Ireland’s Dangerous Disregard for ‘Otherness’ and Diversity
Bridget shares her experience of Ireland's reaction to "otherness".
When I was in secondary school, I was fully, unequivocally convinced that fate had done me a misjustice and placed me in the wrong location, at the wrong time. I was theatrically melancholy, constantly reassuring myself that I was the chosen one. At the time I would have been devastated if someone had told me that I was really just another rebellious teen, hopelessly in love with the idea of messing up. How unoriginal?
But in all seriousness, did I think I epitomised woe? Yes. Did I think I was the only person in the Republic of Ireland with enough cop-on to see what a rotten place it was? Absolutely. Anyone who threatened this notion was immediately demoted to my ‘Trying to Ruin my Life’ list. I refused to entertain the thought that I might not have been the only one who felt like an outsider; my vice was my inability to recognise the diversity around me. Ironically, the intolerance I was subjected to as an outsider in Ireland bled into the intolerance I developed for all human life. As I became accustomed to societal rejection, I was soothed by these hate-breeding internal beliefs. I needed to judge people before they judged me.
Some context: I’m from the West of Ireland; where religious conformity still wields substantial social currency, and ‘otherness’ is a fast-track to nothingness. By that I mean that those who don’t conform to the West’s idea of ‘average’ are considered ‘blow-ins’ (this is what expats and immigrants are straight up called) and blow-ins rarely, if ever, in my experience, integrate fully. My family moved to the West of Ireland when I was five, from Australia. My mother is Australian, and my father is from London, and is just one generation removed from being completely Irish. We practised Catholicism (although the vast majority have lapsed in practice, in the West of Ireland it is anomalous not to call yourself a Catholic), we were a nuclear family, we are White. We were not exactly challenging the status quo; the only big difference was our accents. But it was enough. My experience in Ireland was defined by my ‘otherness’ from the outset; acceptance was never an option in mainstream education and society. I’m using the plural ‘we’ to talk about Ireland in this article, but I don’t really feel comfortable doing that. When I’m not in Ireland, I call myself Irish, but when I’m there, I’d be lying if I said I feel Irish. I get asked regularly, in Ireland, where I’m from, and I can’t say Ireland because the person, by virtue of asking, has already established that they don’t think that. I’m ‘other’. I’m a hybrid of cultures and perhaps I’m geographically displaced, and perhaps this sounds cool. I think if I hadn’t experienced this first-hand, I’d think it was cool. But it plays into larger questions of diversity, and the lack of respect thereof in pockets of British and Irish society.
Ireland, and particularly the West, is an insular place. We have our own sports, our own language (which we’re forced to learn until we matriculate…and you can’t matriculate without a decent enough grade in Irish), our own musical instruments (that piece of shiny metal you see leprechauns blowing into…yeah, well, mastering it is compulsory in primary school) and our own version of history. All these things culminate in patriotism. Patriotism isn’t inherently exclusionary; you can love your own country without comparing it to others, without comparing your people to others. But it’s naïve to say that patriotism isn’t often in dialogue with unfair, unfounded biases.
Patriotism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘a devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country’. ‘Devotion’ is an emotive word; it’s not always privy to logic, but it is privy to steadfast dedication. It’s not a good idea to dedicate ourselves unwaveringly to any political movement, philosophy or ideology. If the last few months have highlighted anything, it’s that the world moves rapidly. Standards and demographics change as ethnography does. Patriotism to the point of societal divisions is unsustainable; it is disenfranchising more and more people, as immigration climbs and multiculturalism (finally) thrives. This message seems to have heeded in London, one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the UK, with over 40% of residents identifying as BAME. The mammoth task of attempting to permeate the normalisation of such diversity to more conservative locations is just beginning. Shows such as Sex Education, appropriately diversifying their cast, and locating their show in the countryside, are an indication that a change in attitudes in a place like the West of Ireland isn’t impossible; the more media engages with BAME and minorities, the more commonplace not slotting into a ‘one box fits all’ will become.
If this change doesn’t happen, we’re looking at a whole new generational subjection to criteria set by people who enjoy all the privileges of conforming, of being White, of being binary. This will continue to affect, and deeply scar, BAME and minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community. I’m very aware that my accent struggle is an infinitely minor discrimination in comparison. But that’s what is so terrifying. If I received ill-treatment for being only slightly off the ‘average’ marker in the West of Ireland, I can’t fathom what life might have been like growing up in the west, without, for example, my White privilege.
Since entering adulthood, I’ve realised how grossly naïve I was to think I had a monopoly on teenage struggles. I also realise how tragic it was that I wasted years pettily persecuting the idea of ‘average’, i.e. the majority of people, in response to their rejection of my ‘otherness’; my cultural diversity. If the majority in the West of Ireland ever decide to become more tolerant of digressions from the norm, and perhaps relax patriotism to allow for this, I really think it’ll save the government a lot on public-funded therapy.