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Oblique Strategies

Writing from two identities

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Being able to slip easily between the world of the host and that of their parents is something the second generation Irish in Britain learn early. Slowly, imperceptibly, both their Irishness and their Britishness become a kind of performance. John Walsh explored this dilemma beautifully in his memoir, The Falling Angels. The title is a reference to a story J.M. Synge heard on Inishmore about the spirits who were banished from Heaven along with Lucifer. Saved from Hell by the intercession of an archangel, they were left forever suspended in mid-fall. Walsh uses this as a metaphor for the second generation Irish experience; however, I’d argue that this ‘in-between’ state, the lack of an ‘authentic’ or fixed identity, can be an advantage for a writer.

The Polish writer Eva Hoffman claimed that ‘Every immigrant becomes a kind of amateur anthropologist’; the same could apply to their children. It often seems as if everyone else possesses the kind of clear and untroubled sense of where they belong that those with a mixed identity lack. Frustrated by my attempts to find a way to encapsulate the second generation experience in my writing, I became fascinated with other minorities and cultures, and their experience of dislocation. I discovered that writers with a mixed heritage, having learnt how to switch identities from an early age, can sometimes find a more oblique way of writing about this ‘in-between’ state by exploring these different cultures.

The parallels between the Poles and the Irish seemed an obvious starting place: both suffered at the hands of more powerful neighbours, for both patriotism and Catholicism were intimately connected. In my story ‘A Home From Home’, Tadeusz and Ewa are in London when Solidarność is outlawed. They are having a drink in an Irish pub when the funeral of the murdered Solidarity priest, Jerzy Popieluszsko, is shown on the news. When Ewa gets to her feet and cries ‘Murderers!’, Tadeusz is mortified. He has been coming to this pub on his own for months, always taking great care not to draw attention to himself. He fears that Ewa’s emotional outburst will make them unwelcome, but instead she inspires sympathy. Similarly, in my novel, All This is Mine, the narrator is fascinated by the new Polish boy at his primary school. He admires Marek’s fierce patriotism, and soaks up his father’s tales of Poland’s tragic history. The narrator joins Marek and a couple of other boys to form the Anti-Communist Resistance in order to prevent the communists taking over Wales in the same way they did Poland. And in another story, ‘Life On The Reservation’, a man traumatised by dragging children from the slurry at Aberfan suffers a breakdown, but finds salvation in the Native American view of the world. He dresses in traditional costume, christens himself Red Cloud, and despite attracting scorn and ridicule wherever he goes, devotes his life to protecting the Welsh landscape from the latest threat, open cast mining.

By the 1980s a number of young writers from urban backgrounds in Ireland were also struggling to find a fresh way of capturing their experience, tired of the over-familiar tropes that defined Irish writing: rural life, the church and family. They found inspiration by turning to America and linking the Irish to African Americans and Native Americans. In Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel, The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte exhorts his ragbag Dublin soul band to ‘Say it once, say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’ And in his poem ‘Meeting The British’ (1987), Paul Muldoon imagines the first meeting between a Native American and a white man, allowing the reader to step inside the mind of the conquered. It offers a fresh way of talking about the relationship between the British and the Irish by seeing the loss of sovereignty through an Indigenous American’s eyes. The Commitments and ‘Meeting The British’ were published nearly two decades after the civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland had marched while singing ‘We shall overcome.’ Bernadette Devlin made it clear that her inspiration was Martin Luther King, and the black civil rights movement in America rather than republican heroes like Wolfe Tone or Daniel O’Connell.

The Irish identifying with African Americans might seem strange, but in fact it was a reconnection, as the Irish were seen as black, or almost black for most of the 19th century. In 1899 the American magazine Harper’s Weekly published a drawing of three heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro, and the superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic. Frederick Douglass, the African-American abolitionist and Daniel O’Connell, who campaigned for Catholic emancipation and against slavery, admired each other, and Douglass’s lecture tour of Ireland in 1845 was a huge success. O’Connell urged the Irish in America to support abolition, but his timing was unfortunate. In the 1840s, African Americans and the Irish were competing with each other for the same jobs, the desperate struggle for survival drove a wedge between them, and the Irish failed to rally to the cause.

The connection to Native Americans was also a reconnection, as the Irish were frequently compared to ‘Natives’, as in this description of Irish women in County Galway in 1893 by an English journalist: ‘The hooded women, black-haired and bare-footed, bronzed and tanned by constant exposure, are wonderfully like the squaws brought from the Far West by Buffalo Bill.’ But the myth of the Celtic Indian began long before, with the claim that America had been discovered by Madog, a Welsh prince, in the 12th century, which provoked a frantic search for Welsh speaking Indians. As recently as 2007, Ken Lonewolf, a Shawnee wisdom keeper, sought permission from the authorities to test Native American bone samples that pre-dated Columbus for DNA and carbon testing that might reveal Welsh ancestry and prove the Madog story was true.

In another Paul Muldoon poem, ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’, an Oglala Sioux is in Northern Ireland to research an Ulsterman who took part in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, acknowledging the culpability of the Irish in oppressing others. This theme is taken up by Sebastian Barry in his novel Days Without End (2016), set in mid-19th century America, and seen through the eyes of McNulty, a young Irish emigrant. He joins the United States army and takes part in the brutal war to drive the Sioux off their lands, mirroring the way Cromwell cleared the Irish from theirs. A reminder that those who suffer oppression all too often visit it on others.

Yet there are examples of astonishing generosity and mutual respect between these oppressed peoples too. In 1847, when members of the Choctaw nation heard of the famine in Ireland they raised $170 for relief, equivalent to around $4,700 today. Fifteen years earlier they had also been forced off their lands and suffered appalling hardship, just like the Irish. In 1990 Choctaw leaders took part in the first Famine walk in Mayo, a recreation of the journey undertaken by desperate locals seeking help from a local landlord in 1848. Two years later, in 1992, Irish leaders joined the Choctaws in the 500-mile trek from Oklahoma to Mississippi, to recreate the Trail Of Tears, and the Choctaw made Mary Robinson an honorary chief. In an era where walls are being built and the differences between us are stressed for political advantage, rediscovering what unites us is more important than ever.

Ray French is a novelist and short story writer, and teaches creative writing at the University of Hull. He was born in Wales to Irish parents. His most recent book is End Notes, which he co-edited, a collection of ten interlinked stories about loss, mourning and commemoration.

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