‘Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’.’ That’s what my writing colleague told me 20 years ago after I’d asked him to comment on a short story of mine – he thought the story was alright but made it clear that I’d spelt whiskey incorrectly. ‘That’s the Irish way,’ he said, in his broad, multi-generational Australian accent.
I too have Irish ancestry, though it dates back well over 200 years, so I took his point. And ever since, no matter what I’m working on, even a column for a newspaper, I make sure that whiskey has its ‘e’.
A couple of years before the writerly conversation with my colleague, I visited Ireland – I did the typical young Australian thing of chucking everything in, donning a borrowed backpack, and flitting off on adventures overseas. First I trained it across Canada in the North American mid-winter; I was told that it would look just like Tuggeranong – it didn’t. Then I flew over the Atlantic and landed in London; being someone who also has English ancestry, I was told that I’d definitely ‘feel something in Old Blighty’ – I didn’t. I caught the train to the top of Wales before riding the ferry across to Ireland.
Dublin. What a city. Eire in general. All the faces seemed so familiar, as though I could tap a random person on the shoulder and they’d turn around and say, ‘Ah Nigel, you’re home!’ Which is absurd: I’m as Irish as a glass of water. Still, I spent six weeks backpacking up the west coast, from Caherciveen to Inishboffin, which is like spending six weeks backpacking from Batemans Bay to Wollongong. But I loved every minute of it, despite the rain, and the insidious damp, and the pale light. The conversations. One in particular, with a village shopkeeper. She: ‘You have that Paul Keating as a prime minister.’ Me: ‘Yes, he’s a republican.’ She, deadpan: ‘And look at what republicanism’s done to Ireland.’
Regardless, when it was time to catch the ferry from Belfast to Scotland I had an Irish accent and now wore an emerald-green coat that made me look like a walking field. A fortnight later, when I made it back to London, I found myself even more in love with Ireland, and even more out of love with the UK.
Had I become radicalised?
If so, my radicalisation has only ever manifested itself in spelling.
Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 July 2013.)