On Sasanach Syndrome

On Sasanach Syndrome

There’s a particular kind of impostor syndrome that comes from being English in Celtic Studies, as an academic field. No matter how many qualifications you get, how hard you work on language skills, how much you know, you can’t change the fact that the stories you’re talking about aren’t your stories, that the landscape it describes isn’t the country you come from.

I call it Sasanach Syndrome. It intensifies acutely every time I tell somebody what I studied and they say, “Oh, so are you Irish, then?” and I have to confess, “Well, no, not meaningfully.” There’s a distant connection, on my dad’s side; when I was younger I thought that was enough, used to extrapolate it into something that had meaning, but truth be told it doesn’t, when it comes down to it, mean anything.

I grew up in England, a monolingual English speaker, a UK passport and no other; was raised on classical music and stories about Robin Hood, took ballet classes and played the recorder. The folk music, the Irish dance, the tin whistle… that came later, largely by chance acquisition of a couple of specific children’s books. I never set foot in Ireland until I was seventeen (and at the time I’m fairly sure I still pronounced Cú Chulainn “koo-koo lane”).

A lot else has changed since then too.

Sasanach Syndrome is a sense of shame and fraudulency, coming on me in a rush any time somebody asks how to pronounce an Irish name and I have to admit I’m not sure; every time I talk about a story I’ve just read for the first time and somebody says they heard it from their grandmother when they were a child; every time I’m forced to confront my position as an outsider to the literature I love.

It ties me up in knots, especially when I find myself talking to Irish people about medieval Irish literature. I’m conscious, always, of that tension between, I have studied this extensively and would like to offer you more information, and, here, let me sasanachsplain your own country’s literature to you. When making YouTube videos, my English accent feels like it makes a lie of my knowledge and qualifications, and I find myself wondering whether people see me as inauthentic because of it, whether they’re less inclined to trust what I have to say than they would be if I had an Irish accent.

It’s funny, how this seems to matter. Nobody says to a historian, “Oh, so you were born in the fifteenth century, then?” Nobody questions a Classicist’s interest in the Iliad, even if they’ve not been to Greece. There’s something peculiar about Celtic Studies that makes people say, “Oh, so are you Irish, then?” when they learn that I spent four years of my life studying medieval Irish language and literature, and express surprise when I say that I’m not.

Is it because it’s an unusual subject, because it’s niche and so you must have a reason to study it? I can think of several reasons why you might want to study it that go far beyond, “Because my family’s from Ireland.” Most people I know who did Classics aren’t doing it to get in touch with their Roman ancestry.

Maybe it’s because people don’t see the value in it, don’t see the relevance of stories of Irish heroes outside of Ireland, though they’ll talk about Achilles until the cows come home. Maybe it’s because they haven’t figured out how to transplant Cú Chulainn into a setting over which they can claim ownership, unlike figures like Arthur, who get adapted and stripped of context at any opportunity.

I know a number of Celticists who haven’t got a trace of Irish ancestry. We’re in it because it fascinates us, because we enjoy the literature, because it’s weird and unusual and at the same time speaks to universal themes. But they’re far outnumbered by those who do. You only have to look at the list of authors in a periodical for the field and see the surnames there to know that even where people were born outside of Ireland, they’ve got it in the family.

And outside of medievalist circles, it’s much the same. I’m trying to learn modern Irish, and making use of whatever free online resources I can. When I speak to other learners, I encounter some who are learning it out of an interest in the language, or because they’re hoping to engage with certain material (songs, folklore, literature) in the original. But the vast, overwhelming majority that I talk to say that they’re in it because they’re trying to get in touch with their roots, because they recently learned about their Irish ancestry, because their grandfather spoke it and they want to do the same.

A few months ago I read a book called Our Man in Hibernia by Charlie Connelly. I enjoyed it a lot. I enjoyed the way he discussed the ‘Plastic Paddy’ stage of his youth, buying in to a mass-produced commercialised vision of Ireland before really getting to grips with Ireland as a real, modern place with its own history and heartbreaks. I could relate to it, though my own eireaboo phase owed more to romanticist Celtic Twilight-style ideas than to the leprechaun hats and Guinness which characterise it for many others. (And Michael Flatley. There was almost certainly some Michael Flatley in there to counterbalance the Yeats. I’m not proud of it.)

Funnily enough, when people find out I’m a competitive Irish dancer their first question tends to be, “So are you Irish, then?” As a result I find myself answering this question about once a fortnight.

Yet a theme of Connelly’s work was trying to find his ancestors. Trying to trace who they were, and where they’d come from. At one point in the book he admits that he came close to giving up. Was it possible, he asked, that they weren’t really Irish at all? That it was family folklore with no grounding in truth? What if he did all this searching, only to realise he was chasing a ghost?

But he found it, in the end. It wasn’t a joyous discovery; it was actually quite a bleak one. For me, though, I almost wished for a moment that the story he told was one of somebody who found they had no roots there, but chose to put them down anyway. To learn Irish, to learn the stories and the songs and the music, without ever believing it to be in their blood.

It’s in my blood somewhere, I guess, but you have to go a fair way back, and once you’re there… well, you may as well pick up on the Welsh that’s lurking, or the Ashkenazi heritage, because they’ve as much impact on how I grew up and how I see the world. What’s a family tree when it’s at a remove of several generations, when all trace of a maiden name has faded into the past?

That doesn’t — shouldn’t — mean I’ve no right to love these stories, no right to retell them, yet every time my English tongue mangles an Irish name on camera I feel once again like I’m a fraud and a fool who should give up and try and convince myself to fall in love with Beowulf instead of Táin Bó Cúailnge.

I can’t, and shouldn’t, claim ownership of these stories; in recent years I’ve been ever more conscious of the colonialist relationship between Ireland and Britain, and indeed between England and places like Wales, whose literature often gets subsumed into our own. But I reject a narrative that says I should only care about my country’s history and stories. I think the Táin is worth more than that. I think it does it a disservice to suggest that the only people who’ll take an interest in it, academic or recreational, are those for whom it’s a part of their national narrative. In many ways, that’s why I make my videos, and it’s why I wrote To Run With The Hound and hope one day to see that out in the world.

Because if the Aeneid can be universal, why can’t Acallam na Senórach? Why didn’t the teachers in my English schools tell us stories about Finn mac Cumhaill or Cú Chulainn as well as English figures like Robin Hood? Why is it that these stories and these figures get relegated to being a niche interest, so that deciding to research them prompts people to assume you must have some personal connection to it?

Why SHOULDN’T everyone have their heart broken by all these violent deaths?

Despite feeling passionately that these stories deserve a wider audience, that there should be nothing strange about my love of them, that I shouldn’t need a reason to take an interest… the Sasanach Syndrome persists as I stumble through my Duolingo Irish lessons and hope that one day when I understand Twitter memes as Gaeilge, I won’t feel so much like a fraud, because at least I’ll have the language of the stories on my tongue too.

I doubt it’ll ever go away. I doubt there’ll ever be a day where I don’t find myself blushing to explain something to an Irish person, even when they’ve asked me for my thoughts, because part of me feels it’s presumptuous of me even to dare. I doubt I’ll ever edit my videos without wishing, just for a brief moment, that it was a different accent I heard shaping those names.

But in the end it’s just impostor syndrome, unwillingly plastered with an English flag. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from following a lot of academics on Twitter, it’s that there’s nothing quite so universal as feeling like a fraud, even within your own field of expertise.

So I guess I’m in good company.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Duolingo owl is judging me, and I’ve got an 87-day Irish-learning streak to maintain if I ever want to understand the memes.

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If I’ve understood this correctly, that’s about 80% of my motivation these days. If I’ve misunderstood the Irish… well then, that just proves my point.

7 thoughts on “On Sasanach Syndrome

  1. I really like this post! I feel like in a lot of ways the issue comes down to colonialism, but in a sort of dual way – English colonial attitudes to Celtic literatures mean no-one expects people from outside those cultures to study them; but at the same time, as English people we worry when we study them (and then talk about them in an academic way, without having that background of growing up with them as folklore) that we’re replicating those colonial dynamics, telling Celtic peoples what their stories should mean and how their narratives should be treated. But as you say, it SHOULD be possible to attribute the same universal interest to these that people attribute to the Aeneid!

    Particularly in this era of millennial shitposting, when I feel we need Old Irish memes more than ever…

    Also: “figures like Arthur, who get adapted and stripped of context at any opportunity” – THANK YOU for validating my constant Arthur-related rage.

    1. Yesss, that makes a lot of sense. I think it *is* colonialism and the constant othering of Celtic languages/literature/culture that mean it seems so niche and strange to study it. Striking a balance between not wanting to *other* the literature while also not wanting to *claim* or in some way appropriate it is where the paranoia and impostor syndrome comes in…

      The Arthur rage is a whole other blog post but I felt it wasn’t possible to talk about which heroes are considered ‘ours’ without at least alluding to it. It’s a whole mess.

  2. Not really related to the above – though I have thought at length that all traditions contain universal concepts – but people frequently assume I have Irish ancestry because of my name and ask me if I want to take part in various Celtic events. I do not have any Irish ancestry.. When my central European grandparents came to the United States they settled in an Irish neighborhood and gave me what they believed to be a “typical American name”. A familiar pattern with various ethnic groups, such as various second generation Chinese and Middle Eastern people I’ve worked with who have had such first names as Karen and Jackie. The Irish diaspora to the US in the 19th century was so massive that, in a study I read several years ago, people of Irish ancestry were considered the second largest ethnic group in the US, second only to Germans.
    Ah! I found the article. I don’t know if I can put a URL here, so I’ll do a quote:
    “According to the Census, there are 34.5 million Americans who list their heritage as either primarily or partially Irish. That number is, incidentally, seven times larger than the population of Ireland itself (4.68 million). Irish is the second-most common ancestry among Americans, falling just behind German.”

    1. Yeah, people make a lot of assumptions based on names. Using ‘Finn’ means I get asked even more often if I’m Irish (I also occasionally get asked if it’s short for ‘Fionnuala’, to which I can only reply that if I wanted a girl’s name I’d have stuck with ‘Miriam’). But then, when I was active online under the name ‘Miriam’, I periodically got asked if I were Jewish. I’ve concluded that people just need to stop trying to make judgments about people’s background based on their names!

  3. In addition to the colonialism aspect, I saw (with hindsight) a culture vs. entertainment bias in the stories I was taught: Robin Hood, Thor, fairy tales, &c. were myths and legends; the Aeneid, Zeus, the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus were Classics. A clear division in presentation between pre-urban low stories and civilised high stories.

    So, I think Irish, Welsh, and Scottish stories suffer in education contexts not just because they’re peasants’ stories, but because they’re some other peasants’ stories.

    And, pushing from the other side is exoticism: stories from a great distance away usually have greater surface differences that are easy to notice, and thus feel like learning something significant. While there are great differences between, for example, Celtic and Roman Christianity, they aren’t as obvious to us because we’re immersed in Christianity so see a common core; whereas we can easily see how Buddhism is different despite having many similarities with certain Christian thoughts.

    So, the other British stories suffer from being tales shaped by a different part of the same soggy island.

    1. That’s an interesting observation. I think it’s true especially of those stories that have merged with later folklore and taken on a new life in that context. It’s funny, though, because the medieval stories themselves are the product of a scholarly elite and largely concern themselves with the affairs of kings and champions (not peasants!), so if anything, have more in common with Classical texts.

      1. Aspiration definitely plays a part in which stories get told too: while the trappings might be different, modern fiction is still mostly about the exceptional rather than the normal (from the perspective of the audience). Even “minority” fiction is often about successfully overcoming obstacles that are common barriers to that group or being more accepted than in real life.

        Which raises a question whether there’s an untapped market for stories for the ultra-rich about contented people having happy marriages

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