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For the Irish loving life in Britain, republican rancour is alive, alive-o


This is the first of a two-part look at the phenomenon of the successful Southern Irish in Britain and how they can be viewed with suspicion and resentment by some in their home country who are nursing historic grievances.  Both parts are extracts from The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, edited by the author and William Beattie Smith.

IN the New York St Patrick’s Day parade in 2019, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald held up a large banner reading: ENGLAND GET OUT OF IRELAND.   

Back at the ranch was Sharon Horgan, who grew up on a turkey farm in Meath and moved to London in her early twenties in pursuit of an acting career. Breakthrough came when she wrote and starred in the BBC sitcom Pulling. She married an English property developer and lives in a designer house in Hackney.   

The Wexford actress Charlie Murphy left for London in 2013 after success in a BBC TV drama and trumped that with the BBC’s Peaky Blinders. The convent-educated ITV presenter Laura Whitmore was born in Dublin and now lives in Camden, wife of a Scottish comedian.    

Dublin-born Genevieve O’Reilly, of Star Wars fame, makes her home in East London. Niamh Algar left Mullingar, Westmeath, in 2017, headed to London, and landed a starring role in the Channel 4 miniseries, The Virtues. Algar is now house-hunting in London.    

Paul Mescal, from Maynooth, County Kildare, is not at the house-hunting stage quite yet, having moved to London just before the coronavirus lockdown to star in BBC’s Normal People.    

These are only the most recent Southern Irish movie, stage and television performers trooping to London. They follow in the footsteps of countless predecessors including Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole (born either in Connemara or Leeds), Cyril Cusack, Fiona Shaw CBE, Sinéad Cusack, Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott and Daragh O’Malley, who grew up in Limerick; O’Malley found his place in the thespian sun by starring alongside Sean Bean in Sharpe, the ITV drama set during the Napoleonic Wars.  

A select few entertainers become celebrities, which means they settle in with the showbusiness equivalent of a professorial chair.  

I grew up in the sunny virtual presence of Eamonn Andrews, CBE.  He was born in Synge Street, Dublin, educated by the Christian Brothers, and was a sports commentator for Radio Éireann before graduating to the BBC in London. He was a longtime compère of the evergreen This is Your Life.   

Andrews was succeeded as a cheerful fixture in the British consciousness by Terry Wogan – (Sir) Terence Wogan KBE, DL (Deputy Lieutenant, a Crown appointment), son of a Limerick store manager.    

Now it is Graham Norton from Bandon, County Cork, the third Irish star in the BBC firmament over the past continuous 60 years, subject of a 2013 Daily Telegraph profile, ‘The making of a national treasure’, the nation in question being the UK.   

Clearly the performative talent of the Irish needs a metropolis in which to take wing and London, not Dublin, is the metropolis of Ireland. And London is in England.   

This gave the Irish at home no pause with their vocal anti-Britishness during Brexit. Warm British-Irish relations in entertainment and the professions have for a century been suppressed by Irish politicians and commentators so that British-Irish relations can be portrayed as hostile in pursuit of a sovereign united Ireland.   

 Yet the reconciliation of the peoples of the archipelago (and only then, the people of Ireland itself) depends upon a sea change in the Irish public attitude to the UK.   

Northern Ireland is the matador’s cape that distracts the Irish bull from his real problem, which is the British-Irish relationship itself. This schizophrenic relationship would rankle even if we Northern Irish disappeared.Even if its origin lies in some form of colonialism, that can’t alter daily experience, and decolonisation is by this stage impossible.   

It’s a political and cultural reality of long standing. By 1830, Irish soldiers represented more than 40 per cent of the British Army; by 1878, a fifth of all British Army officers were Irish.  

One Irish historian believes the British Empire was very good for the Irish Catholic church, since the missions followed where the British flag led. More than 200,000 Irishmen fought voluntarily in the Great War; at least 60,000 Southern Irish volunteers served in the Second World War.   

In the 20th century, 1.6million Irish left for Britain, more than twice as many as went to North America. By 2001, every sixth person born in the Republic lived in Britain.  

In the late 1950s, nearly 60,000 Irish were arriving in Great Britain annually. Irishmen were over-represented as casual and seasonal workers, and Irishwomen as domestic servants.  But the Irish were not all McAlpine’s Fusiliers, many of whom in any case stayed, for ‘the rake of beer, the ladies and the crack’, as the song has it.    

During the research for my book, Irish Novels 1880-1940 (Oxford University Press, 2008), I was astonished to discover dozens of popular Irish novelists, mostly women, Catholic and Protestant, who set their fiction on either of the two islands and wrote in blithe disregard of the nationalist stipulations of Yeats’s chiefly male Irish Revival.

They have been ignored by nationalist critics, yet were more Irish than Patrick Pearse, Erskine Childers, Maud Gonne, James Connolly or Éamon de Valera.  

 Doubtless the working class were often discriminated against. But if they were forced to emigrate to Great Britain, by whom were they forced?  

 In the case of the Birmingham Irish that Maurice Sweeney profiles in his moving documentary, The Forgotten Irish (2009), it was often to escape hardship and cruelty in the industrial schools that they absconded to Britain. Thirty-five to 40 per cent of the boys who survived institutions in Ireland decamped to Britain, Sweeney tells us, and stayed.   

In London in 2007, the Forgotten Irish Campaign was launched by President Mary McAleese. Thousands of successful Irish professionals in Britain were to help financially their working-class predecessors who had not fared so well.   

And how well those Irish are doing in Great Britain was revealed by the recent Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which found that the average earnings of the ‘white Irish’ exceeded those of ‘white British’ and that ‘white Irish unemployment was relatively low’.   

This good news is unlikely to be trumpeted in Sinn Féin’s newspaper An Phoblacht. It’s the successful Irish who have been ‘forgotten’ by the Irish at home, where a political party that nourishes itself, and starves others, on its anti-Britishness, is sadly popular.    

In a St Patrick’s Day 2021 article in Spiked, Rakib Ehsan claims that the success of the Catholic Irish is ‘oft-overlooked’ in debates over race and culture. But if Irish success in the professions, arts and media is overlooked by the British, that is because the Irish are at home in Britain and largely invisible.  

The professional Irish migration to Britain has accelerated. The Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter introduced me to a recent Irish acronym: NIPPLE – New Irish Professional People (or Person) Living in England.    

His friend Kevin Maher is one. He left Dublin for London in 1994 to find success as a journalist. He did so, and is now film critic of the Times and has worked for Channel 4’s Film Night. He lives in Hertfordshire. His kids, he says, are half Irish, half English, ‘so I’m really suspicious of nationalism’. He is one of the few Irish in Britain prepared to say this.  

One can freely choose now how to live as Irish in Britain. After Siobhán McSweeney of Derry Girls graduated from University College Cork, she enrolled in the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2001.  

She moved to Kilburn in north-west London: ‘County Kilburn, they call it, because there are so many Irish there. I wasn’t that keen on bacon and cabbage; and I didn’t have the immigrant mindset, because, in my head, I wasn’t one: I was just over in London. The idea I had moved from home hadn’t occurred to me.’    

But she decided tongue-in-cheek to join the Irish ‘diaspora’. Now, she says, ‘I’m a fully paid-up member of the immigrant community: I break down and weep in the supermarket at the sight of Tayto crisps and Kimberley Mikado biscuits.’ But the talented McSweeney is not one of  the old forgotten Irish. She is simply a NIPPLE.   

Ways of being Irish in Britain are legion. One way, made possible by shuttle flights and encouraged in the beginning by the UK’s EU membership, is to be part of what airport staff call ‘the Monday-morning mob’ of Irish commuter-migrant professionals whose work week is spent in a British city and whose weekends are back in Ireland.    

 Whichever way you choose to be Irish in Britain, in journalism, the arts and the professions, London is the capital of Ireland – a rather inconvenient truth for Mary Lou as she waves her banner in New York.   

Part 2 follows tomorrow.

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster
Among John Wilson Foster's books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (Notting Hill Editions, 2014, New York Review Books, 2017) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed, 2021).

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