‘Britain seemed far away but familiar’
Declan McSweeney developed a curiosity about the UK as a child, which led him to move there
Reflecting on the significance of the state visit of President Michael D Higgins to Britain for the Irish community here, I found myself reminiscing on the effects of childhood reading on my decision to move to the UK.
When I was a child, I was ill a lot of the time, and partly because of this became a voracious reader. Most of the books were by British authors, and comics like the Beano and the Dandy were an important part of my life. At times, also, as I lay in my bed, I found myself listening to BBC as an alternative to RTE, then Ireland’s only radio station.
Looking back, I think it was then I began to develop a curiosity about the land on the other side of the Irish Sea. This deepened when my brother Barry went to work in London; in the days before emails, Skype, mobiles or cheap phone calls, I looked forward to the arrival of the blue envelopes with postmarks in Golders Green or Bayswater, bringing intriguing tales of what seemed in those days as far away a country as we would think of, for example, Australia today.
My father, while very proud to be Irish, always displayed a great regard for many British writers and politicians. I recall him getting the Sunday Times every Sunday, and being a regular subscriber to the Readers’ Digest, and getting various books from them. As a child, I read many of these books of my father’s, such as Winston Churchill’s diaries, and various historical magazines which had come from Britain.
It was only in the 1980s, when I was already a young adult, that multi-channel television became available in Tullamore. Until then, only the two RTE channels were available, and I recall, when visiting cousins in Dublin and Naas, the excitement of being able to view such exotic channels as BBC and Harlech (now ITV Cymru Wales); in those days, I could never have imagined the plethora of TV channels which would come on stream.
My early exposure to English, Welsh and Scottish writers was, of course, deepened during my time in secondary school at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, where the late Pat Carty instilled in us a fascination for Shakespeare and Dickens, Wordsworth and Keats, George Eliot and Dylan Thomas.
All these factors meant that while Great Britain was on the one hand a source of great interest, on the other I never saw it as a foreign land in the way that, for example, France or Germany were. The common bond of language and the profound personal connections through the Irish communities of England, Wales and Scotland meant that there was always a sense in which I saw Great Britain and Ireland (along with the Isle of Man and Channel Islands) as a unit, linked not only by geography but by history.
Growing up at a time when news was dominated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I longed for the day when the 800-year-long conflict in these islands would come to an end, and that we could all live in harmony. I was conscious of prejudices on both sides, but could honestly say my parents always brought me up to love British people, and always to distinguish between them as individuals.
When my father was dying, I was in my early days as a reporter with Offaly Express (now closed) and I vividly recall discussing with him the possibility of me moving to Britain at a later stage to pursue my career there. Circumstances prevented my moving for many years, as after his death I spent eleven years caring for my mother as she grew old.
But I did eventually move to Britain, and despite my enormous mistake in returning to Ireland only to be made redundant as the economy collapsed, I found myself back in Britain and this time I feel at home here I am grateful to the many ordinary British people who have made myself and my family welcome. I have lost count of the number of times I have received friendly comments when people hear my accent.
The comments of queen Elizabeth at the state dinner for President Higgins, when she acknowledged the past discrimination against the Irish in Britain, and acknowledged our contribution to the life of this country, were a welcome follow-up to her successful 2011 visit to the Republic. Who could have imagined, some years ago, that Buckingham Palace would send out a Twitter message as Gaeilge?
I do feel, at the same time, that there are many misconceptions on both sides and it is important for the authorities in London, Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh to work together to remove them. That is important for both the Irish in Britain and the British in the Republic. I am, thinking, for example, of the basic fact that many British people are, believe it or not, unaware that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Equally, many younger Irish people seem ignorant of the fact that the Good Friday Agreement means a United Ireland can only come about with the consent of a majority in both jurisdictions.
In that context, the fact the Republic and the United Kingdom have reached a level of friendship and co-operation which could not have been imagined even ten years ago, is a cause for tremendous celebration. The success of so many Irish in so many walks of life in Britain, and the prominence of their British-born sons and daughters in sport, music, writing, comedy, business and politics, is a tangible sign of the bonds which link Limerick and Liverpool, Cork and Coventry, Gweedore and Glasgow, Mayo and Manchester, Dublin and Dagenham, Tullamore and Tunbridge Wells.