Growing up in Australia I had very little understanding of my cultural background.
With the knowledge that I had Irish ancestry, I told people I was Australian and one quarter Irish. It didn’t matter that this was wrong – or that my maths was appalling, and I was actually half Irish – because our cultural background was not something my family discussed. And I never gave much thought to it.
On my Mum’s side, my grandparents were born in Australia and my great grandparents were English, with a bit of French thrown in there somewhere. I never knew my Dad’s parents, only that they were Irish, emigrating from Ireland to England and then onto Australia where my Dad was born.
My Mum was raised Protestant and my Dad was raised Catholic; as a consequence I was raised religion-less, with my parents deciding that it was better to leave me with this choice (read: conflict).
So with no religious influence, the only culture I identified with was the Australian culture. As a family we engaged in aspects of the Aussie culture including barbeques, backyard cricket and barracking for our footy team, the mighty Hawks. But as a young Australia struggled to define herself, I struggled too.
The closest I came to any kind of Irish identity was an early high-school project on Ireland, and Cultural Day at work a few years ago. I cringe when I remember the token effort I made, contributing a bag of Tayto crisps I’d found in the specialty Irish shop downstairs. And on employment and ethnicity questionnaires, I’d always mark the box indicating that I was “White Irish”.
It became my identity by default, but one I had little understanding of – until I travelled to Ireland.
After tracing my ancestry and connecting with my family in Dublin, I realised that I not only wanted but I needed, the Irish influences that were missing from my childhood, to now be a part of my adult life. And this is what has shaped my time living abroad in the UK.
Not the lure of endless festivals or European travels, but the opportunity to explore Ireland and experience some of what I missed out on. To find out how my ancestors lived and learn who my family are. Who I am or might have been.
It’s now 18 months since I first travelled around Ireland and I’ve been back four times since. These trips have included family reunions and road trips with friends, trad music, set dancing, surfing and mountain hikes. On rural farm-stays I’ve harvested potatoes, milked goats, built stone walls and drank with locals.
My family has shown me around the neighbourhood where my grandparents lived and together we saw U2 in concert. But of all of my experiences, it’s the laughter, singing, and stories of my Irish family that I love. These stories provided a family history I knew nothing about and a context for my own story.
I’m now preparing to return home to Melbourne. And although I grew up as a child from an Australian family, I’ll take these experiences and stories to now live my life as an adult from a multicultural family.
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About the authorrebecca
14 comments for “How Irish Am I?”
Interesting family history and I wonder if you’ll yearn to see Ireland again !
of course..i’m always thinking about the next trip back mike *sigh*… thanks for reading & sharing my piece
Rebecca, what a lovely piece! I agree that all of us from from young countries have a need to discover our roots, to know our cultural heritage, because that’s made us who we are.
Ans, yes, it is a thrill to explore the village or town (generally European, Spanish in my case) where our grandparents/great-grandparents were born and lived.
I can really relate to your post 🙂
Rebecca, wonderfully written. As you put it: context is everything. Where we come from, defines who we are. A journey that takes us back to our roots is uplifting. We are back to where we truly belong. This is something we need to experience in the first-person. I feel it every time, I go back to my ancestral village.
Oh, the next time you go back to Ireland, please take me with you. 🙂
What a lovely story!
I do see why the Irish are drawn to Australia, though. Same humour, same self-irony, same not-taking-yourself-so-seriously – not found in so many other countries.
Ana – thanks! Australia has a long Indigenous history but a short European history (only 222 years) which I think generates the curiosity to travel & explore our European heritage further.
Sanjay – Agreed. It is definitely something everyone needs to experience for themselves. It’s nice that you’ve shared that too.
Candice – no worries 🙂
Thanks Sophie! That’s so true – there are so many similarities in the way both Aussies & the Irish relate to people.
Hi Rebecca – I liked your story and feel there are some similarities with my own background. I have always lived in England but my mother is actually Hungarian – she met my father, who is English, and came to live in England in the 1960s. Although I don’t really speak Hungarian, bar a few random phrases, and see myself as English, it’s still important for me that I know about Hungary, about its culture and history and what’s going on there today. I have been there many times to see my mother’s family and really like the fact that I have a multicultural background. Definitely easier to get to than from Australia to Ireland! If I have children of my own one day, I would like them to know about the Hungarian part of their origins as well – it’s good to know about your roots!
Hi Henny, thanks for sharing your story – it’s great to hear about other people’s experiences of exploring their cultural background. It’s also something I’d like to share with my children too so they can incorporate those cultural influences into their lives as they grow up.
And yes, you’re lucky that England & Hungary are within reasonable distance of each other – Australia and Ireland couldn’t be further apart!
What a great way to come back to your beginnings. And how lucky to be able to go back and forth so often.
As someone born in South Africa, grew up in the USA, then lived in Israel, Panama and now Argentina, I totally identify with that feeling of not quite being connected to a place you’re somehow supposed to connect.
Not sure if my reply is too late, but this is a topic that is very interesting to me. I am also Australian and from a cross cultural family: Australian father, with Irish and English parents, and Israeli-Jewish mother with Polish and Palestinian-Jewish background. Similar to Rebecca, both my parents had not really reflected on nor understood their own cultural backgrounds and conflicts just choosing to reject and replace with the values and lifestyle of the 60’s and 70s counter-culture. When you add in growing up in Australia, which as Rebecca noted is a young country with an unresolved, violent history and a shallow and under-developed sense of national identity, this was a nice recipe for total identity confusion! It’s only now that I can understand that, but I am still to fully explore my roots. The best way I can describe my experience is that I grew up in a cultural vaccuum – neither the traditional values and customs from either parent nor a strong national culture to replace it with … very Australian experience I believe, and one that needs more exploration and discussion!
Of course it’s not too late Fia! Thanks for commenting. Rebecca will probably have more to say on this, but I just wanted to add that I agree with you that it’s a topic that needs more attention.
Thanks so much for reading & sharing your thoughts. A ‘cultural vaccuum’ is how i feel too. I have Aussie friends who have always had a strong sense of identity with the food, religion or music of their parents/grandparents culture. I often felt like I wanted more from Australia but recognising this as an adult has definitely helped. Hopefully we can explore it more on PocketCultures too 🙂