Opinion

Finding Irishness and hidden humanity in search of belonging

Photo by João Cabral

Me siento perdido! 

Literally, Spanish for “I feel lost”. A fitting way to begin this new series, if that’s not too grand a term for my latest endeavour. No data today – purely a personal introduction to a theme I finally feel compelled to write about: National identity and belonging.

So without further ado…


Cloaks and whispers

Being Irish-Peruvian by descent, yet born (and primarily bred) in Britain, has made finding a sense of belonging and grappling with my mixed sense of identity complicated, bewildering, and undoubtedly enriching.

British identity has always felt like an invisibility cloak I hastily chucked on to blend in, lay low, and avoid squaring up to the prickly reality of embracing my otherness. It usually hides its wearer well, but cannot banish the phantoms haunting my subconscious. Hiding behind a disguise I barely understood was always precarious, and remains difficult to articulate.

For most of my life I have endured deafening periods of being assailed by a cacophony of strident whispers bellowing silently in my occasionally febrile mind, humming the all-too-familiar tuneless dirge I later learnt to call imposter syndrome.

Some might relate to such ghoulishly malevolent melodies as referring to their race, sexuality, gender identity, religious beliefs, social or workplace anxieties, and more besides. The refrain might strike a chord and goes something like this:

You don’t belong here; you’re not one of them; you’ll never fit in; you’re not like them; sooner or later they’ll catch you out; you’ll be exposed for the fraud you are, and then what? Where will you run to? Hiding is futile. Exposure is inevitable. Take off the cloak. They see you…

You might well respond with…

Yeah whatever. Nothing new then. Join the club. Stop moaning! 

I suspect myriad others may wield such words to dismiss my efforts to recapture some peculiar lost sense of purpose and solidarity with the last vestiges of my teenage angst. Belonging within the mainstream felt elusive back then, so I gravitated towards the alternative crowd. 

The outsiders. 

A place where everyone initially seemed comfortable with being ill-fitting and embraced difference. Yet the facade quickly faded in the early stages of my adulthood as conformity reasserted itself amidst our collective social b*******.

Imagine if we all took off our masks, stopped pretending, ceased hiding, and started talking openly and listening unreservedly to each other. There is something beautifully poignant about our shared fragility and idiosyncrasies when you take a few moments to try and understand someone else’s journey. To cross the rubicon and begin to accept the peculiarity of the strange people who surround us.

You might even start to get reacquainted with your own quirkiness and remember who you are in the process. Why not? 

After all, clocks keep ticking. Time is short. 

Carpe Diem. 

Hidden Irish treasures

I caught a fleeting glimpse of this deliciously human treasure recently when I briefly crossed paths with someone whom I don’t yet really know, and may never get acquainted with in any depth. Yet by stumbling across a refreshingly vulnerable article they wrote on this very topic of identity, ethnicity, and belonging, I felt an unmistakable stirring in my soul merged with a longing to find out more about people of mixed heritage who grow up in an unfamiliar, often hostile place.

The fact that I share an uncommon type of Irishness with the author of that article – i.e. not the jus soli variety as neither of us were born on the island of Ireland  – only piqued my interest even further. 

Being Irish was always a privilege I took for granted as part of my maternal bloodline, even though pre-2016 I had never felt the impulse to formalise it in the pages of my now cherished, still sparkling, and rarely used Irish passport. I remember casually acknowledging a sense of Irishness when I was growing up, though I didn’t appreciate until relatively recently how precious such a sense of belonging to a people other than the country you live in truly is.

I have often idolised Irish identity since the Brexit referendum, which catalysed my latent desires to reaffirm, explore, and strive to understand my lost Irish-Hispanic heritage. The first part of this journey ended in disappointment however. I discovered that alongside being Irish-Peruvian by descent, I had also been eligible for Spanish citizenship until the age of 21 by virtue of my father having dual-nationality when I was born (I also lived in Spain for 3 years as a child). Yet because I was born in the UK and had not declared my desire to keep this privilege by then, I lost my right to la nacionalidad española. The confusion and visceral lack of belonging was palpable.

Rejected by one country, I ran towards the Irish side of my roots and officially obtained citizenship there instead. So began the honeymoon period as I started to gaze even more longingly on the land of saints of scholars – to which I now held a concrete claim – and gazed at it through emerald-tinted glasses whilst fantasising about the good life on the other side of the Irish sea.

Thankfully, my naive fantasies of growing up in Ireland, and how much better it must be than modern Britain, were recently met with a sharp slap of unpleasant realism. Once I digested some of the above author’s penetrating insights, I found it bitterly ironic that they were subjected to an inhospitable othering and felt such a familiar lack of belonging growing up in Eire. Even the emerald isle doesn’t benefit from truly greener grass, it seems. 

I often felt similarly misplaced as a child here in England, albeit to a lesser extent and for very different reasons. In many ways I still do.    

Gritty glory

Imagine going a mile in another person’s shoes who has necessarily had a very different life experience to you: What would you see? How would you be seen? Joy, sadness, comfort, pain, a flowing verdant landscape of fruitful growth juxtaposed with the bleak wilderness of despair that so often characterises our human condition? None of the above? I suspect we might have to reckon with the uncomfortable truth that we are all gloriously complex, and as dull as ditchwater in equal measure.

Our short time on this mortal coil is rarely composed of the sort of fictional drama, gravitas, and grandeur so often depicted in big screen biopics. Nevertheless, it often has a gritty normalcy that remains both refreshingly alien and uncannily close to home when lived through the eyes of another person. Inhabiting their skin, inhaling and exhaling their breath, perceiving the world anew without the benefit of our usual blinkers can work wonders for the soul. Finding a sense of belonging may require us to undertake such pilgrimages into the otherness of people we so often fail to see.

Mutual vulnerability and empathy can emerge even through an otherwise innocuous conversation, something Covid stole from us along with so many other facets of the gift of life. For many of us, perhaps it is time to risk recapturing that distant sense of humanity before it’s too late. Living is not safe unless we are merely waiting to die.  

A priceless panorama awaits those of us willing to wade in and swim in the grubby glory of our collective alienation. Belonging may only begin with a willingness to embrace the strangeness of our own humanity, before extending that same welcoming gesture to the otherness of those around us.

Ready to get your toes wet?