Monthly Archives: September 2012

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 7 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 over-react (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?

So what IS disability?

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A few years back, a friend of mine who lives in Paris explained to me that via the French medical system, women there can opt to abort the foetus if signs of disability are found. I listened to my friend’s rational explanation behind that thinking: sometimes parents don’t have the resources to cope with a disabled child, if you are a single parent (as she is) then it is even harder, and that she was fairly sure she would opt for an abortion if she found out that her child was disabled.

I listened to all of her very valid and practical points, somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly support a woman’s right to choose. That wasn’t in question. What sat uncomfortably however, was the implication, however slight, of a system of eugenics at play. Because my mother was the vice-principal in a school for the mentally handicapped, I had grown up around children with disabilities my whole life. Sometimes I resented it, as a child, because my mother’s attention was so wholly consumed by these children. When she started teaching at the school, in the late 1970s, in truth there wasn’t much expectation (from what I gather) of what learning capabilities they had. Although it wasn’t on the curriculum, my mum insisted on teaching them the fundamentals of Irish and French, as she wanted to challenge perceptions. Later, when I was in university, she asked me to help out with teaching singing to some of these children for a production of “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. I did it as a favour initially; but ended up being quite amazed at how fun, and how present these children were. It wasn’t perfect; but it was a hell of a lot better than I had expected, and I gained a huge amount from the experience, in terms of my understanding of disability.

Over the last couple of weeks, because of the Paralympics, I’ve remembered the conversation with my Parisian friend, and my own experiences of working and studying with people with disabilities. At university, I was lucky enough to share classes with a wonderful pianist called Stuart. Stuart was blind. But I remember being in class with him one day, when he pointed out to the lecturer that a Schumann lieder we were listening to was not, in fact, in the original key as the lecturer was saying, but a fourth lower. None of the rest of us had picked up on that. I remember (still at university) having the privilege to play in a concert that Evelyn Glennie was playing at. Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, and was the first full-time solo percussionist in the world. I’ll never forget sitting in at her sound check with her telling the engineer “I can’t hear this” about one of her instruments. Apparently she has taught herself to “hear” with other parts of her body, but even so, the accuracy of tuning was astounding. But at the risk of painting all disabled people with the same saintly, “inspiring” brush, I also grew up with a neighbour who was profoundly deaf, who to this day is the same selfish monster he always was. I don’t attribute those tendencies to his deafness; that is his personality.

There’s a number of things that have been brought home over the Paralympics. First of all, I do not remember in my lifetime seeing so many disabled people featured in the media: it’s quite astounding. It is almost as if we have discovered a tribe of people that were there all along. And look! They have strops like us! (think Pistorius or, for the gold medal winner for best rant of the Paralympics in my opinion, Jody Cundy). They want to play sport!! And win!!! And, most surprisingly, they want all the things that we able-bodied people want: to be challenged, to engage in life with its myriad of colours and mazes that twist and turn.

Prior to the Paralympics, the fight that disabled people have on their hands with regards to the cuts, for example, have gone largely unnoticed by the media. After the Paralympics, I very much doubt that will be the case; and even during the Paralympics, public feeling on this was self-evident when George Osborne was subjected to booing from the crowd. I am of the opinion that those who booed were absolutely right to express their displeasure with the Chancellor; and that Locog made a grave error in inviting the poster-boy for the cuts to the Games to present medals. It was highly distasteful and hypocritical to have this figure present medals on the one hand; and on the other hand, during the same period, it emerged that disability benefit claimants will face a £71 a week fine for breaching back-to-work agreements. Although the argument for this is the tired old chestnut about it preventing “fraud”, the statistics show that benefit fraud is actually a very minor issue, and is really just being used as smoke-and-mirrors for the very much larger corporate fraud afoot (although that subject is probably best left to another blog). But my point is this: you cannot seek a photo-opportunity at the Paralympics one minute, while at the same time you are making significant cuts to their benefits on the other. The fact that this gained the media attention it did, and that it was the subject of many a heated discussion across the country marks a sea-change in attitude to disabled people in our society. The cloak of invisibility has dropped, and Britain has become interested in how this tribe of people live: what does it mean to navigate in a wheelchair across London? How does blade length affect running? What is the difference between a bionic limb and a silicon one?

One of my favourite programmes in the Paralympics has been “The Last Leg”, which exemplified to me how perception of “disability” has changed over the last number of weeks. For those of you who haven’t seen it – do. It was presented by Adam Hills, who is, for me, the stand-out presenting stars of the Paralympics. It was by far and away the most entertaining sports analysis show I have ever seen in my life; and it didn’t hurt that Hills was easy on the eye and charming to boot. He also has a prosthesis, which on the show was a source, but not THE source for comedy. The balance on this show was intriguing: on the one hand, it caused one to marvel at the sheer mental and physical fortitude to compete as a Paralympic athlete. But there were also reminders of the comedy of some moments, as when a guide pushed over the long distance runner he was supposed to be aiding. And their vulnerability, as evinced by one race I watched where a number of runners with cerebral palsy fell over. And the sheer joy that these Games were bringing, pretty much every time a Team GB athlete won. Or in the impromptu crowd performance of “YMCA”.  Before the Paralympics, the Guardian did an interview with Hills, where they asked whether comedy and disability could work. In answer to that, he said:

“With comedy and disability people go, ‘Ooh, where’s the line?’ There is no line – if you’re celebrating, then you won’t say the wrong thing. As long as it comes from the place of going ‘This is great’. And it is, it’s an amazing sporting event. I think because everyone behind the show loves the Paralympics, we get it, we’ve seen a lot of Paralympic sports and we’ve all gone beyond that [he puts on an insipid voice], ‘Oh isn’t this inspiring’ and instead gone, ‘This guy’s awesome. It’s about the sport really.”

He also went on to say that in his opinion that people can connect more to the Paralympians, because, sometimes unlike the Olympians, they all have a story. I think that is right; and I think it is only part of the reason these Games have been so vital for disabled people, and our society as a whole. Prior to the Paralympics, public perception of disabled people was very much about how we could help them. Now it is more about our story, as human beings: how they have helped us to see the possibilities in ourselves and the world at large. What would our world be like without a Professor Stephen Hawking? Or FDR? Or Beethoven? Or Byron? Or Sarah Bernhardt? Or Einstein? Or Tanni Grey-Thompson? Or Edison? Or Christy Brown? Or Evelyn Glennie? The list goes on; but it is clear that a society where everyone is physically and mentally perfect, and a great and inclusive society are two very different things.

I came back from Ireland last Sunday: I’d had a very bad morning, which culminated in being fined for excess baggage by a well-known budget airline. I was feeling very sorry for myself; and had got on a coach to Stratford. Suddenly, a Dutch extreme sit-skiing athlete arrived, and started discussing with the coach driver about getting on to the coach. There were no ramps or lifts for him to get on; so he turned around to the driver and said “Well, you will have to carry me on then”. It was said in a pragmatic, non-judgemental way, and as the coach driver and a colleague carried him on, the athlete made light of it by making jokes about his weight, and his chair. Suddenly my morning paled into insignificance; and a ray of stoical sunshine embraced me.