Over one week at the end of May I got the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be a country, nominally at least. The @ireland Twitter account was set up by WorldIrish.com in March last year. It’s modelled on the @sweden account which has a different Swedish person curating the account each week, sharing their lives and their views to give a kaleidoscopic view of the people and ideas that go to make up a country. There are quite a few of these accounts now. Towns and cities all over the world have cottoned onto the fact that this format plays very well with public and commentators alike. It’s a low cost way to get the word out there about how cosmopolitan a place you are, how gorgeous the scenery is and how achingly cool your people are and lets face it, stuff like this is what Twitter was made for.
When my turn came up, to be honest, the gloss had gone off Twitter a little. I joined around the same time I set up this blog, and set up my Facebook page, back when my first book needed selling. I stayed when I stopped seeing it as a pressurised shop floor and simply as very, very large room full of people talking, rather like a massive party with no beginning and no end. After a while I realised that scattered through the crowds were the kind of people you end up having very interesting conversations with in the kitchen at a party like that. Like the song says, you really will always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lately though I’ve started looking around for my coat. I’ve already swapped phone numbers with the people I was talking to in the kitchen and a bus load of noisy new people have arrived just as the beer’s running low. Or something. Party analogies aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve been my normal, chatty, opinionated self on Twitter. Until I got to be a country.
I started bright and early on the Monday morning. I think the first thing I talked about was actually the weather. Within minutes I realised the difference between tweeting to a couple of thousand followers and tweeting to over 15 thousand.
There’s a lot more people.
I use Twitter mainly through my phone and it wasn’t long before the bloody thing was chirruping and vibrating as if it was trying to hatch. Conversations rattled by at breakneck speed and I soon realised that with this audience you couldn’t get away with casual throw away comments. People actually wanted to know what you had to say, then often contradict it. On my second morning I glibly mentioned that it was a grey day in Dublin and within seconds had half a dozen replies telling me they were looking at the sun right now.
I’ve been doing this author thing for almost five years now. I’ve done live appearances – those wonderful events when you look out into the audience and realise you’ve got the phone numbers of half the people there in your phone contacts and the other half have come to see the other people on the panel. Having that many people actually looking straight at you and waiting to see what you do next (even if they are online) is a bit of a culture shock!
I knew when I started my week that I didn’t want to pull my punches. I’ve grown more political as I’ve got older and less inclined to keep my opinions to myself. I’m frustrated on a daily basis by the conservatism in this little country and I didn’t want to shy away from that if it came up. To be fair I didn’t always wait to see if it came up. Equality matters to me and there’s far too much stuff in the news at the moment not to come back to the subject again and again.
So we ended up talking about religion, or rather my lack of it, feminism (no surprise there), racism, abortion and spirituality. The two subjects that kept coming back were the way society views women and the way Irish society can sometimes be a little less than the land of a thousand welcomes if you’re different. With both these subjects the thing that really hit home was the number of responses I got from people telling me it wasn’t a problem. I’m a reasonable woman. I’d much rather spend my time talking about books or old films and TV. It these things weren’t a problem, believe me, I wouldn’t keep banging on about them. As a woman in today’s society I think there’s still a long way to go before we gain a real, lasting form of equality. Too many women are treated purely as sexual objects or worse, lesser human beings, across the world not to be worried and angry about the fact that this persists even though, as a species we should surely have copped on by now.
It’s the same with the racism issue. When I started tweeting about the subject under the @ireland account it was in response to the racial attack on journalist Una Kavanagh. Una works of WorldIrish.com and manages the @ireland account so naturally I shared her initial tweets and commented. While the bulk of the response was the generous, warm, outraged response I’d expect from the Ireland I know and love there were a significant number of people who took exception with me tweeting about the incident from the account, since “Ireland doesn’t have a problem with racism”. This is a myth I’ve heard many times over the years and yet when I spoke to my non Irish friends during the week, everyone had their own story. A problem doesn’t have to be all engulfing to be a problem. It just has to be persistent and widespread, and like it or not racism is a form of bigotry that’s persistent and widespread in this country. When someone’s attacking you because of the colour of your skin or your accent you don’t stop to reassure yourself that this person is the exception. You might think that later but not immediately. Coming out of this conversation I found myself sharing my own experiences of xenophobia in Ireland for the first time online. A fair few people responded with similar stories, enough that it really brought home to me how important it is that this issue is talked about as often as possible. It needs to be stamped out, not ignored.
As important as it might have been to talk about racism the conversation I think I enjoyed most was on the Sunday, my last day. I’d been watching a documentary about Emily Wilding Davison to mark the centenary of her death after falling under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. I asked where were the monuments to the many extraordinary Irish women who’ve inspired over the years? Where were the heroine’s for young Irish feminists. Throwing that out there started a stream of suggestions. The conversation rumbled on for much of the day, throwing up many very inspiration names and stories. What did become clear though was that, in terms of public memorials, either statues or plaques, women are vastly under represented here. By the end of the day it was difficult not to see Constance Markievicz as almost an example of tokenism, being celebrated almost to the exclusion of all others. It was notable how hard everyone was racking their brains and how few names it was throwing up. It was a fact remarked upon by several Tweeters that the majority of women who appear in statues around Ireland are fictitious or mythological. This is something else that I’ve taken away. We need to do something to change that status quo, these things send powerful messages.
Of course it wasn’t all contentious. I talked to a lot of people about Sci-Fi – and even tweeted about my beloved dystopias, although I didn’t get to be a geeky as I’d like. I also had a great chat about nail polish, which involved my first ever picture of a manicure. I’ll be doing “selfies” next! I also got to be severely nerdy about the Four Courts and criminal Dublin. Right down my alley.
What I can take away from the week is a renewed appreciation of Twitter. I hadn’t realised how unique one of these country accounts is. At the risk of coming over all philosophical, they put you in an unusual position. You deal with the expectations of the world about a country that’s an expert at mythologizing itself. You deal with the nostalgia and protective homesickness of the Diaspora who are watching for a taste from home. You deal with the manic salesmanship of some of the country and the sharp-tongued cynicism of the rest. It’s an intense experience. A previous @ireland tweeter described it to me as like being plugged into the Matrix. I know exactly what he means. It can feel quite profound, if it’s late enough and you’re tired enough and it’s been a very long day. It’s addictive and it’s illuminating. Talking about racism, which eventually developed into a conversation about national identity, I thought about my own national identity. I’ve known for a long time that that while I can’t ignore my Englishness, I’ll always be a Londoner, I’m as Irish as they come now too. I can’t remember the point where I stopped feeling like a visitor. My nationality was remarked on to such an extent it was constantly underling the fact I didn’t belong. But at some point I accepted my place here. I don’t know if I’ll stay for ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop giving out about all the things that make me hop up onto my soap box, but I know that Ireland is in my heart and I’ve now got two homes rather than none, as I might have thought a long time ago.
Quite a few people asked me was I mad, when I told them I was going to curate the @ireland account. They worried it would be too intrusive, that I’d be too exposed and yes, I see that. You learn very quickly with an account like that you can’t steer every conversation and they will take you where they will – which can be a little disquieting at times. But here on the other side, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I count myself lucky to have had. It’s renewed my affection for Twitter and once again confirmed a lot of the things I love about this country. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom have stuck around to continue those kitchen party chats. If I needed reminding that this social interaction 2.0 works better with total immersion I’ve got it now. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me. I’m glad to be back in my own little universe but I enjoyed the holiday and I’ve come back refreshed. If you’re curious to see exactly what happened you can see the tweets on my profile page on WorldIrish.com here.