One of my earliest memories was catching a ride on horse drawn cart down St Patrick St with my cousins. The cart made deliveries around town. Oil crises had made it wise to retain it then. We would be on our way to get the paper for Grandad. Sometimes we had money for an ice-pop. We used it to buy Kalkitos. This was a mini artists kit where one could transfer little premade images onto a colourful background by rubbing hard with a pencil or a pen. We spent hours at it and were convinced that it was a Greek invention on account of the name and that Greece had just joined the EEC. This is what we were told, eight years after Ireland joined the EEC in 1973.
Every summer all the cousins would gather in a meitheal with uncles and neighbours to help save the hay in the window of a few days or a week of dry weather. Long days following a tractor flipping bales punctuated with hang sangwidges and forty-ounce whiskey bottles of tea. The older men would talk about prices and politics. I could never really follow except that the EEC was a good thing for prices. On the telly and radio at the time another farmer and noted economist by the name of Crotty was always campaigning against the integration and extension of the EEC. He felt that Ireland would lose identity in a super state with former colonial powers. He always failed but not without trying. He made us think hard about what was otherwise boring for many.
After the Iberian extension of the EEC, Spanish students started to come to learn English, but it was too late as we had moved on to more mechanised methods of farming. They would probably not have been up to the work anyway. Not because they were Spanish but because they were city kids. We didn’t have much time for city kids.
Our town became twinned with a town of about the same size outside Paris. It was a twinning of apples and pears. We had very little in common but there were many exchanges and plenty of us became handy with the French language.
During my university times in Dublin, Yugoslavia was falling apart, and I shared a flat with two students from Serbia who did not want to get conscripted for the war in Bosnia. They professed to hate Albanians for some reason I could not fathom. I could also not understand why Europe stood by and did nothing to stop the conflicts in Yugoslavia, leaving it to the US to step in and sort it out. The same happened with the US in Northern Ireland albeit the fact that both Ireland and Britain were in the EU went a long way to smoothening the transition to peace.
By the time the Nordic expansion came (taking Austria with it), I was living over in Belgium. I met an Austrian called Bertl who told me about the terrible things the Soviets did in their villages during the brief time they were in Austria. He couldn’t explain to me why or tell me what went on before.
A few years later my little daughter observed as I put together a shelf from IKEA. I battered my thumb with a hammer, provoking an owafuck to emerge from my mouth. She wandered off and when asked by her mother where dada was, explained: er arbeitet am owafuck-shelf.
There was a pile of work coming through the door of the law firm I was employed in around then too. All to do with getting the next group (all ten of them) of countries from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe ready for adherence to the EU. To make all their laws comply with the acquis communataire we took templates, trimmed them here and there before they were put through the legislative hoppers of the different countries where some were changed drastically and others not at all. Identity was not the largest issue for those countries at that time. Since then, they have been spending a lot of effort straightening things out, like when you get an off the shelf outfit – some bits you have tailored, others you grow into. The result is that some countries to the east have put their people into straitjackets which were not in the original EU wardrobe. One hopes that they will outgrow them over time and get a better fitting suit.
Every year we go on holidays to Croatia, the most recent country to join the EU. Croatia will have the euro already next January. This year we will be bringing the three Ukrainian teenagers that live with us in Belgium on holiday to Croatia. They have never said that they hate the Russians. They just want the invaders to leave so that they can go home.
As for identity, I was born the day after Ireland joined the EU on the 1st January 1973. I have lived more than half my life outside of Ireland yet I will always be Irish. I will always be European too. Our kids call themselves TCKs or Third Culture Kids – half Irish, half German, full European.
In Europe it is our great freedom and privilege to have one or more identities and to have strong and free debate on all political matters that impact our daily lives. We must never forget this.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.
James’s words clearly express what it means to be European in 2022. While countries have joined the EU family at various times over the decades, I find James’s message of providing an equal welcome to those inside the EU or to those who remain outside the family as true “meitheal”.