I am a migrant, although as a white Irish person, I don’t often get asked the question ‘where are you from?’ much or any more. As I came to England at the age of 2 (from Malaysia, via Ireland), and grew up here, I also have an English accent, and so that enables me to pass. Do I feel English though? Not really. I grew up in Irish enclaves in Yorkshire during the 1970s and 1980s, during ‘the troubles’ in northern Ireland, when an Irish name, accent or being associated with Irish places (the local Catholic church, the Irish Centre, a Catholic school) could identify you as other, alien or threatening. I did experience hostility, harassment, or wariness from white British people during that time.
There were though much longer standing perceptions of Irish people, less to do with the particular aspects of ‘the troubles’ at that time, and more to do with historical relations between England and Ireland that affected how I felt about being part of England. Casual, everyday portrayals of the Irish as backward, hot-tempered, drunken, ‘thick paddies’ were very common when I was growing up. Reading about politics, and later sociology, gave me a way to understand those portrayals as related to the very unequal relations between England and Ireland, and the lack of space for Irish people to portray themselves in ways that had any impact on mainstream discourses.
Migrant communities are also sources of identity and social ties too. I felt ambivalent about that though. I enjoyed the solidarity of Irish community life in England, and the rhythm of life around the church, the Irish club, the GAA All-Ireland finals, Irish dancing and the frequent trips ‘home’ (Ireland was always ‘home’ and England always ‘yonder’). But, that cultural community was often frozen in time – based on an affinity to an Ireland of the time of departure, and not the changing, liberalising, secularising country that Ireland was becoming. That version of rural Irishness didn’t connect to my own experiences of growing up in urban, industrial England either.
When I started to read sociological texts about ‘hybrid’ identities among 2nd generation migrants – identities that are not fixed by either there or here (home or yonder) but rooted in both, and something new, that made so much sense to me. It started to make me feel relaxed about not being either ‘authentically’ Irish or assimilated to Englishness. I am not a ‘plastic Paddy’ – claiming an Irishness that does not belong to me. I am not caught between cultures. I am not half of this and half of that. My identity is rooted in the experience of growing up Irish in England, in a certain time and place, and it is an experience I share with other 2nd generation Irish here. It’s not plastic, but elastic…