The Irish Person Thing

by Kieran Healy on April 5, 2006

For some reason someone thought this clip from _Rachel’s Holiday_ by Marian Keyes was something Henry and I should read. I can’t imagine why.

And although we didn’t want to … we traipsed over behind him. Where we had to do the Irish person meets other Irish person abroad thing. Which involved first of all pretending that we hadn’t realized the other was Irish. Then we had to discover that we had been brought up two minutes’ walk from each other, or that we’d gone to the same school, or that we’d met on our summer holidays in Tramore when we were eleven, or that our mothers were each other’s bridesmaids, or that his older brother had gone our with my older sister, or that when our dog got lost his family found it and brought it back.

I’m sorry to say this sort of thing happens all the time. For some reason — possibly due to the combination of a small base population, large extended families, general nosiness, and the propensity to talk the leg off a donkey — Irish people are appallingly good at uncovering the normally invisible web of latent network connections that surround us. Out at Langley, teams of NSA analysts are using the most sophisticated computing technology to dredge through terabytes of data using fast homomorphic reductions, Markov graph regressions and Galois lattices in an effort to do what your typical Irish Mammy accomplishes by asking you two or three questions, taking a sip of tea and saying something like “Oh are you related to [your Aunt or Uncle’s name here] then?”

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Tracy W 04.05.06 at 10:19 pm

Kiwis do it too when we’re overseas. It’s the small population base that does it.

It was weird to me when I introduced two Brits both visiting NZ and they didn’t do that dance. Difference between 4 million people and 50 million.


P O'Neill 04.05.06 at 10:21 pm

er … not to be the smart alec that one’s granny might have warned you about, isn’t the NSA in Maryland? Also, thank God that they recommended a passage from Marian Keyes and not Cecelia Ahern.


CNN 04.05.06 at 10:26 pm

Henry Farrell, author of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and other melodramatic thrillers that spurred a genre of psychological horror movies featuring female protagonists, has died. He was 85.


Kieran Healy 04.05.06 at 10:32 pm

isn’t the NSA in Maryland

The NSA is everywhere, o’neill. It’s in your house right now.


nameless 04.05.06 at 11:50 pm

It may even work the other way around: I chose the college I went to in part because I ran into someone who was a student there whom I had met when we were both tourists in Ireland the year before.


Western Dave 04.05.06 at 11:58 pm

My people call it “Jewish Geography.”


Pommie Barsteward 04.06.06 at 1:25 am

This is nothing to do with the Irish, the Brits, the Kiwis or anyone else. It’s a personality trait. Some ex-pats will cluster together in tight little groups whilst others will steer well clear of their compatriots. This is likely to be the reason they left their home soil in the first place.


Ray 04.06.06 at 3:03 am

Which reminds me of the thing about hobbits, that whenever they met a strange hobbit they’d sit down for an hour or two and work out exactly how they were related…


Doug 04.06.06 at 3:04 am

Southerners do it, too. Or did, at least, until all those Yankees moved south.


Daniel 04.06.06 at 4:00 am

Out at Langley, teams of NSA analysts are using the most sophisticated computing technology to dredge through terabytes of data using fast homomorphic reductions, Markov graph regressions and Galois lattices to do what your typical Irish Mammy accomplishes by asking you two or three questions, taking a sip of tea and saying something like “Oh are you related to [your Aunt or Uncle’s name here] then?

… or to do what the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad used to be able to achieve without gathering any evidence at all!


Bill Gardner 04.06.06 at 5:54 am

My parents were both Utahns. Utah may be as insular, in its own way, as Ireland or NZ. Moreover, because of some… uh… interesting marital customs, the chance that you are related is pretty high.


John Isbell 04.06.06 at 7:14 am

Something similar happened to me. I told an Irishman in Indiana that I was wearing my Scottish clan tartan, and he said “My clan stole sheep from your clan.”


The Modesto Kid 04.06.06 at 7:27 am

I do a similar thing when I meet people who have background or situation in common with me. More “do you know…” rather than “Are you related to…” It works surprisingly frequently.


David L 04.06.06 at 7:51 am

Another Irish (Indeed International) Custom that I used to adhere to in my younger days was to ingest about 50+ little mushrooms that grow in the fields here in Autumn with a bunch of friends, wait 30 mins….close my eyes..and lo and behold…I realised that everyone, everywhere is ‘related’somehow or other.These ‘inner-journeys ‘inevitably ended up with me travelling (in my minds eye)having traversed through scenes of all life imaginable, back to a scene on earth with little little single-cell organism moving around, and me greeting them with a ‘hello little brothers’…quickly followed by my Folks entering the room, turning on the lights and saying ‘turn that goddamn music down, and why are you drooling??’- Greetings from Dublin,Ireland and hello to Johhny Mc Allister who sent me the delightful link to this site-Keep on keepin’ on!


mcg 04.06.06 at 8:41 am

hilarious…and nsa is on ft. meade, maryland. for the record, i’m from fort meade, and whenever two of us get in a room we always talk about the people we know in common.


SamChevre 04.06.06 at 8:43 am

I grew up in the Amish-Mennonite world–we do the same thing. Shortly before we were engaged, my girlfriend and I visited a church that’s somewhat Mennonite, where I knew the name of one person (the one who’d given me directions). I told her to watch and see–there would be people who knew me. As it turned out, there were a half-dozen people who knew me or my family.


LizardBreath 04.06.06 at 8:59 am

Samoans are incredible at this. When I was living there, I’d meet someone new and thirty seconds later, after they’d placed me, they’d be telling me stories about what their cousin Luatasi thought of my math class. I still treasure the memory of one time in a bar when I placed someone before he placed me (he’d mentioned that his family was Mormon, and that he had relatives in a particular village) and I got to ask him, casually, how the wedding-cake business was going. (Of course, the mere fact that I was able to figure that out meant that he had me figured out thirty seconds later, but I still got there first.)


Steve LaBonne 04.06.06 at 9:46 am

My ex-wife is a Parsi from Bombay. Now THERE’s a tiny population. They have these conversations all the time, especially since so many of them went to one or another of a relative handful of private schools. Also sometimes I’m tempted to think they’re all actually cousins of one degree or another.


nick s 04.06.06 at 9:48 am

This is somewhat related to the handshake thread, but in both Ireland and NZ, it’s more likely to have a ‘famous/notable someone’ as a friend or in the family, and that creates obvious points of contact. It’s the ‘incestuous small countries’ thing: Estonia has its MPs, TV presenters, head-of-the-central-bank, etc, but only a million or so adults to fill those posts.

In the UK, it happens on a town/locality level, especially if you’re from a part of the country with relatively low population mobility, and several generations of family history. My late grandma seemed to know stories about most people in my town with at least two generations’ history there.


Tim 04.06.06 at 10:30 am

My people say, “You’re from Jersey, too? What exit?”

But when my grandfather went to Ireland, a cousin of ours recognized him just because he looked like his father (who had left the country 50 years or so before).


marcel 04.06.06 at 11:18 am

daniel wrote:

… or to do what the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad used to be able to achieve without gathering any evidence at all!

Sounds like the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq! Or in a situation that is more simlar, like the decisions about interning so-called enemy combatants. Hope the results in the West Midlands are better!


aimai 04.06.06 at 12:38 pm

What, no Jews are represented here? This is called “Jewish Geography” or “Jewish Geneaology” and there are some famous versions published in books including a long silent rumination by a man travelling on a train in russia who sees another jew get on and figures out through a process of highly ramified connections exactly who and what this person must be, where he is going, and why without ever talking to him at all.

And my cousin (aged 18 at the time) once recognized a relative from the old country (aged 65 at the time) whose family had gotten off the boat accidentally in england, were still bitter about it, and set up a bookstore in Cambridge england. She walked into his shop and realized he looked exactly like my father and traced the connection to a village in the Ukraine that had emptied out in the 1890’s, some going to england and most to america.



Tracy W 04.06.06 at 4:32 pm

Comment 8 – this does not depend on whether you try to keep close to ex-pats. It has happened to me while I am trying to steer clear of other ex-pats. We went to the UK. We deliberately did not live in London or Edinburgh. I was walking along a street in Chester and was tapped on the back by a member of the other Kiwi family in Chester (her brother was doing the same uni course as my now-sister-in-law.)

Short of shooting your fellow compatriots the moment they identify themselves, there’s not much you can do about it, whether you want to avoid other ex-pats or not.


mdhatter 04.06.06 at 10:12 pm

remember, god invented whiskey to keep us from ruling the world.


Liz 04.06.06 at 11:02 pm

There was a lovely programme on This American Life years ago about Canadians, and the 15-second (I think) rule: if you mention Jim Carrey, or Michael J. Fox, or Pamela Anderson, or any other famous person with a Canadian background to a Canadian, there’s a 15-second window in which they’re almost bound to say ‘he/she/it’s Canadian, you know.’

Speaking as a Kiwi, it applies to us too, especially when there’s confusion about whether a person is from NZ or Australia. Except for Russell Crowe–we’re happy for him to be an Australian.


derrida derider 04.07.06 at 1:13 am

liz, please, take that a**hole back. We’ve had enough of him this side of the ditch.


Phoenician in a time of Romans 04.07.06 at 1:34 am

Actually, with Russell Crowe, New Zealanders have adopted a sophisticated protocol wherein, should he be mentioned in conjunction with some award or in a list of the ten sexiest actors, this will be met with “Grew up in Aotearoa, you know.”, and should he be mentioned in conjunction with some fight or bar brawl, will be met with “Bloody Aussie Wanker”.

Shagging Meg Ryan gets notched up in the “Kiwi” category, of course.


Pat 04.07.06 at 10:42 pm

An Irishman living in New York sits next to another Irishman at a bar. He turns to the man next to him and says, “Are you having a good evening?”

The second says, “Why yes I am indeed. Would you be Irish, then?”

“Faith, that I am,” says the first, “A proud son of County Galway.”

“County Galway!” says the second, “That’s where I’m from. What town do you come from?”

“Loughrea,” says the first, “And a finer town cannot be found in all of Ireland.”

“Ah, Loughrea,” says the second, “A fine town and the place where I was born. Tell me, did you go to school there?”

“Why yes, I did. I began school in 1961 in Loughrea.”

“Faith, so did I. Did you go to St. Bridget’s or St. Patrick’s?”

“Sure, the nuns at St. Patrick’s taught me right from wrong.”

“Ah, they were fine women, those nuns, none finer in all of Ireland.”

Meanwhile, at waiter comes up to the bar. As he puts his order up, the bartender says to him, “It’s going to be a long night.”

The waiter says, “Why do you say that?”

The bartender replies, “The Murphy twins are drunk already.”

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