“Son, could you pass me my wallet?” I rose from the seat in the barber’s shop and took down my father’s coat from where it hung.
“A good performance from the England football team, in the end,” said the barber. He looked at me and said, “you won’t have been pleased, though.”
“It’s the wrong shaped ball for him,” my father said.
It was easier to talk about last weekend’s rugby international matches than to try to explain to the barber that I had supported England football team since childhood and had gone through a period during student days when I had tried to attend every home match at Wembley, including fixtures against unglamorous teams from eastern Europe on cold nights in November.
Who else would I have supported? The shop in which we stood was in my home town. My family had lived and died in the neighbouring parish for four centuries.
It was odd that he recognised my father as local, yet identified me as Irish. More than that, though, he assumed that having lived in Ireland would foster a natural enmity toward a sporting team from England.
Perhaps his assumption was reasonable, anti-English sentiment is still common in most of Ireland. Jokes at the expense of the English were a frequent part of my experience. Occasionally, when I thought the line between humour and prejudice had been crossed, I would object that I was English and that the joke must, then, apply to me. More than once the response was, “Ah, Ian, you don’t count. Sure, you’re one of us.” Jokes at the expense of fellow countrymen made me feel very much that I was not one of them, to the point that I suggested at one point that if English jokes about the Irish were racist, then the reverse must also apply.
Who defines who is “one of us”? How is being “one of us” defined?
If birth determined who is one of us, then the Duke of Wellington was an Irishman, a notion that would have been rejected by Wellington himself and a notion firmly rebuffed by the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell, “No, he is not an Irishman. He was born in Ireland; but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”
To be considered one of us seems to depend on much more than where one was born. It seems to arise from a complex of factors, including heredity and family ties and culture and attitudes – and perhaps which sporting teams one supports.
Next time I go for a haircut, I am going to ask the barber to which side his family owed allegiance in the English Civil Wars. If he cannot tell me, I shall smile and suggest he is not really one of us, for local people know the side on which their forebears fought.