When I worked in Belfast for the council and English travellers came to the little room where we interviewed them, whoever went to the window, returned and said to me, ‘you talk to them, you speak their language’. Just a joke with an edge – in other words, one might be with the Irish, but, with friends and relations excepted, no matter how long one has lived here, one is with the Irish, but not of them.
After the war, my brother-in-law and I decided we would walk from Ballycastle to Coleraine by every inch of the Coast, instead of sticking to the roads. In those days we would hike in the Mournes, and the Antrim Coast at weekends, and with rationing still a serious consideration, our pack weighed about forty pounds because we had to take nearly everything with us. It was our habit to eat a prodigious breakfast and a colossal evening meal and only an orange or grapefruit and a bar of black chocolate for lunch – after all his mother owned a sweet shop, so sweet rationing was not a worry. We stayed in YHA hostels which varied tremendously in quality and facilities, from the luxury of the new one at Dunluce Castle near the Giant’s Causeway to the hovel at White Park Bay. We were sitting above White Park Bay, that beautiful stretch of sand, which is now so popular, but then was hardly known except to walkers and locals. The hostel was as primitive as they come, especially the men’s dormitory which was little more than a cottage with a packed earth floor. It was towards evening and we were anticipating the great fry we would soon be sitting down to, probably consisting of eggs, ham or bacon, tinned beans, a steak and the usual potato bread and soda bread, an Irish fry would never be without. The problem was the eggs. It was my turn to scavenge and I set off up the hill to a small farm. I knocked the back door and politely asked the woman who came if I could buy some eggs. She looked at me very suspiciously and then said she had none. As the place was surrounded by hens I was convinced she was being economical with the truth, but that was that.. I duly reported back to HQ and Ted laughed. “They think you’re the Ministry man checking up,” he said, adding, “It’s your accent.” To prove the point he then went up and came back with a hat full of eggs.
The Irish Conception Of The English An accentless, or near accentless speech was, in my experience generally the trigger for suspicion. This was best illustrated during a political discussion, which had broken out in my office among the younger elements. I generally stayed clear of politics but on that occasion, because I felt things might get a bit heated, I put my oar in. One of the young men, a more vociferous, belligerent and forthright participant, and one who had only just joined us and did not know me very well, listened to what I had to say for a few seconds and then interrupted. ‘What do you know about the Irish situation, you’re English.’ For a moment there was what is called, in novels, a pregnant silence, the others, like me, were taken aback with the virulence of the attack. “How old would you say you were when you became politically aware?’ I asked. He thought for a second and then said twelve was about right. I was sceptical, but any figure would have done. ‘Right,’ I said, ‘That means you have been politically aware for twelve years, but you reckon you have a good grasp of Irish politics.’ I did not wait for his reply but ploughed on. I did notice a gleam of amusement in some of the eyes of the others present, they could see where I was leading. I continued, ‘I have lived here as an adult for thirty-four years.’ I had made my point and although it was seen to be reasonable to some of those present, I am equally sure there were others, including the young man, front and centre, who instinctively believed that Irish politics came down through the generations, in their genes.