Plastic Paddy – Struggles with identity and acceptance

in Think Piece

irish in london

I was about 12 years old when it happened for the first time. ‘You’re only an English c**t’. I couldn’t believe it , the absolute shock and horror of what had just been said to me. Why would this person say such a thing , how could someone be so wrong ? It was a wake up call to me, it was early exposure to how I was viewed by some people.

Everytime an international game comes around, the issue arises. Perhaps a little background history on the ’offended party’ might shed light on things. Born in London to Irish parents who hail from Cork and Wexford, fiercely proud people. We had lived in Cork for a short while when we were young, and eventually ended up back in the big city lights of ‘landahn tahn’. A refuge of sorts for many an Irishman and Irishwoman trying to escape an economic and employment disaster at home. Living in London back then was not easy, even as a young fella I knew that something wasn‘t right.

It would be fair to say that ‘Paddy’ was not welcome, the troubles were at their height, there was a real anti-Irish sentiment. I was not even ten years old and I knew this, how bad must have it been for my parents? As such the Irish tended to be quite insular, not in a bad way , this was a protection shield. We socialized with Irish families, we went to Irish clubs, we played GAA , we went to mass , we didn’t go to Ireland we went ‘home’. We drank Barry’s tea, ate packages of ‘taho , Kimberley and pink shnax’ (good man Jacksie) I even went to Irish language classes. I listened to the adults sing songs about how we had been wronged by the English, how our heroes had been murdered.

We were living in a foreign country, I was a foreigner. Well after my rude awakening to the real world I remember trying to figure out ‘what was I?.

It was around this time, my interest in football as a spectator sport was beginning to show itself. The media coverage and access we have today are vast in comparison to what was about back then. News from ’home’ was via letters and the ’Cork evening echo’ which was sent to us fortnightly by my nan and grandad. In England there was hardly any news on Irish sports, on a very rare occasion perhaps a mention but certainly no real column space. This all changed when we got our first real decent TV, and it had Teletext on it. This was for many years my only real time way of getting information on our national teams fortunes. I could be on the page where the game was displayed and keep refreshing it to see if we had scored. Grealish, Stapleton, Brady, Hughton , Galvin these were the names I associate with that time. I used to imagine what Lansdowne looked like, what Dalymount Park looked like. I knew what Wembley looked like, I had been there with my dad. I had annoyed and pestered him to go to see England play Northern Ireland in the Home Nations competition. As far as I was concerned I was supporting Ireland, north or south it was all the same to me, they played in green. For the record England won 4-0, it didn’t matter I had been there supporting Ireland in whatever guise. Isn’t that what we were supposed to do?

I had been sent Ireland jerseys, tee-shirts, flags, posters and I even had a pair of ‘Big Jack’ jocks. This was not all by request, it was their way of reminding me who I was, where we were from. Was this over compensating? Was it trying too hard? The Hawk and Five, two of my oldest friends were in London at this time and have always said that they didn’t realize what it was to be Irish until they met me. It’s also important to say that these lads were (are) very protective of me. Bull, Collins, Spud along with Hawk and Five have all diverted comments away from me, they take it as personally as they know I would. It hasn’t been easy following Ireland, it would have been easier following England. The thing is, the massive unavoidable inescapable thing with that is, I didn’t have a choice. From the minute I arrived into this world, I was Irish. My family, heritage and my upbringing had such an effect on me that my social circles and my identity were not a choice, they were an inevitability.

But I found out that this was not the way for all lads born in England to Irish parents. When I started work I started with three lads who like myself had Irish parents. I couldn’t believe it when these lads all supported England, they slaughtered me for supporting Ireland. To them I was a ‘plastic paddy’, to me they were deluded. It is because of this that the issue of ‘declaring’ for Ireland rears its ugly head. Over the years we have had many ‘foreign’ born players, representing Ireland, this is nothing new, our diaspora are worldwide. But ’declaring’ has had a positive and negative effect for me, for it includes me as being both Irish and a ‘plastic paddy’.

The problem starts for me when a choice has to be made, particularly when the link is tenuous. When I hear of Jermaine Pennant saying he would be interested in playing for the Ireland, but ‘still would love to play for England’. Jamie O’Hara is another who would seriously consider playing for us if selected. I don’t get it, I just don’t understand how there is a choice, a decision to be made. Shouldn’t it just be in you? Or am I just judging when I should really know better? I would go to the world tickling championship and represent Ireland if it meant I had a chance to wear the green. Now many lads have played for us who have had this decision to make, and have never given anything less than 100% when they turned out. I shouted and roared for them enough over the years and am thankful for the great times they gave us, the personal feeling of belonging.

Paul McGrath has been about as close to an idol for me as I could have for a number of reasons. His performances in an Irish shirt naturally, (is he the greatest man to ever don the green?) but it’s what he represents to me, a man born in England who is without doubt an Irishman. He validated my own beliefs, he made me feel part of it. If I was questioned on my support, Paul McGrath was my go to man.

The comments are not something that is too prevalent thankfully, but it still happens and in the oddest of places. A few years back I went to an Ireland match in Spain. After the match we were in a bar (strange) talking to some lads, when I was informed ‘that there are a lot of you English lads here’. I was asked only a while ago why was I wearing an Ireland jersey? As I said earlier it would be easier to support England and give the crowd what they expect. Only me supporting England would be like you (non English folk) supporting England, it is as alien to me as it is to you.

So the upcoming internationals give me another opportunity to moan about how we are playing, and what we should do to improve. It also provides me with an opportunity to confuse the hell out of people, with them trying to figure out who is ‘we’? In ten, fifteen or twenty years time, we may have another group of Irishmen and Irishwomen born abroad who will be representing us in sport and they too will inspire others, give them a sense of belonging and identity, and I for one will welcome them with open arms.

It’s been a mad journey, the lads and myself had some amazing memories following our team. Mercenaries, fakes, chancers, yes we’ve possibly had some of these, but ‘plastic’ never, when that shirt is on our backs, when you see the team face the flag for ’Amrán na bhFiann’ we’re all the same even if it’s only for 90 minutes. Nothing plastic about that, is there ?

by Kieran Flanagan

kieran bnw profiler