One of my favourite phrases within the extensive lexicon of Irish begrudgery (e.g. “’twas far from frappuccino’s yer wan was brought up” or “shur they didn’t have an arse on their trousers, that crowd”) is “to be surprised at oneself”. As in: “look at Mickie Murphy over beyond. Since he sold that site to the council and built the oul’ block of flats on High Street he’s surprised at himself.” What I like about the phrase is its sophisticated intertwining of two separate attacks on (a) the subject’s background; and(b) his character. This two-pronged instrument of (character) assassination suggests on the one hand the subject’s humble origins and on the other his or her inability to “deal” with the new found elevation of their circumstances. There’s also the implication that the subject has been a somewhat passive agent in his or her rise (and is therefore “surprised” at his or her new station in life).
Your typical candidate for being surprised as him or herself would come from a working class or small farming background. There’d be talk of them having been “dirt poor” or “not having a pot to piss in” as children. At school, they wouldn’t generally have dazzled their teachers and fellow students with brilliance (“Mary was always a bit of a gobdaw at school; she wouldn’t have passed a worm”) and nor would they commonly have received third-level education. Up until the point of their upward rise they would have been modestly employed in manual labour, clerical work or farming. In their town or village or neighbourhood they would have moved in social circles “appropriate” to their rung of the social ladder. Blue collar stuff — no involvement in the operatic society or membership of the Rotary Club, but perhaps a lot of pub-going and GAA-centred activity. Then, out of the blue, our subject would start their own little business, which would initially have been a “nixer” — moonlighting, a second job, done outside of normal working hours in parallel to their regular job. Friends, neighbours and family would at first have been sceptical. “That’ll never take off. Shur what does Paddy know about installing TV aerials?” would be a typical comment. As Paddy’s business would grow and he would leave his original job to dedicate himself full-time to his TV aerial business the scepticism would be replaced by mild and reluctant admiration. “Fair play to Paddy. I thought he was only wasting his time. But look at him now.” Soon his business would grow to such an extent that Paddy, now with several if not tens of staff under him and the money flowing into his bank account, would begin to attract serious, premier-league begrudging. “Look at that jumped-up Jack, swanning around in his Merc and with his fancy suits, thinking he’s somebody. He’s let the bit o’ money go to his head.” But in a sense, Paddy would be his own worst enemy in fuelling this envy. Along with the aforementioned top-of-the-range German automobile and the sharp suits there’d be the new house on the other side of town with all the bells and whistles (six en-suite bedrooms, a conservatory, a back yard hot-tub, a basement boys’ room replete with bar and snooker table, a home cinema, a kitchen that Nigella would kill for) the gadgets, the conspicuous consumption, the holidays to far-off and unheard-of places. All of the above would give rise to unrelenting, intense and mean-spirited gossip and begrudgery — but nothing above the ordinary backbiting any successful man or woman receives in Ireland. Paddy, however, would cross a line. As part of a process of reinventing himself, of acquiring upper-class respectability, he would begin to distance himself from his old circle of friends and his former interests — a process referred to as “becoming fierce grand”. Instead of betting on horses, Paddy would start socialising with the “horsey set” i.e. the doctors, solicitors, big farmers and remnants of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency that engage in the expensive and exclusive pastime of fox hunting. Instead of fishing, he would take up golf, securing membership of an exclusive club. Instead of going to hurling or football matches, he would develop a new-found interest in rugby. He’d no longer frequent his local pub but start socialising in cordon bleu restaurants, the golf club and the wine bar. His photograph would regularly appear in the paper in the context of Lions Club or Soroptimist balls, where he would be referred to as a “local entrepreneur”. This perceived betrayal of his roots would have consequences for Paddy. His life within the locality would now be under intense scrutiny. Any movement or action would be the subject of gossip and speculation. Any slip-up or failure (especially on the marital front) would be greeted with malicious glee. “He had it coming to him,” they would snigger. Similarly, business set-backs. “Shur, he’s gotten too big for his boots!” Other failings, particularly bizarre or out-of-character behaviour would be explained by the catch all: “Ah shur. That fella doesn’t know what he’s at anymore. Isn’t he surprised at himself?”
In a country where great importance has always been placed on social cohesion and solidarity among family and neighbours, the accusation that someone has distanced themselves from their roots to such an extent that they don’t know who they are anymore i.e. they are “surprised at themselves”, cuts very deep. In four years of living in Spain, where, admittedly begrudgery isn’t quite as Olympic a sport as in Ireland (envy and bad-mindedness does exist but is quite different from Hibernian begrudgery), I haven’t come across a similar expression. Nor does the expression seem to be used in other anglophone cultures, where success and social mobility isn’t viewed with quite as much suspicion.