Every Sunday afternoon between late May and early September, Irish pubs and clubs across London and the rest of Britain fill up with emigrants, old and young. This is the season of the Gaelic football and hurling championships, the time when, for many, local and national identity is most keenly felt. We turn up in our county colours, clutching our imported Irish newspapers, and revel in speaking in the code only we understand: “Are Cork at championship pace?” “Will the Dubs find a way to beat Donegal’s 'System'?” “Is Shefflin the greatest ever? Could it somehow be Waterford’s year?” “What do you make of Davy Fitz?” We’re talking our language.
To outsiders, of course, it’s just sport. For the Irish abroad, it’s an assertion of who we are and a connection with home. In between matches, much discussion will be had about not just the games themselves, but where to watch them: where’s the best spot? The Sheephaven Bay or Quinn’s in Camden? The Quays or the Mother Red Cap on Holloway Road? The Auld Shillelagh in Stoke Newington? The Blythe Hill Tavern, in deepest Forest Hill?
It’s not something you want to get wrong: you want to squeeze the maximum communal experience out of every Sunday. We all know what happens when you get it wrong. The awful feeling of finding yourself in a strange town on a Sunday afternoon when the sudden urge to watch a round 1 Ulster Football Championship game hits you, even though it’s Round 1 Ulster football, and you know you’re going to end up in a loud Irish theme pub (as opposed to Irish pub) watching a terrible match on a tiny screen with the sound turned down. But you still have to watch it.
Tales of resourcefulness in difficult circumstances abound. My own personal favourite was a friend who last summer managed to get a live hurling match shown in a bar in Ramallah, Palestine (not, as the saying goes, a hurling stronghold).
But with all the joy of getting together, of asserting ourselves, of briefly being in a place where all this matters to everyone else as much as it does to you, when your own county is playing, the weekend’s fun is shot through with a sense of dread.
Every sports fan knows it: no matter how much you care about what is happening on the pitch, on the screen, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. At least if you’re at the stadium, you can attempt to cheer your team on. Watching in a dark pub hundreds of miles from the action, there is really nothing you can do.
I, and I’m sure many others had the same feeling watching the equal marriage referendum unfold back home. We desperately want to be involved, we want to show how much this means to us, how much we care, but in the end, we’re not even (to use an Irish phrase) hurlers on the ditch. We’re stuck in a north London pub, shouting at the telly, and texting friends back home.
Many of us have lost our right to vote in Ireland. There is a strong argument that emigrants should be allowed to vote in referendums: after all, we are still Irish citizens who should at least have a say on constitutional matters if not the day-to-day running of the country. But that’s an argument for another day: we left, whether by choice or necessity, and there’s no use continuing to complain.
In some ways, one worries if expat intervention - if it has any influence at all - could only make things worse. I have heard London-Irish friends say they would be “ashamed” if Ireland votes against equal marriage. Frankly, I don’t think that’s our call. People will vote as they wish, and the democratic outcome of a referendum is what it is. That said, I’ve no doubt I and countless others abroad will feel a little bit more proud of our country if it votes for equality.
The line from international media has carried an odd, patronising “Haven’t they come far?” tone. In some ways, this is correct: it is true that homosexuality was only decriminalised in the mid-90s. As a young adult at the time, I remember the blossoming of what we then called “mixed” nightclubs - such as Homo Action Movies and Powderbubble in Dublin and Mór Disco in Cork, where gay people could be gay and straight people could be straight and no one really cared because the music was great and everyone was having fun. It was exciting and fun and open. And it was not at odds with Ireland: it was Ireland. We weren’t attempting to be London or New York or anywhere else. We were Irish and happy. And now we’re grown up with jobs and houses and kids and votes, and we’re still Irish and happy.
Some commentators have attempted to portray the equality issue as Metropolitan Liberal Elite versus real, pious Ireland, but this is an ossified view of the country, a view that bears more relation to Edna O’Brien’s 1960s novel Country Girls than, say, Roddy Doyle or Kevin Barry’s portrayals of Ireland today: it is an “Irish-novelly,” view of the world, as Belinda McKeon recently wrote of Anne Enright’s latest book: “the Mammy, the home place, the emotionally banjaxed siblings, the booze and the boom and the pill and the pope.” The Plain People of Ireland are no longer content with the “frugal comforts” described in De Valera’s “The Ireland That We Dreamed Of” speech.
Truth is, we never were, but we either shut up and just got on with it or left. Not anymore. For generations, we outsourced our morality to the state, which in turn outsourced it to the church. The batterings both pillars of Ireland have taken with financial and sexual scandal over the past 25 years mean Irish people have now realised we have to trust ourselves ahead of anyone else. And guess what? It turns out we’re not the fallen people we were told we were. We managed the first large wave of migration the country has experienced since the plantations with surprising ease. Ireland has not reacted to the influx of foreign faces and languages with its own version of Ukip, much less its own Front National. When one of our most famous sportsmen - hurling goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack - came out, barely an eyelid was batted, and people went on liking or disliking him for the same reason they always had - being a gobby, confrontational competitor (imagine, by the way, an openly-gay premiership footballer playing regularly for one of the country’s top teams and then, on retirement, immediately being drafted into Match of the Day as lead pundit, and then tell me Ireland is backward). In Cork city, a mural depicting the city’s most famous faces puts Graham Norton front and centre, ahead of Michael Collins. Drag artist Panti Bliss’s now famous Noble Call speech in favour of equality achieved worldwide fame, and we cheered her on.
Ireland now has another chance to vote for equal marriage: not to prove anything, for who do we have to prove anything to, but to be ourselves, to be the happy-in-our-skins people we always wanted to be but were told we couldn’t be. It’s exciting, but for those of us stuck abroad, it’s also nerve-wracking. One old friend, who emigrated at around the same time I did, posted on Facebook this morning: “I'd swap all the Eurovision wins, that bit of Riverdance that makes always gives me goosebumps, my Ballymaloe Relish addiction, the feeling that I get when my parents still pick me up from the airport after 13 years away (no matter how many times I tell them I'm a grown up and can make my own way home), and the best cups of tea in the world, if you just get this one right, Ireland.”
To quote De Valera, in a context of which he’d surely disapprove:
"We of this time, if we have the will and active enthusiasm, have the opportunity to inspire and move our generation in like manner. We can do so by keeping this thought of a noble future for our country constantly before our eyes, ever seeking in action to bring that future into being, and ever remembering that it is for our nation as a whole that future must be sought."
This, now, is The Ireland That We Dreamed Of.