In my first year at university, my then-boyfriend took me home to meet his parents. Theirs was a house considerably larger than any I had been in and the dining table held more cutlery than I had ever seen before.
At one point, my boyfriend and I were using the phone in what they referred to as 'the study,' booking a ferry ticket to France. The father wandered in and picked up my passport which, unlike his son's, was green and bore the imprint of a harp.
He looked at me; I looked at him. I braced myself for questions about religion, about politics, about why my accent didn't match my documents. But the question that came was:
"You're not in the IRA, are you?"
I related this anecdote recently at a dinner party, when the conversation had turned to awkward meetings with partners' parents, and a blanket of shocked silence settled over the table. He can't have said that, someone murmured; no one would ask that, would they?
Their reaction interested me because I was, at that time, considering writing a novel about being Irish in Britain. I have always shied away from putting my Irish background into fiction. For a small country, Ireland has produced the most astonishing number of literary geniuses. What right did a person who left the country as a toddler have to join those voices? None at all, I'd always felt.
Then there was the problem of what's been termed "Eiresatz." You'll have seen examples of this wherever you go in the world. People desperately wanting to be Irish, to replicate some of the Celtic mystique, to claim a fingerful of Hibernian blood. To put it bluntly, I didn't want to write the literary equivalent of the Irish theme pub, nor did I have the slightest desire to be the Michael Flatley of novels. So, I'd avoided the whole Irish issue up to now, just to be on the safe side.
But after that dinner party, I began to wonder if there wasn't something to be said about the second-generation Irish experience. I'd assumed that everyone knew about the anti-Irish prejudice so prevalent in Britain, that it was common knowledge. Not so, my friends' faces had told me.
For anyone growing up in 1970s Britain with a notably Irish name or accent, it was a part of daily life. The wearisome jokes, the suspicion, the aren't-the-Irish-thick/lazy/alcoholic jibes, the what-kind-of-a-surname-is-that jeers. I was delighted when a girl with beautiful patent shoes invited me for tea at her house; less delighted when she told me the next day that her mum wouldn't allow Irish people in the house because 'they were dirty and had lice.'
Then there was the teacher at my secondary school who liked to kick off registration with a volley of Irish jokes. Heard the one about the Irish turkey? It was looking forward to Christmas. Heard the one about the Irish devil worshipper? Sold his soul to Santa. He, too, would regularly imply that my family might be involved in the Troubles. When I think about it now -- a teacher, suggesting that a child was involved with terrorism, in front of the whole class -- it's clear that it was nothing short of illegal, racist abuse. But what's most shocking perhaps is that, at the time, it seemed normal. People accused us of terrorist sympathies, of planting bombs, of being murderers, all the time. It was simply the way things were.
The 1970s was the nadir of antipathy between Britain and Ireland. I was born in the year of Bloody Sunday and we moved to Britain just before the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings. Around this time, a friend's Irish mother was ejected from a shop in London by a man brandishing a newspaper with a headline about a bomb. Even as late as the mid-1990s, a colleague of mine on a national newspaper found it acceptable to declare that whenever she took a phonecall from my dad, who has a strong Dublin accent, she always expected him to give her a two-minute warning to leave the building.
So, with all this in mind, I made the Riordan parents in my novel immigrants. The father never looks back, but the mother is one of those emigrés who can't get over her homesickness, can't wait to be back in the old country, can't forgive her London-born children their disinterest in her culture, her religion, her roots. Both generations think they have it the worst: the parents remember the poverty, the prejudice, the difficulty of the move; the children feel they must cast off the trappings of their background in order to be accepted in the new country. I used my ex-boyfriend's father's awkward enquiry about the IRA in a scene where the son, Michael Francis, meets his wife's parents for the first time and the mother, Gretta, is at one point thrown out of a shop for having an Irish accent. The rest, as they say, is fiction.
Anti-Irish sentiment will always exist in some form in Britain -- the histories of both countries are too intertwined for it ever to die out completely -- but it's lost its potency, its urgency. Gone are the days of the 'No Blacks, No Irish' signs outside boarding houses; I haven't heard a thick Paddy joke in years; to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever asked my kids if they are terrorists or if they have recently built a railway. There are newer waves of immigrants who are unfortunately bearing the brunt of ill-judged xenophobic urges.
I haven't seen that old boyfriend or his dad for a long time. But if I did, I'd shake his hand and tell him that his question inspired a novel.