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What Katie did next: In which I start a war of independence . . .

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Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Late last year I travelled to London for a club night that promised to be all sorts of craic. It duly delivered: sprawling industrial space, powerful sound system and a line-up that you'd only get if you visited a three-day festival in Ireland.

And yet it lacked a certain vibrancy, something I've observed again and again during nights out in London. A sort of listlessness takes hold of the crowd, as though they are spectators rather than participators, flailing about the venue in constant pursuit of the exit doors.

Compounding the issue is the high hipster quotient - that breed of people that tend to dance non-committally lest the move they're performing suddenly goes out of fashion mid-song.

It's different in rootsy parts of Britain - the energy is always higher in clubs in Manchester and Birmingham, for example. But back to London, where I'm sorry to say that the natives just can't let loose like the Irish.

I met a group of Australian men that evening. We made a tacit decision to do away with pleasantries and get straight down to business.

"What do you think of the cultural stereotype about Australians being ..."

I needed to choose my words carefully here. I needn't have bothered. "Stupid?" offered one of them. "Oh, the intellectual deficit is staggering," added another.

"But you guys seem super smart," I said suspiciously. "We're the outliers," said the youngest one with a casual shrug of the shoulders.

Empire

"And what about Londoners?" I probed. "When I compare Londoners to the people back home I always feel like they're... missing something."

"They're missing an empire, that's what they're missing," came the reply.

So is it karma then that later that night, in the same club, I met a London native and he became my long-distance lover (I can't stand the word boyfriend)?

He uses words like "wicked" and "ace" and as much as I try to erase the memory, he once referred to me as a "top bird". Occasionally he doesn't understand the words I use either. He needs clarity and I need to follow up my texts with something along the lines of "Gas = hilarious".

He's just across the water but sometimes it feels like we're a million miles apart. We just don't have the same sensibilities. I've always considered the British more literal and the Irish more tonal and my theory certainly holds true with this fella.

But rather than celebrate our diversity it just makes me want to hold on tight to something I didn't even know I had: patriotism. It started around the time of my first visit when I came bearing gifts: Ellen's Choice strawberry and vanilla jam from Wexford, Ed Hicks bacon jam, Dalkey mustard and Mileeven honey. I passed the gifts over with a pride that suggested I had made this produce with my own bare hands. And while I didn't say it, there was an intonation that this was... real food.

This dietary ghettoisation continues when we go food shopping. I turn my nose up at anything other than the gold standard that is Kerrygold butter and I tut loudly if I have to go to the Irish food aisle to find Barry's tea.

Is it Irish pride or homesickness? Probably a bit of both. The other day he played a mix by Mano Le Tough. "He's from Dublin!" I squealed with an enthusiasm that suggested the DJ was my long-lost brother.

Yes, I feel enormously proud to discover Irish exports in the British capital, but I feel strangely comforted too. Just as I feel comforted when he's here on home soil with me. I may as well be a City of a Thousand Welcomes ambassador when he visits, pointing out iconic buildings and bridges and giving the distinct impression that I have more than just the cupla focal …

Sometimes I wonder if pride is defence wearing a smile. Maybe I'm protective of my national identity because I can feel London calling. Or maybe it's something deeper and darker - a bubbling up of the collective inferiority complex stored in the Irish psyche.

Defence

Our reputation as boozers doesn't help. I met his South African friend the other day. He wanted to know why I had become a teetotaller. "Were you that pissed Irish girl?" he asked, before slouching his shoulders, thrusting his pelvis forward and slackening his jaw.

Again I went on the defence, probably because I was that pissed Irish girl and for the first time I realised I wasn't much of an ambassador for Ireland when I went abroad.

Stereotypes abound elsewhere, though. I've lost count of the times he has attributed my irrationalities and idiosyncrasies to my nationality. "Your little Irish ways …" he says fondly, as though I live in a thatched cottage making fairy dust with a family of leprechauns. There's been a few potato jokes too. Like "top bird", I just pretend I didn't hear them.

Instead I hold fire temporarily before launching a sniper attack later, casually referring to the "remarkable humanity of Irish people" and doing my best impression of Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Sometimes it feels like a cold war, a cultural clash just ready to explode. My biggest fear is that I'll lose the run of myself and scream "800 years of oppression!" But I suppose it would be wise to learn all the words to our national anthem before I even try that one.


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