes; which has led to my accent, in certain situations, becoming increasingly Anglicised.

However, as I walked away from the surgery on that particular summer's evening, an anger welled up inside of me. I did not want to overreact (thus leading to accusations of being a "fiery" Irish person), and so I consulted two Irish people who were best placed to give me an objective view.

One works in a leading law firm in the City; the other as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. Both agreed, after I had told them the story, that this was indeed racism in action, and both advised me to address it head on. Which I did the next day, in extremely firm terms, to the manager of the surgery. I quite calmly explained that I had been attending the surgery for some time now, and had always up till now had good experiences; but that I found her colleague's manner and what she had said unacceptable, and that given that Irish people are still protected by law in the UK as an ethnic minority, that it did seem like a racist inference.

To be fair, the manager was profusely apologetic, telling me that "some of her best friends were Irish" (!!), and said that her colleague had misunderstood: the surgery could not stamp Irish passports as (a) Doctors at that surgery would not put their signatures to any passports, including British ones and (b) although she herself had the authority to stamp a British passport, there had been instances where she had done it as a favour for Irish patients, and the Irish Embassy had not accepted her as a suitable professional. Although gauche in places, she was clearly mortified by her colleague's attitude, and offered, if I wanted to take the chance, to sign the form for me. I thanked her and said I would think about it.

The experience has taught me a number of things. It has taught me that racism is something insidious, something that is not only based on who we are at present, but also something that may be lodged deeply within the historical fabric of our society; and such, it is something that we, as human beings cannot be complacent about, even within ourselves.

It has taught me that we are always making judgements about each other, and again, those may be so deeply embedded within our subconscious that we may not be overtly aware of them; but they are there. But how great could our society be, if, instead of seeing the superficial - the colour of skin, the piece of clothing, the shape of certain facial features, the dialect that someone speaks in - that even for one day, we stopped and really looked into another person's eyes to see their soul?