As the girl walked by holding a tray of green cupcakes decorated with shamrocks, I knew St. Patrick's Day was nigh. She noted me eyeing them. She noted my red hair as well and asked was I Irish. Yet when I said I was, she said, somewhat disappointedly, "You don't sound Irish." This isn't the first time I've heard that, and once again I walk away contemplating my identity.
Accents are funny things, instantly accepted or rejected by their very sound. In New York I was the only kid at school with an Irish brogue. My high-pitched lilt with a 'tis or two thrown in, made the kids laugh. Yet they sounded funny to me, dropping 'ing's' and eliminating 'r's' as they prayed "Our Fatha who art in Heaven."
Strangers would bid me "Top o' the morning!" -- a greeting unknown in Ireland -- thinking it camaraderie. Yet this pseudo Irish palaver only left me feeling stupid, even poor. So one summer I decided to exchange my Irish brogue for a glamorous English accent. Movies and movie stars conversing in suave English accents, like Rex Harrison and Deborah Kerr, were my guides.
"Oh to sound English!" my twelve-year-old self cried. "Oh to leave Galway Bay and that dreary "Danny Boy" behind and sound like someone else. But who?"
James Mason, of course: James of the nifty tweed jacket, the gravelly voice and the elegantly smoked cigarette. James Mason would help me sound posh. And sound posh I did. After that summer spent in cinemas, I banished my brogue to the basement and took on James' divinely seductive low voice. I figured that now if I was asked for directions by an out-of-towner, they might say: "You have a lovely accent", instead of Top o' the mornin'!
Flush with success, I decided to change my name as well: A nom du plume known only to myself, as I didn't want to frighten my mother any more than she already was. Alice Marie Carey became Alicia Moira York -- a perfect name with a small curtsy to New York.
Now that I am living in Ireland as well as New York, I find my brogue creeping back. Though the girl with the cupcakes couldn't hear it, I can. As soon as I step off the plane in Shannon and head to the café for a 'white mug' (coffee mixed with hot milk), or hours later when I hear myself saying 'sure, sure' to Paddy the butcher, no matter what he's talking about, I'm Irish again, accent and all. I look Irish. I talk Irish.
Yet around St. Patrick's Day, I have to be especially careful of my accent because many Americans have the notion that the Irish are a cute, friendly people who believe in Leprechauns, kiss the Blarney Stone and love Riverdance. John Wayne dragging Maureen O'Hara by the hair, over the fields in The Quiet Man is still the benchmark of Irish'ness, no matter how dated the Irish themselves think it is.
As much as I cringe at these stereotypes, they exert a powerful hold on prevailing Irish mythology that has little regard for Ireland as a nation constantly evolving since the Famine. St. Patrick's Day being reduced to Paddy's Day only serves to diminish and trivialize Ireland. It's shocking that those who say they love Ireland, let alone claim to be of Irish descent, call it that with such glee.
When I was a child, I had wind of this when I heard 'nice' people imitating my brogue back to me for fun. It still happens. Were I French, and spoke in a French accent they wouldn't do a silly imitation of Maurice Chevalier. Yet my being Irish, therefore cute, gives them permission to do so.
They say that clothes make the man and the woman. Accents, too. And though I still have James Mason's divinely low timbre, my Irish brogue is firmly in place. Best of all, I no longer think having a brogue means I'm 'poor Irish' or 'cute Irish' or 'charming Irish'. I'm much more than that, and so is Ireland.