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Victims of an arthritic ideology, Irish stars stay silent about their British success

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This is the second part of a look at the phenomenon of the successful Southern Irish in Britain. The first part was published yesterday.  The two parts are both extracts from The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, edited by the author and William Beattie Smith.

SOUTHERN Irish journalists abound in England, keen to be close to the newsworthy. But writers, too, have chosen life there, including Ruth Dudley Edwards, Jean Casey, Gerard O’Donovan, Caroline O’Donoghue, Declan Ryan, Martina Evans, and the late Josephine Hart from Mullingar, County Westmeath, who died in 2011 as Baroness Saatchi.  

The London editor Niamh Mulvey from Kilkenny will join their ranks in 2022 with a short story collection from Picador; her London agent is Sallyanne Sweeney, from Dublin.    

They follow major authors – George Moore, Sean O’Casey, AE (George William Russell), John Eglinton and even W B Yeats.  

These were champions of Irish culture who disliked the shrunken Irishness of the new Free State and, in a pivotal moment in Irish-English relations, voted with their feet to demonstrate that their Irishness included Britain and the world.  

Recently, the Dublin-born Mary Kenny, who lives in Kent, defended Edna O’Brien (born in County Clare, but a Londoner of long standing) from Irish attack for accepting her Dame of the British Empire honour in 2018, on the grounds that the Irish were active in the empire, too. Unless you insist that race or ethnicity defines nationality, Dame Edna is as British as I am.   

That Southern Irish professionals are punching above their demographic weight in Britain is clear when you ponder their number in front of the cameras and behind the microphones of the BBC, over and above Graham Norton: The late Dave Allen, Des Lynam OBE and his nephew Joe Lynam, Dara Ó Briain, Fergal Keane, the ex-convent schoolgirl Orla Guerin MBE, Al Ryan, Angela Scanlon, Declan Harvey and Donnachadh McCarthy.   

There must be dozens of Irish at the BBC, ITV and Channel Four – producing, directing, scripting, research-assisting. Hundreds of Irish work at the heart of British culture and help it pump the blood of that culture.    

Their CVs often reflect an entirely English life, as do those of countless Irish academics.  At the summit are such eminences as professors Roy Foster from Waterford (Hertford College, Oxford), Eamonn Duffy, a ‘cradle Catholic’ (his description) from Dundalk (former President of Magdalene College, Cambridge) and Bernard O’Donoghue from County Cork (Wadham College, Oxford).  

Professor Louise Richardson FRSE, a Catholic from Tramore, County Waterford, is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford and arguably the highest-ranking academic in the UK.  

Professor Adrian Hill, from Dublin,is director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford and directed the search for the anti-Covid vaccine. Working under him is Professor Teresa Lambe, from Kilcullen, County Kildare.  

The current chief executive of British Airways is Sean Doyle, who was born and reared in Youghal, Cork. He follows Willie Walsh from Dublin. Not even the sky is the limit for the Irish in the land of the ancient enemy.   

Yet bizarrely, the Irish cannot draw attention to their own success. Why the silence from both sides of the Irish Sea about Irish relocation to Britain?  

The historian Diarmaid Ferriter writes that the silence was still in force when he left school in 1989, a year in which 70,600 Irish people crossed the water to live.  

It is still in force. Tony Murray, a first-generation London-Irishman teaching at the London Metropolitan University, wondered in 2014 why Irish writers have been so reluctant to portray the experiences of migration to London?  ‘Is it shame, indifference, or plain Irish contrariness?’    

When Richard Mulcahy, leader of the Fine Gael party, dared in 1946 to describe the attractions of Britain to Irish citizens, he was accused by the rival Fianna Fáil of being a recruiting sergeant for a foreign country; to discuss the topic was regarded as unpatriotic.  

This suggests the answer. That code of silence must persevere among the migrants in Britain, for I read almost nothing by the Irish who are established in Britain about their being successful or contented.  

It would draw the ire of republicans. Victimhood, after all, is a plank of their platform, and success in Britain contradicts it and what Ferriter calls the ‘single, heroic nationalist narrative of Irish history’.   

Dara Ó Briain is trolled by the Irish Twitterati simply for being happy and thriving in Britain. ‘It’s always West Brit season for Irish celebrities working in the United Kingdom,’ wrote Donald Clarke in 2019.    

The cultivated Ó Briain, Irish speaker and Gaelic Athletic Association supporter, has responded wittily to his begrudgers: ‘By definition, I’m not a West Brit, because I actually live in Britain. I mean, get your insults straight, please.’ Yet even Ó Briain seems to me to be defensive, and understandably.   

The Telegraph economics columnist, Liam Halligan, first-generation English from an Irish Catholic family, was attacked for his 2019 criticism of Leo Varadkar for damaging Anglo-Irish relations by his attitude to Brexit.  

‘As someone who physically embodies the binding blood and cultural ties between Britain and Ireland, I’m regularly attacked in the Irish media for having voted to leave.’  

He was supposed to revert to ethnic type and oppose Brexit on the simple grounds of anti-Britishness, not reflect his English upbringing, education, livelihood, and professional economic assessment of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.   

Yet, he wrote movingly, ‘having grown up “London-Irish” in the 1970s and 1980s, all I ever wanted was for the two countries that define my ethnicity to get on.’   

The TV presenter Laura Whitmore found out that while the Irish can have successful lives in Britain, they must not diverge from the Irish Story that installs the British armed forces as devils incarnate.  

When Whitmore appeared in a 2020 British Army podcast, interviewing a female soldier about body issues in a male-dominated occupation, she was tarred and feathered in the social media.   

This century-old control of the diaspora is echoed by the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to do likewise in the West, and which we rightly deplore. Except, of course, cultural reality and demography suggest that the middle-class and professional-class Irish in Britain are not a diaspora at all, but simply compatriots across the water.     

As a presenter who makes his living by talking, one might think Graham Norton should be able to articulate the position of the successful Irish in England. But when in the Guardian in 2020 he was asked: ‘What about the UK, his home for decades now?’, his answer from Cork was displacement activity.  

‘There’s a lot of charity shops,’ he said. ‘I know that. We’re raising a lot of money for cancer. But see, that’s an odd thing I’ll do, where I’ll say “we’re” raising a lot of money. And so I have that thing, because I’ve lived there since 1984; my career is there, my friends are there, I pay tax there, I vote there. And I work for the British Broadcasting Corporation.    

‘And so, I’ve said this before, but it is that thing where I’m in London, I get on the plane, and I’m going home to Ireland. But when I leave here in September, I’m going home to London. And I think you can do that. I don’t think we have to be policed that strictly.’  

But who are these police whose authority causes him to wool-gather and prevents him from naming ‘that thing’, his dual identity?        

It seems tragic that a huge portion of Irish historical and present reality must be repressed and thus the potential for individual and collective fulfilment wasted.  

Those who police the Irish attitude to the British are defied in silence daily, but silence is complicity in one’s own repression. I suspect that many Southern Irish would be relieved by acknowledging Britain’s and Ireland’s intimate relations. But they are held to ransom in the name of the Cause.     

Yet fully acknowledging the intimacy is the starting point on the road to final peace on these islands. The Taoiseach, Michèal Martin, has called for a ‘reset’ of the UK-EU relationship. Closer to home, he should call for a reset of the UK-Ireland relationship and add an ‘s’ to the second word of his Shared Island Unit.    

Meanwhile, it is the intent of the republican campaign to de-Anglicise Northern Ireland and sunder it from the UK while Ireland gaily enjoys its unfettered but unacknowledged access to the UK via the media and the Common Travel Area. How rich is that?    

Mary Lou McDonald’s banner reading ENGLAND GET OUT OF IRELAND would be laughable if it weren’t such a grim assault by an arthritic ideology on healthy social reality.   

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster is a literary critic and cultural historian.

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