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.
Now 25, Sorohan exemplifies the internal debate facing some of them: fiercely proud of his Irish background and heritage, he plays GAA with the Garryowen club in Cricklewood, yet he holds a British passport.
“Recently, a girl at work referred to my brother as a fake Irishman when he mentioned that we were going over for an Irish football game in Dublin. I didn’t take kindly to that. All four of my grandparents are Irish,” he says.
Asked what he sees in the mirror, an Irishman, or an Englishman, Sorohan stops for a moment. “I don’t know how to answer that question. I have been toying with the idea of referring to myself as an Irish-Briton in the same way that you might say Black British.
“However, the problem is that because of the historical situation it is perceived as an oxymoron. Part of the book talks about how it is almost impossible to create a hybrid identity that is part British and part Irish.
“To be Irish you are brought up with songs about how awful the British were. Such a core part of the British identity has been, on the other hand, to be Protestant, so core parts of the identities crash up against each other. I hope in the modern day that things like that can disappear and to be an Irish Briton – or a more common term would be London-Irish – would not be an oxymoron any more,” he says, noting the increasing use of the “London-Irish” tag.
However, “London-Irish” is a neutral description. “It conveniently side-steps any reference to Britain, obviously. The term is born of two things: when you are Irish and born in London and with an English accent you can’t say, ‘I’m Irish,’ full stop.” Just one of the second-generation interviewees for his book sees themselves as Irish “and nothing else, because people in Ireland don’t see you as Irish; you are the English cousin”; but others “don’t want to acknowledge” that they are British, so they say that they are Londoners.
For Sorohan, like so many of the Irish in Britain, the use of the “Plastic Paddy” description by the Irish at home grates beyond measure. “I often find that I’ll meet an Irish person and they are genuinely surprised that I would see myself as to whatever degree Irish.” No such problems exist for Irish-Americans. “It’s partly historic. An English accent in the Irish mind brings up negative connotations that the American accent doesn’t. Historically, America is always seen as where the Irish succeed and Britain isn’t. It’s not true.
“It’s part of the national myth of America. There were certain things, like John F Kennedy’s election to the White House, that must have had a huge impact on Irish people in Ireland, thinking, Isn’t America great?”
The subliminal distinctions made by the Irish at home about the diaspora are reflected, he believes, in the advertising for the Gathering next year, which Tourism Ireland hopes will bring tens of thousands of visitors.
“I was struck by something looking at The Irish Times website yesterday. There was an advert for the Gathering, saying ‘Invite Uncle Sam, and Cousin Tod’. You couldn’t get more American. What about Uncle Paddy in London?” he says.
His research, begun at Queen’s University Belfast, has had a big effect on him. “Thinking about identity for three years, it is going to. Throughout my life I have done the typical thing and swayed from one to the other. I was probably feeling very Irish before I started.
“I had moved to Belfast for a year, and you do that thing where you try to find an identity for yourself. Irish, full stop, was looking like the simplest option, but I do now think that I have become proud of being an Irish-Londoner, or London-Irish, or an Irish-Briton, or whatever you want to say.” His father, Peter, whose own parents had emigrated from Longford and Cavan, and his mother, Joanna, born to parents who had left Tipperary and Kerry, were both brought up in a strongly Irish community in London.
They met and fell in love atn the Galtymore, the famous dance hall in Cricklewood. “My parents were more naturally Irish than me. they were brought up in such a strong Irish community that it almost never occurred to them as much as it does to me.
“I am slightly more removed from all that, the Galtymore doesn’t exist any more. I don’t socialise only with Irish people. I have always thought that they were just Irish; it was just a part of them. But, for me, I am more conscious of it and I make them more conscious of it, certainly my mum. She said that having me write this book has made her realise how Irish she is.”