Double identity: the complex world of the Irish in Britain
A new book by a young writer from an Irish background challenges the prevailing image of the Irish experience in London as one of exclusively heavy drinking, hard living and dominated by the Troubles
SITTING IN A Catholic church with his mother when he was four years old, Sean Sorohan, born in Edgware in north London to second-generation Irish parents, enthusiastically put up his hand when the catechist asked if any children present were not from England.
Having proudly proclaimed that he was from Ireland, the younger Sorohan was stumped, as he puts it in the introduction to his book Irish London During the Troubles, when the teacher asked if he had come by boat or by aeroplane.
Some of Sorohan’s work will be seen as revisionist: the majority of Irish did not live in fear of police arrest or harassment during the Troubles – even though he accepts that “horror stories” abound.
“Most people weren’t arrested by police and most people weren’t running around scared; they were wondering when Big Tom was next on and busy bringing up their families and basically doing well here,” says Sorohan, who carried out dozens of detailed interviews.
Equally, he believes, sociologists and historians have focused too much on the problems of the Irish in Britain: the alcoholism that afflicted some, or the isolation that affects older, less integrated people today. Problems existed and exist, he accepts, but he argues that the miracle is that the problems were so few, particularly as most emigrants in the 1950s and early 1960s came from rural counties, and were poorly educated.
“They were never going to come over here and all be in the upper middle class. There were going to be problems with alcoholism and life expectancy, but on the other hand most people didn’t end up as alcoholics or in awful jobs,” he says.
Unlike the picture painted of “Irish” Kilburn, or Cricklewood, Sorohan points out that even by 1971 two-thirds of those born in the Republic and living in London were in electoral wards where just one in 20 shared a similar background.
By 1991, Hammersmith, for many the first staging post in London, had seen its Irish population fall by more than a third, from 13,500 to 8,600, while the number of those born in the Republic living in Kilburn wards had fallen by 43 per cent.
Though his work is titled Irish London During the Troubles, much of it focuses on the problems of identity faced today by the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, even great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of Irish emigrants.