Monday, 22 February 2016

Everyone in Ireland knows Steve!

Your 'umble scribbler helping out a local in New Zealand, 1989...

It’s a natural question. If you’ve ever left the parish, you’ll have been asked it too.

“Where’re ya from?”

To me however this innocent icebreaker has become an enquiry I dread.

As a Londoner who has lived in the West of Ireland for almost 25 years, my impatient heart demands I say that my home is 15 miles from Galway City, but I know that’s not what these people want to hear.

That’d just be yet another blow-in acting the bollox.

These lads are not really interested in the precise location I slid into the world. They’re just pulling at the reins and slavering to tell the tales, to share their stories of those days they lived ‘Over There.’

All they need is for me to ‘fess up that I come from London and they’re off, galloping into their rare auld experiences in England.

Oh yes, they were working over there in the 50s/60s/70s/80s/90s. 
By God it was some time. I tell you now. There’s never been the like of it since.

Then they’ll ask if I know a pub called the Bunch of Grapes and do I know Steve?

When I first moved to Ireland I just couldn’t understand why seemingly intelligent and witty Irish people would leap on the fact that I came from London to ask me if I knew Steve.

A couple of decades later I now understand the significance of this question. It encapsulates the reason I love living here.

The town of my birth has a population just under twice that of the entire Republic of Ireland. The only way you survive living in a city that size is by minding your own business and having a close set of people to whom you cling.

I’m a Londoner and no, I don’t know Steve. 
I’ve never heard of him.
I wasn’t there. 

Wasn’t me.

However, in Ireland the chances are that you do know Steve. 

Ireland never underwent the mass migration to the cities that the industrial revolution demanded in England. This country was not forged in steel foundries and coal mines. It isn’t that long ago you’d still hear the beef prices at the end of RTE radio evening news.

The Greater Dublin Area accounts for almost 40% of the Republic’s population. Thankfully, most of the rest of the country is still a village and when you live in a village, you know Steve.

Although I’m a reclusive type, I do like the idea that we are all aware of each other. On frequent trips to London to visit my family, I have to physically resist my finger, twitching on the steering wheel, trying to lift itself in acknowledgement of every other driver.
Coming out of Heathrow in my rental car, the M25 has 8 lanes on each side. No place for behaving like a culchie.

Walking the streets of London, the very same streets I played on as a child and roared my motorbike along as a petulant teenager, I have now become the crazy guy; the one who says “Howya!” or  “Lovely evening, isn’t it!” to complete strangers.

Just as I would if I were still living in London, they gather their coats around them and whisk by, holding tight onto their children’s hands, in case I try to speak to them again.

Exactly what I would fear in London I adore in Galway. Sitting outside on Quay Street, having a few chats with friends passing by, I feel a part of something small enough to matter, yet large enough to call itself a city.

After living in the Republic almost as long as I lived in England, I’m repeatedly reminded that the most important difference between my native and adopted countries is the size of their populations.

Yes, oh yes, believe me, I know all about the history. Over the last two decades, the odd Irish person has occasionally felt it their duty to remind me of innumerable injustices. Yet even though suffering is the default setting of the people of the West of Ireland, I have never lived in any place where people smile as much.

Poverty, sideways rain, sliding your boots across a pavement pizza: whatever challenges life throws at the people of the West, they tut, inhale sharply and make the best of it.

I love them as much as I love living here. The West of Ireland is my home, which is why I bristle so when faced with that question, over and over again, day in day out.

“Where’re ya from?”
“I was born in London, but I’ve been living here for 24 years and-”
“Ah, London, eh? I was over there in 19...”

Back in 1989 I was hitching in New Zealand with my girlfriend. Everywhere we went we kept on bumping into the same pair of Irish nurses, and wherever we were, they’d sigh and say:

“Ah look at that view. It’s beautiful! Sure, it looks just like home!”

I was able to agree that the scenery was gorgeous, yet couldn’t make comparisons with Ireland, because while I’d been to Australasia twice, I’d never visited the country next door to my own.

Four years later, I was looking at room to rent in a flat in Salthill. The woman looking for a flatmate had asked a friend over, to help her choose the right applicant.

As I walked in, her friend looked at me, her chin dropping just enough to allow a smile to stretch upon her lips.

“Hey, were you hitching in New Zealand with a blonde girl, back in 1989?”

“I er, yes I was. Why, what did I do?”

Daring to stare for a moment into her sparkling blue eyes, I realised she was one of the nurses.

“Kitty? Oh! Oh wow! You’re kidding me!”


I got the room, benefitting for the first time from the fact that in Ireland, everyone knows Steve.

©Charlie Adley

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