My seven-year-old daughter tried to “do” me the other day. “That’s how you talk, isn’t it, Mummy?” she said, all proud and punchy after imitating my accent. She did a fair job too, despite her own distinctly English tones. Her cheekiness got me thinking about roots and identity and what it all means now that I am so grown up I am growing down. I was born in London to Irish parents. We moved home to County Galway when I was about three. The next 17 years were Angela’s Ashes-lite. My childhood was ordinary but it seems the stuff of history books now.
We were seven children in a bungalow surrounded by fields of sinister cows and hawthorn bushes that rustled with robins. In the evenings, we lit turf fires, said the Rosary and watched an hour of telly. We were taught by nuns, we walked to school or, if it was raining, we watched from the sitting room window and when we saw a car coming down the hill, we rushed out to the gate. The driver would have to give us a lift. We walked for hours along the river; played camogie in lumpy fields mined with cow dung, moved cows from one stamp-sized field to another and went to the bog to make mini-wigwams out of drying sods.
I left when I was 19. First to London, then Madrid, London again and then Paris, where I married an Englishman. At the civil wedding service, a self-conscious Parisian official butchered my name. “Je l’ai dit correctement?” she said anxiously. I nodded. I was used to strange pronunciations by then. Already, I was drifting: my Irish was failing, my French pout was improving, and my centre of gravity was shifting. A year later, we moved to the Ivory Coast and I discovered heat, snakes, child rebels with small bodies and big guns, sweaty bars, gunshots, fear and adrenaline. Next stop: Senegal, where our eldest daughter was born.
During her first year, I spoke Irish to her, our housekeeper spoke French and a little Wolof, and my husband spoke English. Her world was so big, bigger than I could ever have imagined as I grew up listening to Radio Na Gaeltachta in the days when it wouldn’t play pop songs in English. I took my first flight when I was 16. My daughter flew from Dakar to Ireland at three months to be baptized in the same stone church where I was confirmed. After Senegal, we moved back to London where our second daughter was born.
Three years later, we moved to Kenya. And this is probably where I will turn 40 next year, in a low-slung house in a Wisteria Lane-like compound where chameleons thud dully off trees and the swish of the Sacred Ibis flying home to the lake ushers in the end of every day. Our daughters now only speak English, and a little Kiswahili. But a few words from our eldest’s first year have survived: the sitting room is the seomra suite; they get to watch an hour of teilifis in the evening; they have laboriously learnt how to say go raibh maith agat (giggling madly throughout).
On Saint Patrick’s Day, I pin the badges that my mother sends on their school uniforms and tie green-white-and-gold ribbons in their hair. I sing “Dochas Linn Naomh Padraig” (thank heavens for Google). We read Irish legends at bedtime, my husband gamely trying to get the names right and our daughters raising their eyebrows quizzically and looking to me for confirmation.
We go home to Ireland regularly. Last Christmas, we stomped across an ice-covered beach and watched glass-like splinters floating in the sea. This Snow Queen-world was as alien to me as it was to them. They were delighted to see donkeys and chickens – these globalized girls who are almost blasé when they see giraffe and zebra and will only really come alive if our game drives deliver a Big Cat.
My life is not unique. But it is to me. Every day I have a moment of wide-eyed wonder at how I ended up sitting in a shady garden in Nairobi, watching Hadeda Ibis stick their curved beaks deep into the ground. Sometimes, I wonder what my girls will say when they are asked, “Where are you from?” They will not say Ireland. They might say, “My mother is Irish”. Sometimes, this makes me sad. But how exciting for them.