On being someone else
Walking across the playground, a group of First Year students were returning from their break.
“Are you from England, sir.”
“I am,” I said.
“Are you really?”
Why is it so hard to convince people?
Holding a British passport, being a monoglot English speaker, having only attended schools in England: to someone who probed, it would hard to maintain the pretence of an Irish identity, (anyway, all anyone would have to do would be to type my name into Google and check the full story), but people make assumptions.
Re-invention of oneself often seems not so much a question of the identity that one assumes, as the identity that is assigned to one by others.
I recall a meeting in London back in the Noughties with a friend who seemed to have achieved re-invention on the basis of assumptions.
From growing up with an unpromising future; serving as an ordinary squaddie in the British army; then working in a string of manual jobs; he began a transformation. Workman’s clothes were replaced by slick suits; factory floors by an office in Mayfair; sandwiches in a lunchbox by expense account lunches with clients; package holidays by trips to India or Peru; hatchback car by classic Mercedes; fun for him was riding his Ducati 999 motorcycle out for a day from his Surrey home or drinking in a wine bar on the Embankment.
Over a glass one day, in my accent which tended to pass as soft Ulster to the ears of those who did not ask, I asked him, “You don’t actually tell people that our school was a public school, do you?”
“Of course not,” he said, “it’s just that when I talk to them at the club, they make assumptions.”
It seemed reasonable.
If you meet someone with a sharp Home Counties accent, in a gentlemen’s club in London, who talks about days at a boarding school, you tend to make a string of assumptions.
Of course, when the re-invention is challenged the immediate response is to hold up one’s hands to the truth, otherwise one might find oneself in the situation of Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s information minister.
Bracken re-invented himself as an Anglo-Irish public schoolboy. In fact, he had attended O’Connell School, the Christian Brothers School on North Richmond Street in Dublin’s north inner city. Among the pupils at the school were Emmet Dalton and Sean Lemass.
Upon meeting Dalton in London in 1941, Bracken pretended not to know him.
Emmet Dalton was blunt in exploding Bracken’s new persona, “If you don’t remember me Brendan, I bloody remember you and those corduroy trousers which you wore day in day out until you stank to high heaven. The smell is not out of my nostrils yet.”
Brendan Bracken must have spent years fearing being found out.
If re-invention is to take place, it’s much safer to let others do the re-inventing, then, if necessary, to point out their mistake.
Given what was going on in the schools, and him without a father to give even a modicum of cover I wouldn’t be surprised if his reinvention stemmed from hellish encounters with brothers and priests. And frankly if that occurred its little wonder his view of Ireland would be unforgiving.
What seems odd is that he didn’t recognize Dalton as a fellow reinventor and take his hand in acknowledgement of their shared past.
But the connection usually used to hang a hat on him is his GAA founding father. And that I feel may just be a bit too thin, since he died when Brendan was a baby. I think his mothers connections are discounted. Remember he was far from the only Irish person at the heart of the Tory party, through business connections.