Irish Roots

John Grenham


As any Brit with Irish ancestry knows, Irish family history has a serious blind spot. For the Irish in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, even Argentina, there are migration histories aplenty, along with biographical dictionaries, passenger lists, dedicated websites, conferences, magazines. Yet despite the fact that more Irish have migrated to Britain than to any other destination, there is almost nothing dealing with the genealogies of the Irish in Britain. Why should this be?

Think of the ways in which the descendants of the Irish abroad are described: Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians. Why does "Irish-British" sound like an absurd self-contradiction, at least to contemporary southern Irish ears? The state we created after 1922 was monolithic, ferociously homogeneous, Catholic, Gaelic, but above all else, not British. A classic post-colonial syndrome, intensified in Ireland's case by the physical, economic and cultural closeness of Britain. You define yourself in opposition to what threatens you most. "Irish" became the opposite of "British".

This mind-set permeated Irish life throughout most the 20th century. History was taught in two unrelated categories, Irish and European, with curious blanks when it came to anything British. Geography was divided into Ireland and The World; to this day many Irish people who could pinpoint Timbuktu on a map have only the haziest notion of where places are next door in England. The Irish who fought in the two World Wars were wilfully forgotten. And the Irish abroad became Irish-America and Irish-Australia.

Things are changing, though slowly. The academic study of local Irish populations in Britain is uncovering the skein of connections between particular localities in Ireland and British destinations. We have Glasgow Irish, Liverpool Irish, Manchester Irish, London Irish. But it will be a while yet before we have British Irish.


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