18 August 2010

Mise Éire

Behold, a humble Irish passport, a possession most prized both of Saudi businessmen and Mossad agents alike, not to mention an accoutrement almost as standard issue as a pair of Timberlands and wrap-around Oakleys for overarmed, overpaid and over-there US contractors in oil-producing hotspots across the globe.

This, my friends, is not merely an official document wherein the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland requests all whom it may concern to allow the bearer, a citizen of Ireland, to pass freely and without hindrance and to afford the bearer all necessary assistance and protection. This, my friends, is the joyful conclusion of an epic saga fourteen years in the making that encompasses all aspects of my life and loves and everything in between. It is my story arc, the underlining narrative of my life, a tale the bards will sing of through the ages, and it all began somewhere back in the deep dark mists of time that we like to call 1996...

This was a more savage and barbaric age, long before Unkie Dave had passed the Unkie Trials, stood before the Unkie Council and earned the right to be called "Unkie", back when he went by the more simple moniker of "Dave". It was an time of Paisley shirts, hair worn roguishly to the waist, pints in the Stag's Head and still the occasional night of raucous and boisterous devilment to an accompanying soundtrack that ranged from Faith No More to Alice in Chains, with the odd bit of Sisters of Mercy thrown in for good luck. As the summer drew to a close, and with my Masters firmly behind me I was heading down the route of Student Politics. And so with a year-long sabbatical position starting and a conference in Poland beckoning I headed off to the passport office to get the magical booklet that would be my gateway to the world.

This is where the problems would begin.

Technically the problems all began some twenty-three years previously when an Irish woman and an American man fell in love, got married, and had a baby all in a distant sun-kissed and ever-so-slightly fascist land of Scorchio. Thanks to my parents' blatant disregard for my future travel plans, I was born on a US military base in this distant land, thus not being born in either nation of my parents' citizenship, nor, on a technicality, on the soil of the nation that I was actually born in. This resulted in me having neither an Irish birth certificate, nor a US birth certificate, nor even a Scorchian birth certificate. Instead I ended up with a Certificate of an American Birth Abroad and a Scorchian notice of a foreign birth, which was subsequently lost when my parents divorced eleven years later.

Thus, armed only with a PPS card, my Certificate of an American Birth Abroad and a battered photostat of the Scorchian notice I arrived, metaphorical cap in hand, to attempt to procure my Irish passport. Times were different in the Nineties, it was a golden age when a simple investment of £1 million in the pet food company of the Taoiseach, or the ability to play football at an international level would be rewarded with Irish citizenship, thus I had high hopes that my meager offerings would be accepted, given that I was, in actuality, an Irish citizen.

Alas, not having made a large enough investment, having the dribbling skills of an epileptic giraffe, nor having any of the actual relevant documentation necessary, my efforts only resulted in a six-month temporary passport and a clip round the ear from the passport office to come back with a proper birth cert if I ever wanted to get a full one.

Having been granted this six-month stay of perambulatory execution, I began to plan my trip to the Polish conference. In those days no direct flights existed between Krakow and Dublin, and the best route seemed to enable a few days stop-over in Prague (the Paris of the Twenties for the Nineties) before boarding an overnight train ride to Krakow. This planning process brought me into contact with a helpful young woman who herself had just returned from Prague, and whose advice I sought on where to go and what to do while there. Though I did not know it at the time, that young woman would one day become The Very Understanding Girlfriend ("one day" being about six weeks later).

Being inherently lazy, the prospect of tracking down an original copy of my Scorchian I-can't-believe-its-not-a-Birth-Cert had less than zero appeal for me, and thus when next I needed to travel I hit upon the wildly obvious notion of attempting to procure a US passport. While I realised that this would most likely place me in the first group of people to be shot by any hijacker, the nineties (as mentioned before) were a simpler time, a Democrat was in the White House and the whole world loved America (this may not actually be true), and it was a risk I was willing to take. Good old Uncle Sam was more than willing to accept my Certificate of an American Birth Abroad (never really in doubt, the clue, I think, is the whole "American Birth" thing in the title) and clasp me to his beardy chest, and thus once again the world was my oyster.

The whole world, that is, except Ireland.

So cunning was my plan that I forgot to take into account the whole trying to get back into Ireland on a foreign passport thing. "How long are you going to be here?" they would ask, "um, I live here" I would reply. "So where's your visa?" they would ask, "my, um, what?" I would reply. "You need a visa to be here longer than three months", they would say. "Um, I'm Irish" I would reply, more hesitant and quite nervously, "Says here you're American" they would say, more tersely than strictly necessary. "Um, I'm Irish also" I clarified. "So where's your Irish passport?" they countered. "Aha! well, you see it all began some twenty-three years ago when an Irish woman and an American man fell in love, got married, and had a baby all in the sun-kissed and ever-so-slightly fascist land of Scorchio...."

"Get out" they would cry, "and come back when you have a proper visa."

So there really was nothing left to do but move to America, and so I did.

In the Summer of 2004 life took another twist and turn and brought me back to Dublin on a permanent basis. Over the intervening years my passport had taken something of a battering, being my only form of photo ID and thus an essential element of any night out in the US, to be proffered before entering any bar, nightclub, gin joint, speakeasy, package store or other hostelry or provider of alcoholic beverages. Being a pre-digital passport, the plastic film covering the photo had started to peel away, a disfigurement brought to my attention by a helpful Garda staffing the immigration booth in Dublin airport upon my final return home, who said as he waved me through, "now there's many countries who wouldn't allow you in with a damaged passport like that, off you go now son and get it fixed as soon as you can". "Right you are, Garda" I said, and soon enough I did.

Or at least I tried to.

The Nineties had come and gone, and we were no longer living in a simpler age. The War on Terror was in full flight, Old Europe was now the Axis of Weasels, the domain of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, and despite my lactose intolerance somehow my lucky-charm Irish accent, cheeky grin and a firm belief in the international rule of law marked me out as dangerously Un-American, and the whole passport replacement process escalated dangerously out of control.

"Why were you in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick last year, Mr Unkie?" the embassy official asked. "Um, I've never been to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick" I replied truthfully. "What happened to the passport you were issued in 1981?" the interrogation continued, albeit through the safety of a glass window-counter. "1981? When I was eight years old? I have no idea." I offered somewhat confused. 'Indeed" he replied, mentally preselecting me for further investigations somewhere between rendition and water-boarding. "Is there a problem?" I mistakenly asked. "Yes. Yes there is" came the reply, as his eyes measured me up for an orange jumpsuit. "Can I ask what its about?" I said, wondering would I get to call a lawyer, then remembering that I didn't actually know any lawyers. "Oh, I think you know what this is about, Mr Unkie" he replied, in what was quite simply one of the most horrifying exchanges I have ever had with another human being.

Seriously, I had no idea what he was talking about, and still do not to this day.

It took three months to get a replacement passport. At the time I was interviewing for a senior position with a US multinational, part of the final interview process would involve me traveling to California to meet the leadership team there. While the interview process itself also took over three months unfortunately the two periods did not coincide, and I had to hesitantly explain that I couldn't travel to the US, the country of my citizenship, because I was having some, um, *cough* difficulties *cough* with my passport. Perhaps they thought they were secretly hiring Roman Polanski, or Bobby Fischer, for this didn't seem to phase them, and two weeks after I was hired, and after the Embassy had requested every document on me that had ever been filed with the State Department since I was born be shipped from a warehouse in Virginia to Dublin, I finally got my replacement passport, and so off I went to California to meet my new boss.

Only to be stopped by Irish immigration on the way back and asked "Where's your visa?"

"Um, it all began some thirty-one years ago when an Irish woman and an American man fell in love..."

"Get out."

So, after some consultation with my sisters who were in a remarkably similar boat, I traveled down to the Garda Immigration Bureau with my tattered and faded six-month temporary Irish passport, and within a matter of hours I had a stamp on my US passport allowing me to remain in Ireland without condition - wahoo, problem solved!

Well, actually no.

You see the vast majority of my travel still occurs within the EU, and at the current rate of EU enlargement by the time my US passport needs to be renewed again 4/5ths of the Earth's surface will be under the happy blue flag of Brussels, so unless I plan on only traveling exclusively to the US, Turkey and possibly Switzerland, it might make more sense to try and avoid all the hours of queueing in the non-EU nationals line, and the inevitable response that my "be gob an' begorrah" accent elicits from immigration officials (particularly in Heathrow) as they inspect my passport, "Oi mate", they laugh, "with an accent like that you should pick up an Oirish passport!"

"Funny you should say that," I reply, "it all began some thirty-odd years ago when an Irish woman and an American man fell in love..."

"Get out."

Immigration officials, I have discovered, almost universally have a most singular sense of humour.

And so some months ago I once again consulted with my sisters and from them had procured my mother's original Birth Certificate, and her Marriage Certificate, but the recent work-to-rule in the Dublin Passport Office and ensuing three month turn-around times for applications, coupled with my aforementioned inherent laziness, had prevented me from going any further. Now spurred into action by a forty minute wait in line in Heathrow while all my fellow Europeans breezed by in a matter of minutes, I returned to the Passport Office almost fourteen years to the day of my last attempt and prepared to brave the worst of their ongoing industrial action. Armed with a Kong-sized cappuccino and Hegel's "Outlines of the Philosophy of Right" to sustain me over the coming hours I took my seat two Fridays ago and steeled myself for the coming ordeal.

"Good afternoon", I said, when my number had finally been called. "I would like one of your finest Irish passports please. I have here a temporary passport issued to me fourteen years ago, a Certificate of an American Birth Abroad, my mother's (through whom I claim my Irish citizenship) original birth certificate, and her original marriage certificate"

"Marriage Certificate? Well why didn't you say so, sir" came the unexpectedly helpful, enthusiastic and cheery response. "Sure we'll have it ready for you within two weeks".

And that was that.

Obviously my earlier problem was not explicitly stating that I was born comfortably within wedlock. I must have missed the line in the application process stating "Irish citizenship - bastards need not apply". Perhaps we already have too many as it is.

Thus this afternoon, barely eight working days later, my brand spanking new Irish passport was ready for collection. Now, after having a PPS number since I sat my Leaving Certificate exams twenty years ago, after voting in almost every local, national and European election (and the odd Referendum here and there) since 1991, after cultivating a near addiction in my early twenties to King crisps, Smithwicks, Spice burgers and curry chips, after decades of bemoaning and begrudging any Irish man or woman who achieved even a modicum of success abroad, after carefully cultivating the ability to ride in any taxi longer than five minutes and successfully ignore the driver's overt racism and blatant misogyny, after enduring decades of the inevitable association in foreign climes with Johnny Logan, Michael Flatley, Bob Geldof, Colin Farrell, The Cranberries, Daniel O'Donnell, Father Ted, that bloke out of the IT Crowd, what's his name that does the voice of Aslan, yer man in 'The Field', Miley out of Glenroe looking total lost in 'Alexander', and for-the-love-of-god-would-you-please-just-shut-the-feck-up-for-once-in-your-life-Bono, only now can I really and truly call myself Irish.

I'm off now to the pub to get pissed, pick a fight, urinate in a public place and fall asleep in a gutter.


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At 11:00 am, Anonymous steve said...

were you seriously still wearing paisley shirts in 1996?

welcome to the island though. i'll give you a tour some time.

At 5:36 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Get Out.

At 3:39 pm, Blogger Snag Breac said...

Jesus, thats some passport saga!
Whats wrong with being associated with Father Ted though? You should be proud.


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