If you’re English-Irish, come into the parlour
We’ve broadened the range of our cultural identities hugely over the past decades. We have Polish-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Filipino-Irish, even – it still takes an effort – British-Irish, though only for Northerners who really really insist. But one frontier remains. The term “English-Irish” still sounds absurd to Irish ears, a self-contradiction like “black-white” or “thin-fat”.
To some extent, this is a problem with the English. They just don’t blend well with Johnny Foreigner. Even now , such long-standing cultural mixes as Pakistani-English or Caribbean-English sound unnatural to an Anglophone. But it has to be said that the main problem is with us.
For centuries, the English have been very useful to us, the very image of everything we’re not. Some very different groups of people have been helped to coalesce into a single Irish nation as a result. But the reality is that England and Ireland are so interbred, in our cultures, our economies, even our ancestors, that maintaining the illusion of such an absolute black-and-white division takes an increasing effort. It is becoming harder to keep the blinkers in place.
What brings all this to mind is reading John Walsh’s wonderful account of growing up English-Irish in the 1960s and 1970s, The Falling Angels (Flamingo, 1999). The title refers to the story that some of the angels expelled after Lucifer’s rebellion got stuck in mid-air, half-way between heaven and hell. It encapsulates perfectly the lives of my English cousins. Their parents, who emigrated between the 1940s and the 1960s, clung to their Irishness and did their utmost to pass it on to the next generation, bringing them back for holidays year after year, passing on Irish songs and stories, teaching them bits of Irish. As a result, they were forever foreign in England and, whenever we heard their accents, they were purely English to us here.
Walsh makes a point of calling himself English-Irish repeatedly during the book. By the end I was completely desensitised to the label. Good on him.