Comment & Analysis
Oct 14, 2023

Learning the Language of an Irish Identity on Erasmus

"I would much rather be told that I drink too much and that I’m always late than hear people use highly political language in a seemingly trivial and tactless manner", writes Matthew Keeley.

Matthew KeeleyContributing Writer
Matthew Keeley for The University Times

It is sometime between 2am and 3am. The night is young, at least per the Spanish clock. I, however, am absolutely exhausted. I’m downstairs in a nightclub in Santiago de Compostela, my final destination after walking over a hundred kilometres of the Camino pilgrimage with the Vincent de Paul society. My friend and I are perched on barstools at the back of the club, watching incredulously as the locals continue to dance long into the early hours of the morning. A man walks in our direction, pulls up another stool and sits down beside us. “This is a bit bizarre,” I think. He’s an older guy, late twenties maybe, and seems to have had a fair bit to drink.  

“So, where are you guys from?” he asks in Spanish-accented English. I, a Spanish student ever keen to practise my embarrassingly poor grasp of the language, attempt to reply. “Somos de Irlanda,” I say. Our new acquaintance does not like this answer, not one bit. He shakes his head, gets up from his stool and walks away, only to turn around with an index finger pointed firmly in my direction. “I don’t like your country. It is a racist country”. I’m astonished. I’ve never received this kind of reaction to my nationality before. He continues, “So many Spanish people come to your country to work, and you treat us and the Portuguese like dogs”.  

That doesn’t sound right, I think. There must be some sort of confusion. Then the cogs start to turn. I recall that Spanish people often confuse ‘Irlanda’ for ‘Holanda’, the word for the Netherlands. “No, no, no,” I reply as I try to rectify the misunderstanding. His whole demeanour changes instantly. A scowl morphs into a brimming smile as he embraces me in a bear hug. “Ireland!” he exclaims, “We are brothers! We are Celts!”.  


You see, Santiago de Compostela is located in a region of Spain called Galicia, an autonomous region with a strong Celtic identity. The people from this area are exceptionally proud of their heritage, a fact demonstrated by the pain I feel in my ribs once my new friend finally releases me.  

He runs away from us, disappearing to the other side of the bar before returning with a friend. This friend, however, is considerably more inebriated and stumbles over to us, clinging onto the other man’s shoulder so as not to fall flat on his face on the sticky club floor. The man seems to have informed his friend of our Irishness because as I begin to introduce myself, he leans into my ear and with drunken breath and slurs “Tiocfaidh ár lá.” 

Now, I’m sure this kind of encounter isn’t wholly unfamiliar to any other Irish person who has divulged their nationality abroad. But, since I began studying here in Spain, I’ve noticed that some Spanish people seem to be very familiar with Irish republican and nationalist language, particularly that which has an undertone of violence. On nights out, Spanish club-goers have replied with drunken cries of “Up the Ra!” and other similar chants in response to questions of my national identity. As these instances recurred I began to question it. Why do certain Spanish people seem to initially associate Ireland and Irishness with the fervent nationalism that characterised the sectarian violence of The Troubles? 

It is important to clarify that, in my understanding, this is far from the dominant perception of Ireland held by the Spanish population. I have had many charming interactions with Spaniards, each with varying degrees of awareness of Ireland’s existence, and many seemed to have positive connotations of our country. Some expressed to me their desire to visit, to which I often responded with ‘muy caro’ – very expensive. 

However, I have noticed that whenever my Irishness has been picked up on and associated with this kind of nationalism, more often than not the perpetrator is from one of Spain’s more prominent autonomous communities. Spain is one of the most federalised countries in the world. It is split up into 17 individual autonomous communities, each with differing degrees of self-determination. The foremost of these communities, namely Catalonia, the Basque Country and the aforementioned Galicia, all have long standing independence campaigns and an impassioned sense of national identity that is separate from Spain.  

After our initial interaction at the nightclub in Santiago de Compostela, the inebriated Galician man explained to me that the Republic of Ireland is celebrated by some Galician people as the sole example of a Celtic country that secured independence from its conquerors. This struck me as something that I had never thought about before as an Irishman. Consider Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia: all are Celtic regions with some level of autonomy, but none are independent. In a strange way, this man’s admiration for our country’s independence movement, albeit marred by his choice expression, filled me with a sense of national pride.  

This, unfortunately, cannot be said of all my encounters with those with a separatist inclination. At a music festival in Barcelona this summer, I wore a Spanish football jersey, thinking nothing of it. Oh, how foolish I was! I mostly received very little attention for the jersey throughout the day. In one instance, a girl in one of the crowds caught my eye, pointed at the jersey and waved her fist in the air in a seemingly affirmative manner.  

However, at one of the final sets of the night, a man came over and confronted me. “Why do you wear this jersey here, in Catalonia?” he asserted. I apologised, earnestly explaining that I meant no offence, but the man continued with his line of questioning. “Where are you from?” “Ireland”, I replied. “How would you feel if I wore an English jersey in your country?” I wouldn’t give a toss, I thought to myself, but something told me that this wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so I shrugged my shoulders instead and hoped that he would leave me alone. Thankfully, this response seemed to suffice, and the man forgave my transgressions. “It’s ok bro, I love the Irish. Up the ray!” he shouted as he slapped me on the back and walked away.  

As hilarious as it was hearing this Catalan man mispronouncing the Ra, the interaction still left an impression on me. As I consider all of these intermittent yet persistently impactful interactions, it seems, to me at least, that there are some in Spain that idolise Ireland and our independence movement. They view it as an honourable illustration of a small, subjugated people achieving sovereignty from a far more powerful empire. Perhaps they see parallels and similarities between our fight for autonomy and their own. As a result, these people use the words of the Irish independence movement freely and obliviously without considering the connotations between such language and violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Thus, rather than being a grotesque celebration of all the negative aspects of Irish nationalism, I believe that the Spanish use of this language is a misguided attempt to foster a mutual acknowledgement between their own independence movements and ours. 

Nevertheless, apart from these kinds of associations with Ireland, I have experienced many more stereotypes while living in this country, both from the Spanish and people of other nationalities. The cliché that the Irish are all heavy drinkers and borderline alcoholics is still commonly found, though it must be said that I have done little to defy this perception. My English roommate’s dad joked to us all one night about how “Irish time” is always half an hour behind, suggesting that the Irish are always late. This man’s name is Michael Murphy. 

So, although it is never nice to hear another person’s preconceived judgement of you and your nationality, I would much rather be told that I drink too much and that I’m always late than hear people use highly political language in a seemingly trivial and tactless manner. But then again, my truthful preference would be for Spanish people to immediately cry out ‘EVAN FERGUSON!’ when I mention that I’m Irish. I’ll hold my breath for a few years’ time when he’s banging in hat tricks every week for Real Madrid.

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