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Raising Irish children abroad: ‘They made me re-evaluate my own attitude to Ireland’

Reading stories made them curious about their Irish heritage, about which they knew little

How do you raise Irish children abroad?

Even though I’d lived in Belgium since leaving Cork in 2009, it was not a question I ever gave much thought to when either of my half-Irish daughters arrived – Noa, in 2014, and Zoey two years later.

I happily sorted out their Belgian birth certificates but didn’t get them Irish passports, and our trips to Ireland were sporadic, exhausted affairs whose only purpose was to demonstrate proof of life to grand-parents and great-grandparents.

I didn’t think of their Irishness, because I didn’t think of my own.


Growing up in suburban Cork in the 1990s, what seemed “Irish” to me (the GAA, Communion and Glenroe) wasn’t what I was – a child with divorced parents, an atheist dad who played hockey with his Protestant school friends and didn’t know who Miley Byrne was.

This estrangement curdled into teenage animosity and, when I left for Brussels in 2009, I was happy to be rid of the place.

Resentment cooled to indifference in subsequent years, even surviving a stint working for the Irish government, and it reached its peak when I watched Belgium beat Ireland in a Euro 2016 match in Bordeaux, sitting with Belgian fans, in a Belgian jersey.

Noa was two by then, looking for more stimulating reading than her felt-flap books could offer. We started with endless repeats of The Selfish Giant from an Oscar Wilde collection given to us by a friend when she was born. Then – I can’t remember how – a pocketbook of Irish legends turned up in the house, so we read that from cover to cover too.

Belgium doesn’t really have a “myths and legends” industry, so Oisín and Fionn and the Giant’s Causeway and The King with Donkey’s Ears had little local competition for her and her younger sister’s rapt attention.

More stories followed, about the púca, the brown bull of Cooley and children who were turned into swans. Family members sent books over in the annual Christmas package. Some, such as The Sleeping Giant, I’d loved as a child. Others, such as Peter Donnelly’s President series were new to me. After a while, I could read Nicola Colton’s A Dublin Fairytale with the book closed on my lap.

The trips back remained sporadic, but I’d always fit in resupply trips to Hodges Figgis. Reading these stories made them curious about their Irish heritage, about which they knew little. They’d ask me about fairy forts, why my name was spelt oddly, and why if you’re Irish shouldn’t you speak Irish and not English and whether they are actually two different languages.

I discovered another Ireland too, a northern one I’d ignored from far-off Cork, in the writing of Wendy Erskine, Jan Carson and Rachel Connolly

During lockdown I did manage to teach them to count to “fiche”, though I was embarrassed I knew little more of the language and felt guilty for denying them a connection with the country.

Seeing them engage with their Irishness through those books, without my baggage, was such a tonic I began to re-evaluate my own attitude to Ireland.

I’d find myself putting on Christy Moore albums I hadn’t heard since I was a kid, getting teary-eyed over the washing up listening to Smoke and Strong Whiskey.

After seeing Manchán Magan live, I tried to sign up for Irish classes. And I started reading Irish writers again. Lisa McInerney’s acerbic novels brought me back to Cork. I loved Rónán Hession’s quiet Dublin, and Colin Walsh’s Kala had me nostalgic for small-town teenage misdemeanours.

I recognised the parental anxieties of Emilie Pine and Lucy Caldwell. If I saw a book by an Irish writer in a Brussels bookshop, I’d pick it up, whatever the subject – on death by Ann Marie Hourihane, or sport by Eimear Ryan, Mark O’Connell on murder, or David Toms on walking.

I discovered another Ireland too, a northern one I’d ignored from far-off Cork, in the writing of Wendy Erskine, Jan Carson and Rachel Connolly.

I had fun tramping across Belfast on Google Maps with Michael Magee’s Close to Home as a guide. I’d always loved to read, and this became a way for me to re-engage with Ireland from a distance that was both physical and emotional. Here, in these books, was an Ireland with which I could identify, in a way I previously couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

As for the kids, their Hibernofication progresses fitfully. They still don’t have passports and they think spring begins in March. But they know Ireland are good at rugby and bad at football (for now), and have even seen An Fear Marbh in the flesh off the Dingle Peninsula. I’m looking forward to when they’re old enough so I can read them Marita Conlon-McKenna’s famine stories and Michael Scott’s folkloric fantasies.

There’s a line in Anne Enright’s latest novel, from a long-term Irish émigré: “Ireland . . . you can’t leave a place like that. It’s always with you.”

The growing to-read pile beside my bed, and theirs, suggests she’s on to something.

  • Eoghan Walsh was born in Dublin, but grew up in Cork. He left in 2008 after studying at the University of Limerick when he went to Maastricht to do an MA, and then to Brussels in 2009. He is a press officer for the European Parliament, focusing on development. He is also a beer writer and beer sommelier.
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