Entangled connections: Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England

Review: A superb new book focusing on people often excluded from the Irish historical narrative

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England


Mo Moulton

Cambridge University Press

Guideline Price:

Growing up in Ireland during the late 1970s and early 1980s, England featured heavily in our consciousness. Then as now, we rarely thought of Scotland, Wales or indeed Britain as a unitary state. It was England, not Britain. Living on the east coast, and being by virtue of geography West Brits, ensured we had access to that most corrosive form of British cultural imperialism: the BBC.

After school we watched a daily diet of Jackanory, Play School and, most dangerous of all, Blue Peter, with its desirable badges and values of good citizenship, fair play and self-discipline.

The weekend opened with Swap Shop, presented by Noel Edmonds, and also featured Jimmy Savile’s popular Saturdayevening programme, Jim’ll Fix It. We earnestly hoped that he would fix it for us and make our dreams come true one day, but he never picked Irish children – fortuitously, given what we now know about his brutal sexual abuse of children. We were hooked on this diet of entertainment and unsubtle didactic learning – mostly because of the glamour of it all. No wonder RTÉ seemed a poor relation. We felt deep sympathy for people who could watch only the national broadcaster.

Of England itself we knew little. At school the “auld enemy” was wheeled in and out of the story of Ireland’s dramatic history like the evil character of a Shakespearian tragedy. A few courageous English tourists came to Ireland in the 1980s despite the hostile political climate after the deaths of the Maze hunger strikers.

We had friends and relatives in the “land of the Sassenach”, of course, many who had left Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. The packages they sent came bedecked with stamps bearing Queen Elizabeth’s head, heralding the arrival of desirable objects that were unavailable in Ireland.

We watched Top of the Pops and followed English soccer. We loved everything English, yet we also despised England, especially politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, and everything that country represented in our own history. We wanted to be modern like the English but also to be different.

Hybrid heritage

One revelation about our hybrid heritage occurred when out cycling with my siblings along the back roads of Porterstown, near Clonsilla in west Dublin. In a wall we came across a small postbox decorated in the usual bright green. On closer inspection things were not as they first seemed. The royal cipher covered with layers of paint was still visible, and it read “VR”. I asked my father later what this stood for – he was a civil servant in the department of posts and telegraphs – and he told me that it was Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. It struck me as odd that a postbox in our locality should have the name of a British monarch on it.

That postbox, long since gone, part of the collateral damage of the tsunami of housing development in west Dublin during the boom, is a useful reminder of the entangled connections at the heart of Mo Moulton’s wonderful new book about the relationship between Ireland and England in the 1920s and 1930s.