In the New York St Patrick’s Day parade in 2019, Sinn Féins Mary Lou McDonald held up a large banner that read ENGLAND GET OUT OF IRELAND.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Sharon Horgan, who grew up on a turkey farm in Meath, moved to London in her early twenties in search of an acting career. The breakthrough success came when she wrote and starred in the BBC sitcom Pulling. She married an English real estate developer and lives in a designer house in Hackney.
Wexford actress Charlie Murphy traveled to London in 2013 after success in a BBC TV drama and trumped it with the BBC’s Peaky Blinders. The convent-educated ITV host Laura Whitmore was born in Dublin and now lives in Camden, the wife of a Scottish comedian.
Dublin-born Genevieve O’Reilly, of Star Wars fame, gets her home in east London. Niamh Algar left Mullingar in 2017, went to London and got a starring role in the Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. Algar is now on a house hunt in London. Paul Mescal from Maynooth is not yet in the house hunting stage when he moved to London just before the lockdown of coronavirus to star in the BBC’s Normal People.
These are just the latest Southern Irish film, stage and TV artists trooping to London. They follow in the footsteps of countless predecessors, including Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole (born in either 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 teasing sun by starring in Sharpe, the ITV series.
A few select entertainers become celebrities, which means they find themselves comfortable with the show-business equivalent of a professorship. I grew up in the sunny virtual presence of Eamonn Andrews CBE. Born in Synge Street, Dublin, educated by Christian Brothers, he was a sports commentator for Radio Éireann before graduating from the BBC in London. He was the 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 store manager in Limerick. Now it’s Graham Norton from Bandon, the third Irish star on the BBC firmament over the last sixty years in a row, the subject of a 2013 Daily Telegraph profile, “The making of a national treasure”, the nation in question is Britain.
Clearly, the performative talent of the Irish needs a metropolis to take the wing in, and London, not Dublin, is Ireland’s metropolis. And London, metropolis or not, is located in England.
This gave the Irish at home no break during their vocal anti-British stance during Brexit. Warm British-Irish relations in the field of entertainment and business have for a century been suppressed by Irish politicians and commentators, so that British-Irish relations can be portrayed as hostile in the pursuit of a sovereign united Ireland. Yet the reconciliation of the archipelago’s peoples (and only then, the people of Ireland itself) depends on a sea change in the Irish public attitude towards Britain.
Northern Ireland is the matador’s cloak that distracts the Irish bull from his real problem, which is the British-Irish relationship itself. This schizophrenic relationship would increase even if we northerners disappeared. Although its origin lies in a form of colonialism, it cannot change the daily experience, and decolonization is impossible at this stage.
It is a long-standing political and cultural reality. In 1830, Irish soldiers represented over 40% of the British Army; in 1878 one-fifth of all British army officers were Irish. An Irish historian believes that the British Empire was very good to the Irish Catholic Church as the missions followed where the British flag flew. More than 200,000 Irish fought voluntarily in the Great War; at least 60,000 Southern Irish volunteers served in World War II.
In the 20th century, 1.6 million Irish people traveled to Britain, more than twice as many as traveled to North America. In 2001, every sixth person born in the Republic lived in the United Kingdom. In the late 1950s, almost 60,000 Irish arrived annually in Britain.
Irish were overrepresented as leisure and seasonal workers, and Irish women as domestic workers. But the Irish were not all McAlpine’s Fusiliers, many of whom at least became, for “the rake of beer, the ladies and the crack,” as the song says.
While researching my book, Irish Novels, 1880-1940 (Oxford University Press, 2008), I was amazed to discover dozens of popular Irish novelists, mainly women, Catholics and Protestants, who put their fiction on one of the two islands and wrote in mild violation of the nationalist provisions of Yeats’ predominantly 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.
Without a doubt, the working class was often discriminated against. But if they were forced to emigrate to Britain, then who were they forced to? In the case of the Birmingham Irish, as Maurice Sweeney profiles in her moving documentary, The Forgotten Irish (2009), it was often to escape distress and cruelty in industrial schools that they fled to Britain. Thirty-five to 40% of the boys who survived institutions in Ireland camped in the UK, Sweeney says, and stayed.
In London in 2007, the Forgotten Irish Campaign was launched by President Mary McAleese. Thousands of successful Irish professionals in Britain had to help their working class predecessors financially, who had not done so well.
And how well these Irish are doing in the UK was revealed by the recent Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which found that the average earnings of “white Irish” exceeded those of “white Britons” and that “white Irish unemployment was relatively low ”.
This good news will hardly be trumpeted in An Phoblacht. It is the successful Irish who have been “forgotten” by the Irish at home, where a political party that feeds itself and starves others because of its anti-British stance is unfortunately popular.
In an article on St Patrick’s Day 2021 in Spiked, Rakib Ehsan claims that the success of Catholic Irish is “often overlooked” in debates about race and culture. But if Irish success in business, art and media is overlooked by the British, it is because the Irish are at home in Britain and largely invisible.
Professional Irish migration to the UK 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 succeed as a journalist. He did so because he is now a film reviewer for the Times and has worked for Channel 4’s Film Night. He lives in Hertfordshire. His children, he says, are half Irish / half English “so I’m really suspicious of nationalism”. He is one of the few Irishmen in Britain who is prepared to say this.
One can now freely choose how to live as an Irishman in the UK. After graduating from University College Cork, Derry Girls’ Siobhán McSweeney enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2001. She moved to Kilburn: “County Kilburn, they call it because there are so many Irish people there. I was not so fond of bacon and cabbage; and I did not have the immigrant mindset, for in my head I was not one: I was just over in London. The thought that I had moved away from home had not occurred to me ”.
But she decided to join the Irish “Diaspora”. Now she says, “I’m a fully paid member of the immigrant community: I break down and cry in the supermarket at the sight of Tayto chips and Kimberley and Mikado biscuits.” But the talented McSweeney is not one of the old forgotten Irish. She is simply a NIPPLE.
Ways to be Irish in the UK are legion. One way that was made possible by shuttle flights and initially encouraged by Britain’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 the UK, in the fields of journalism, art and business, London is the capital of Ireland, a rather inconvenient truth for Mary Lou.
• John Wilson Foster, one of the book’s editors, was born and raised in Belfast, educated in Eugene, Oregon, taught in Vancouver, British Columbia and now lives in Co Down.
• “The idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith. Contributors include Daphne and David Trimble, Owen Polley, Mike Nesbitt, Baroness Hoey, Arthur Aughey and Ben Lowry.
It is published by Belcouver Press at a price of £ 12.99 and is available via Blackstaff Press. It is also for sale in Amazon and bookstores.
• More about the book below
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