The main character of Colm Tóibín’s novel, and later film, Brooklyn decides one day to leave Ireland and move to America.
She meets a man there and gets married. During a brief visit home, she meets another man, and has a short-lived romance, but still she goes back to America, her new home.
Why wouldn’t she? Her husband, respectable job and bright future are all waiting there for her.
Eilis had imagined that one day she would need to leave the shop she worked in back home in Ireland. Immigration had been a clear option, and not only for her – many young Irish people didn’t have any other choice.
So she had daydreamed about America, trying to shelter herself from the harsh realities of her life in rural Ireland of the ’50s. And eventually, she’d made that decision and left.
I’m Polish. One of many Poles, who came to Ireland after the EU big bang in 2004. I had never imagined that I would leave Poland and try to build my life somewhere abroad. I can bet that many of my compatriots would say the same.
In the beginning, it was strange. It wasn’t my first time abroad on my own. I had already been to US on two J1 visas, but those trips were different. I had always had university to return to. It wasn’t permanent.
I sought refuge in literature, reading Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, both of whom write about adapting to new cultures. If you look closely at their characters, you can see that they are vastly different – different classes, religions and approaches to life. But one thing was noticeable to me: other people had bigger cultural obstacles to tackle than I did.
My first night out with my Irish buddies was a blast. They took me to one of the pubs close to Trinity College. We bought rounds and exchanged what I learnt later is called banter. The vibe was less formal than what I remembered from back home, when people who were not best friends met.
Not so long ago, I had a similar epiphany. I was drinking Goose or West Coast IPA with my mate in the RDS. I said to myself that nothing can beat Irish drunkenness.
There’s a brilliant scene in John McGahern’s Amongst Women when the whole Moran family, except for old Moran, comes to Luke’s wedding in London. His sisters look at Luke’s family with a certain reluctance.
One of them, Maggie, realises, that no matter how hard she tries, she will never be English. Why is this important to us? Maggie was the sister who moved to the UK in search of better life.
Only a few people realise that integration has its costs. The better you get to know a culture, the better you get to know informal ways of communication, the more you realise you’re an outsider.
Let me use a book written by Pierre Bourdieu to help to explain my point. In Distinction, he writes that every aesthetic choice you make determines how other people see you, and how they treat you.
He talks about how “cultural capital” is informal knowledge passed down from generation to generation. The owner of this knowledge is in a superior position. He decides what behaviour is right or wrong, and he builds the moral discourse. The knowledge of language is nothing, if you don’t know the informal code.
The second term that Bourdieu uses is “symbolic violence”. An individual who is in a culturally superior position, when noticing that somebody is trying to change the order, uses symbolic violence to defend the status quo. It might be as little as a shrug, or an accent joke.
Things get even funnier: sometimes integration causes quasi-alienation. I don’t remember when, really, but I acquired the cultural tools to see the splinters in Irish society – people from north of the Liffey, people from the south, and people from outside of the Pale. The Irish must look at me differently like that, too.
Not so long ago, a guy who was working with me, surprised, I guess, that I had read so many books written by Irish authors – it was close to the Easter Rising centenary, and I had always wanted to read Roddy Doyle’s brilliant trilogy about Henry Smart, and Diarmaid Ferriter – joked, calling me a fake Irishman.
I laughed, but something about that remark made me think. My interest in Irish literature is not that different to my interest in Russian or Czech literature. But my colleague felt the urge to say something. That made me wonder: what can I say about Ireland, and what can’t I? Where’s the proverbial fine line?
Ignorance is common for all of us. People often evoke Ireland’s no-colonies history as one of the main reasons for its tolerance. But that history doesn’t make everything all better.
Let me go back to John McGahern’s greatest novel again. The main hero of the book, Patrick Moran, is bitterly disappointed with the way politicians run the state.
Every year on Monaghan Day, he meets with his old comrade from the time of the fight for Irish independence, and makes a strong argument against the direction of the Irish republic.
That’s not the only time that Irish literature tackles this issue. Roddy Doyle in the last part of Henry Smart trilogy, The Dead Republic, addresses it too.
Smart, now a caretaker in an Irish school, notices that kids are being beaten by teachers. He remembers his own childhood, although he spent only a couple of days in school, and takes matters in his own hands.
His outrage is fuelled by the belief that kids shouldn’t be victims in new, independent Ireland. Quickly, teachers realise who they are dealing with, and each beating that Smart gives out, is a rite of passage, because of his past as a fighter in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.
Ireland is a postcolonial country and, as such, a small group of people has all the power. That bothered old Moran.
Colonies, or not, he was insulted by the way society was constructed. And he understood that just because the Irish never had any colonies, it didn’t mean they were any better or worse.
When the West of Ireland was slowing dying, and when Irish stopped being the main language there, people who were sitting in Dáil didn’t care because it was not their sons and daughters taking the boat to England.
We have a right to expect all the best from Irish people, and often they are up to task, but countries often fall short of their ideals.
I started by writing about Brooklyn. Eilis Lacey is back in New York. Things that were tolerable before are not anymore.
Tóibín’s heroine is a great example of cultural integration. Sure, she married an Italian Catholic, but somehow she found her place across the pond.
The question is should she be a symbol for me, or new immigrants who came to Ireland in the last dozen years or so? Yes and no.
Yes, because she tries to belong, even if that means listening to her boyfriend talk about baseball. And no, because the EU has severed immigration from one of its scariest characteristics: its permanence.
People will travel, will take roots, and then some will leave. Like they did for centuries, before Romanticism invented the idea of the modern state and boisterous patriotism.
On the bright side, there’s great literature coming out of these shared experiences. But there is a challenge too. We all will need to redefine the idea of nationality, so that even a fake Irishman, can speak and feel like a real Irishman.