Reflections on Identity by Geraldine O’Reilly
I’ve just returned from a trip ‘back home’. Like many immigrants I have more than one place I call ‘home’; in my heart ‘home’ is Melbourne, Northern England and Ireland.
Ireland has its share of problems but is generally a happening place. Its people are enjoying liberties long denied; the religious divide I grew up with has all but disappeared (hopefully it won’t return in the wake of Brexit); it’s full of interesting places to go (including the Bloomsday activities which I attended in June); stories to hear (of which there are many); glorious countryside; and, in my case, nice relatives and friends to visit. And there was a great summer and a long, dry, warm autumn.
Actually I was born and reared in England, my
Irish father having ‘crossed the water’ to find work. It was a happy home and we spent all our school holidays in Ireland.
While in England, and at school, I spent many a year singing along to ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ with school friends and the ‘BBC Home Service for Schools’. But I guess I always knew that I was a ‘Paddy’ (and, supposedly, stupid, an alcoholic, and pugilistic).
So I was surprised when I arrived in Australia that I ceased to be a ‘Paddy’ and instead became a ‘whinging Pom’, a ‘Pommie bastard’. You might remember them – they were English, never happy with anything, moaned day and night, and always ran off and joined unions that were intent on destroying the economy. Luckily they seemed to die out when other ‘foreigners’ arrived.
Now, when I’m ‘back home’ I’m sometimes referred to as ‘that Australian girl’. As far as I can tell, that’s not as problematic as being a ‘Paddy’ or a ‘Pommie bastard’. The designation certainly doesn’t get up my nose as much as the other two identities. Apart from Monty Python calling all Australians ‘Bruce’ and assuming they exhibit a little less culture than your average English person, being Australian seems perfectly fine.
Still, I think these various descriptions of me have led me to think that one’s identity is determined by where one is, and by whom one is being described. It has little to do with how one actually perceives oneself to be.
I guess the good news is, in my case anyway, being a ‘Paddy’ and/or a ‘whingeing Pom’ (experiencing racism in other words) has made me sensitive to derogatory stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, religion and so on
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my lessons to learn; far from it. I too have had to unlearn many of my own prejudices.
I returned to Melbourne one day after Sisto Malispina, part-owner of Pelligrini’s, was murdered. And like many others, I was greatly shocked and deeply saddened by his death. Over many years of eating at Pelligrini’s, I watched Sisto watch over his customers. I marvelled at his capacity to acknowledge each customer as though they were his friend; I smiled to see how much this cravat-wearing identity was enjoyed by everyone; and I delighted in the change of attitudes towards immigrants (‘foreigners’) that Sisto’s popularity represented.
I first entered the café in late January–early February 1967 before the charismatic Sisto became part-owner. Although I was hungry, as a chips & chops type of a girl, I couldn’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to eat the smelly food on offer. But I was running late. I was going to the first demonstration I ever attended, against the impending execution of Ronald Ryan. With no time to explore, I settled for a gelato.
I remember complaining about it, to my friend, the whole way up to Parliament House in Spring St – it wasn’t proper ice cream was it?
My complaints were likely due to my ‘whingeing Pom’ identity – compelled as I was to moan. But perhaps, like those who now complain about the wearing of head coverings I was, without knowing it, defending Australia’s cultural heritage: doing my bit to defend Australia from gelato, from smelly food, and from the people who made them. I didn’t know any Italians at that time but I’d heard a bit about them. They were ‘Wogs’ weren’t they? And they were probably much worse than your average ‘Paddy’ or ‘whinging Pom’.
Luckily, I found my way back to Pelligrini’s. I’ve eaten there many times – my tastes having extended beyond chips and chops and my friendship group having expanded beyond ‘Paddys’ and ‘whinging Poms’.
I hope I have learnt from my experiences of racism. I’ve certainly benefited from leaving some of my own prejudices behind. I hope that by remembering that I was once a ‘Paddy’ and then a ‘whinging pom’, I am less likely to believe in some comparable negative stereotype imposed on others – such as those sometimes imposed on our more recently arrived immigrants. We’re all grown up now. Let us all enjoy the benefits of living in such a great multicultural country.
Geraldine’s mother was English and her father Irish. She grew up in England and continually returned ‘home’ as a child to the cottage in Cavan. When her father died unexpectedly, her mother migrated to Australia with her six children in 1965. She left school early to support the family but later graduated and taught Law for 20 years.