I am puzzled by an attitude I have encountered on the part of some in Ireland towards those of us who are Irish in Britain.
There are some who seem to see us as ‘traitors’, and I was reminded of this when I read comments on the Irish Independent Facebook page about the actress Jessie Buckley, a native of Killarney resident in Norfolk.
The young woman, who also works at times in the USA, expressed doubts whether she would ever return to Ireland, but that she would never lose her sense of Irishness.
A comment made, admittedly by one individual, that she had lost it already ‘when you turned your back on it and left’ is not unique. It’s not typical of Irish opinion but there is a certain element who think that way.
That antagonism doesn’t seem to be as intense towards Irish in USA or Australia or other parts of the world, and I can’t help thinking that it is because we live in ‘the old enemy’ that we are seen as ‘traitors’.
It also manifests itself in those who object to RTÉ or other Irish media outlets reporting on British news, but they never complain about news from, say, Australia.
It is ironic, given that during the Troubles the Irish in England were suspected by a minority of English people of being sympathetic to the IRA. While I was living in Ireland at the time, I have a vivid memory of visiting London in 1997 and seeing ‘Irish get out of England’ graffiti at the underground station in Finchley, and of being asked on another occasion whether I was carrying a bomb.
Older people remember the days of the ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ signs, but nowadays the Irish here are seen as a very successful community, albeit the number of Irish-born has declined significantly with fewer coming and the inevitable passing of the older generation.
Nonetheless, I am constantly struck here by the number of British-born people who are keen to tell me of their Irish family ties.
Some in Ireland seem to forget that in days gone by, when Ireland was a poorer country, money sent back from England and Scotland played a vital role in many households. I am old enough to remember, as a schoolboy studying economics, being struck by the ’emigrants’ remittances’ reference in the national accounts.
Comments like the one quoted about Jessie Buckley show an ignorance of the fact that for people in careers like hers, London offers opportunities largely absent in Ireland or, indeed, in the English regions. The same can be said of some other careers, such as journalism.
There is also a failure to comprehend that for many who migrated down the years, economics was not the only reason to move. Britain afforded privacy and anonymity, the chance to reinvent oneself away from prying eyes. I have written about this subject here.
Whether it be survivors of Magdalen homes, or a later generation of single mothers, gay and lesbian people or couples where one was Catholic and the other Protestant, there were always those who moved to Britain as they were seen as outside the ‘mainstream’ of Irish society and they valued the sense of freedom which Britain provided.
The issue of past migration by LGBT Irish is dealt with here.
Some Irish, no doubt, think all this is in the past and that the more socially liberal Republic of Ireland today has no such problems but it hasn’t gone away, and sometimes other forms of intolerance can surface e.g. ethnically-mixed couples sometimes have had to move to England in the face of racism in Ireland.
The sectarian issue seems to be less in the Republic nowadays, given the dramatic growth of its Protestant population in the last three decades, but Northern Ireland still has deep-rooted problems – I’ve met young people from there who have told me that they love going into an English night club where they won’t be asked their religion!
The Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association is a body whose very existence is an acknowledgement that social attitudes to interchurch couples are not always what they should be.
Many couples left Northern Ireland precisely because of such intolerance, an intolerance which can come from both sides of the community divide.
I have also been struck by the number of young people I met, whose parents left in such circumstances, and the effect has been to turn them off organised religion completely, as they were fed up of relatives interfering and trying to dictate what church a child should be brought up in, when in many cases they will end up non-religious.
It’s easy for people who have not experienced having to leave in such circumstances to be judgemental towards those who have, but they haven’t walked in their shoes.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.