A Scottish friend of mine once told me that when she was little, her dad taught her to throw green sweets into the fireplace.
As a lifelong Rangers supporter, he saw anything green as representing his hated foes Celtic — green sweets, green toys, green jelly, none of them were allowed under his roof.
The story stuck with me, as it seemed so alien that someone would try to teach their child to hate.
It came back to me when watching Ireland play England in the Six Nations a few years ago. My kids have a tradition of whoever I cheer for, they cheer the opposing team just to annoy me.
Most of the time, they have no idea who they are cheering for and end up blurting out the names of random European nations.
But they managed to get it right this time, prompting me to sternly lecture them about why we don’t cheer for England — I rattled through the centuries of wrongdoing, kicking off with the Norman conquests, then segueing through Cromwell, the Famine, the War of Independence, a frank discussion of Julia Roberts’ accent in Michael Collins, then rounding it out with Martin Johnson making Mary McAleese walk in the mud in 2003.
The kids sensibly stopped listening in the first few sentences, but as I trailed off and ran out of half remembered Inter Cert history lessons, I had to stop and ask myself — what exactly did the English ever do to me? Not me as in ‘Is Mise Éireann’, just me, as an individual.
How did they wrong me so much that I felt the need to vomit up some half-remembered bits of Irish history at my kids to teach them that the people across the water are, in fact, bad?
I spent the years since then having something of a Damascene conversion (or a taking of the soup, depending on your viewpoint), as I realised I’ve wasted far too much of my life bristling at everything the British do, monitoring them to see if they were ‘at it’ again.
I’m far from a rabid nationalist, but when I realised I was bulwarking my kids’ sense of national identity by condensing a complex history into a simple story of Us and Them, I had to stop and think.
Surely to love your country, you shouldn’t have to hate anyone else’s? How much energy have I wasted concocting a sense of injury about a nation and a people who I have almost no experience of?
‘I had to stop and ask myself — what exactly did the English ever do to me as an individual?’
I don’t think I am that different from a lot of ordinary Irish people — all it takes is for an English accent to mistakenly claim an Irish success story as their own and we act like we’re taking fire in the GPO in 1916.
They can’t even give us a Bafta without some sort of nationalistic meltdown, as though somehow we are a different species entirely to the average English person.
How dare they fund our films and then try to give them awards. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, angrily bashing the keys to police Irishness in all its forms on social media, or expecting every single English person to have a full and complete knowledge of all their nation’s actions here in the last several hundred years.
I saw the Irish as the most wronged people on earth and came to understand it is this sense of victimhood that allowed the Irish Slaves myth to spread.
So I decided to let it all go. No more grudges, no more ‘friendly’ banter about the 800 years, no more tutting at Union Jack mugs in TK Maxx or getting upset at the Western Atlantic Archipelago being called ‘the British Isles’.
So when we play England this Saturday, you know who I’m going to be shouting my support for? Ireland, obviously — I haven’t emigrated and moved into a bedsit with Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But if my kids want to shout their support for England, even just to annoy their old man, they can roar themselves hoarse.
And now that I have created this nurturing space in my heart for dear old England, I have so much more time and mental energy for the very real business of being Irish — correcting Americans who call it St Patty’s Day.