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Brexit travel: What it's like to visit Ireland for the first time with an Irish passport

Joining the hordes of Brits reclaiming their Irish heritage to bag an EU passport ahead of Brexit, Melissa Twigg visits the land of her forefathers for the first time

Melissa Twigg
Wednesday 29 November 2017 09:21 GMT
Will Ireland feel like a homecoming or just another country?
Will Ireland feel like a homecoming or just another country? (Getty/iStock)

“Where do you come from?” A simple question we have all been asked a hundred times, but one that makes me hesitate.

Born in South Africa and brought up in London, I spent half of my twenties living in Paris, desperately trying to pass myself off as French. So when my personal identity crisis met the national identity crisis that was Brexit, I got down on my knees to thank my Irish-born grandfather for allowing me to keep my European citizenship.

But there was one problem. I’ve spent years working as a travel journalist, but until last month I had never set foot in the home of my great-grandparents. And I felt uneasy about being the citizen of a country I had never been to, with no emotional right to my Brexit-beating passport.

I can’t be alone. The day after Brexit, the Irish embassy in London ran out of citizenship application forms. In the year since the referendum, 100,000 British people have already been issued with an Irish passport, and according to the BBC, Ireland’s unusually relaxed citizenship laws mean 6.7 million people in the UK who don’t currently have an Irish passport could be entitled to one.

So how do the locals feel about all these Brits flocking to claim their Irish heritage? In a country of fewer than five million people, are they worried they might be overwhelmed by moaning Remainers?

And on a more personal note, how will these newly minted citizens fit into the great Irish diaspora? Does being officially Irish make you intrinsically Irish? Would James Joyce become magically intelligible? Would Guinness taste particularly delicious? Would we all start supporting Ireland in rugby, peppering our conversation with the word “grand” and giving our children multi-vowelled names?

Armed with my brand new harp-embossed passport, I boarded a Ryanair flight at Gatwick ready to find the answers to my questions.

First up: immigration. We’ve all watched those American films where the protagonist is meaningfully told, “Welcome home” at JFK or LAX. Having never experienced this moment of intimacy at Heathrow, I was excited about the prospect of it happening in Ireland. But no – nothing.

Next, the taxi into Dublin. “I’m actually Irish,” I trilled in my West London accent to a wonderfully friendly driver who was trying to mask how bored he was by that statement. “Oh, grand,” he replied. “But that’s what everyone says.”

Dublin is full of tourists discovering their Irish ‘heritage’ (Getty/iStock) (Getty)

I was staying at Buswells Hotel near St Stephen’s Green and within minutes of checking in, I got his point. The lobby was heaving with Americans, jauntily dressed in green and on the hunt for a meaningful moment in the Auld Country. I could spot a few Australians and Canadians milling about, but where were all the Brits?

Squeezing myself past a couple of emerald-clad Texans, I decided to escape the tour groups of the city centre and cross the Liffey. Hoping that the key to understanding the complex nature of nationality, not to mention the tumultuous relationship between the British and the Irish, might lie in Ireland’s famous literary canon, I went to the Dublin Writers Museum.

Throughout the exhibition there are references to the fact that the greatest weapon the English ever gave the Irish was their own language – and how the language of the invader fuelled the literature of the subversive. And while it is impossible not to side with the Irish while reading these texts, I was still unsure as to whether I was one of the plucky oppressed or the cruel oppressors.

No wiser after a turn around the awe-inspiring Trinity College library, I went to the Little Museum of Dublin, which was utterly delightful. Housed in a Georgian building overlooking Stephen’s Green, the collection of 5,000 pieces is on loan from the public, with quirky exhibits ranging from U2 memorabilia to James Joyce’s death mask and a set of bullets given to Ben Dunne by his IRA kidnappers.

Melissa Twigg discovers Connemara (Melissa Twigg)

Despite its darker elements, the entire exhibition is imbued with an irreverent sense of humour that I suspect belongs to Trevor White, the director of the museum, who I later chatted to.

“If I were an English person who had acquired an Irish passport, even 24 hours in Dublin would be enough to prove that there is a huge shared heritage,” he reassured me. “You cannot begin to consider the history of Dublin without acknowledging the depth of connections between Ireland and Britain. Dublin was an English city for 500 out of 800 years. It was built by the English and the links for good and ill are very, very deep. The Irish are fond of complaining about the English – what did they give us, after all? Oh, just the language we speak, the parliamentary system, Joanna Lumley and Marks & Spencer.”

And did he think his countrymen would welcome us Brexit refugees with open arms?

“Of course,” he laughed. “Irish people would admire the skullduggery of it all. And given our own experience with emigration, we have an obligation to be welcoming.”

To put his theory to the test, I went to Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, a pub that has been open continuously since 1782. And while the sticky wooden floors have clearly soaked up centuries worth of spilled Guinness, and my head kept hitting the lethal ceiling beams, it did feel wonderfully authentic. Which is exactly the sort of thing a green-clad American would think.

Armed with a glass of the black stuff, I asked a few locals how they feel about this passport malarkey. “Everyone is welcome here, so long as they aren’t a bother and always get a round in. God knows you’ve all had enough Irish people over the years,” said one woman.

“Oh, it’s no big deal. Sure, it’s a bit fake, but then the English have always been fake,” added a man. “If it helps you feel better about the Brexit mess, then why not?” said another.

Feeling comfortable with my place in Dublin, I decided to take another piece of White’s advice and travel west to Galway, in search of the famously untamed Ireland where my great-grandmother was born.

And in Connemara, the westernmost tip of Western Europe, I found a fairytale landscape of jutting crags, jet black lakes and treacherous bogs, all of which are immeasurably softened by the gentle sun and the banks of wild purple flowers that frame the winding rivers and pebble paths.

I stayed at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel. Described as Ireland’s most poetic hotel, it must have been designed to quicken the hearts of foreigners hoping to be enamoured by Ireland. And the story of Ballynahinch is eccentrically Irish to the core. The old castle was built in the 14th century by the ruling O’Flaherty clan and Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught, and it has been fought over for centuries by a cast of characters that includes a parliamentarian nicknamed Hair-Trigger Dick and an Indian maharaja.

I spent my second day there with Jonathan Broderick, a charming local fisherman-turned-guide with whom I rowed across lakes, scrambled over gorse and dodged invisible bogs; and to whom I lost my fishing virginity.

Melissa gets her feet on Irish soil for the first time (Melissa Twigg)

And standing with my toes in the black water of the river, listening to his lilting voice telling me the tale of Grace O’Malley’s wild ways, salty air whipping my hair around my face, I was struck by the loveliness of the moment. But as a writer, I had been to extraordinary places all over the world – was this any different? I kept waiting to have an emotional epiphany now I was officially Irish. But it never quite came.

Because while Ireland and its people had undoubtedly got under my skin, I still looked at it with the perspective of an enamoured tourist, rather than with the protective, possessive and very personal eye we use for the countries we care fiercely about. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. Our reaction to places is not dissimilar to our relationship with people – and being the grateful owner of a harp-embossed passport didn’t mean I could fall in love on the first date.

But could I develop a bit of a blush-inducing crush on Ireland after just one trip? Apparently so.

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