“Around here,” my uncle said, accentuating with a pause, in his thick, West Cork accent, “those are known as the ‘Feck Off Gates.'”
The Irish do have a way with words.
It was the day after a cousin’s wedding in Ireland, and I was at my uncle’s house (the father of the groom), watching a hurling match between Cork and Limerick. This was the all-Ireland semifinal, and since all of my father’s side of the family is from Cork County, all eyes were on the match. And since this was the groom’s family’s house and it was near the hotel where the reception was the night before, most of those eyes were in this one particular room.
Imagine a dozen or so Irish men, and a few Irish women (plus me and my wife), crammed into a smallish room, sitting on couches, all exhausted from the prior night, screaming at young men playing a sport with sticks and a ball.
Hurling is an Irish sport. And the sport is governed by an organization called the GAA, or the Gaelic Athletic Association. It’s hard to describe in a few sentences what the GAA means to Irish communities. But it’s possible that outside the church, the GAA is the most influential organization in many Irish towns and small cities. And in some towns and cities, it might be even more important than the church.
The GAA is about the sports, but, like most social endeavors, it’s mostly an excuse for the community to get together. To talk about what’s happening in the community.
At half time, after the habitual and expected armchair punditry about the match, the topic of conversation, as often happens with Irish conversations, switched to local news and gossip. My father, his brothers, and other relations bantered back and forth about who recently had been married, who had died, who was having children, and who had moved where.
In this community, it’s an understatement to say that everyone knows everyone.
If I go back to visit family in the small West Cork town of Kilbrittain, where my father is from, by the end of the third day, seemingly everyone in town will know that there’s an American in town, that I’m Mick the Manager’s grandson, that my wife who may be of Mexican descent is with me, and that we’re staying in town for a week. They probably even know whether they can expect to see me at Mass on Sunday.
So when a new house is built, or someone new moves to town, it’s news.
With that mind, my father asked my uncle, “Who owns that huge new house by the strand in [name intentionally omitted]?”
“An American,” my uncle replied.
“Really?” my Dad said. “I didn’t know there were any Americans living around here.”
Upon hearing about the new house, a few other relations commented on the size of the house, and perhaps more newsworthy, the size of the gates in front of the house.
And this was when my uncle dropped the line about the “Feck Off Gates.”
If you’ve never been to Ireland or been close to an Irish person, “feck” is a slightly more polite way of saying fuck. And the fact that this was coming from this particular uncle was a bit of a shock. While most of my family has no compunction about swearing or cursing, this particular uncle is known as the saint of the family. He’s never had a drink in his life (an impressive accomplishment for an Irish man), and he almost never says a bad word about anyone. And he doesn’t really swear.
But clearly this particular American, and that particular house, had made an impression.
I was thinking to myself, the guy who bought the house is probably an Irish-American. He’s probably achingly proud of his Irish roots. At some point, he visited this area and fell in love with it. Maybe his grandparents or great-great grandparents were from the area. I imagine he wanted to feel more connected to it, and since he had done well in life, he probably thought to himself, “you know what, how great would it be if I had a second (or third or fourth or fifth) home around here? I could wake up next to the ocean, go for a walk along the same beach my grandpa (or great-great-great grandpa) used to walk on, go into the local pub. It’ll be great.”
So he bought the land, spent millions of dollars on a gorgeous house with magnificent gates, and he built it on one of the best parcels of land in West Cork. This was the status symbol that was supposed to connect him back to his Irish roots—to show everyone that he’d come back, and that he’d made it in life.
But as with most status symbols, it’s a hard thing to get right. That’s what the whole humblebrag phenomenon is all about. Everyone wants status and respect, but we have to be subtle about how we go about getting it.
Go about it the wrong way, and you’re the guy with the “Feck Off Gates.”