Entangled connections: Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England
Review: A superb new book focusing on people often excluded from the Irish historical narrative
Cultural tourism: a travel poster from 1923. Photograph: SSPL/Getty
Entangled conections: Éamon de Valera is cheered in London in 1932. Photograph: Keystone/Getty
Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England
Cambridge University Press
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.
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.
She discusses some conventional subjects, such as the War of Independence and the Civil War, but in an entirely new way, investigating how these events were seen in England. Her discussions of “war tourism” – that is, the published accounts of visitors and travellers who came to Ireland during the “Troubles” – are very original, and she shows how knowledge of Ireland was filtered through writers and journalists to the wider English public.
She’s not particularly interested in the high politics of constitutional intrigue, though she covers some of these dimensions. Neither is the focus on personalities. This book is about people often excluded from the Irish historical narrative, weighted as it is towards “great men”. Migrants, women, loyalists and ex-soldiers feature prominently in Moulton’s account, and that is to be welcomed. They were citizens of both but never fully part of either society.
What she is essentially concerned with recovering is the deep and all-pervasive web of connections between Ireland and England from the start of the War of Independence, in 1919, until the outbreak of the second World War, in 1939. After independence, in 1922, the long-standing ties of people, institutions and ideas that linked the two counties into a political but not cultural union did not disappear overnight.
Some of the most original chapters chart the experiences of those for whom this change was deeply unsettling, especially the Anglo-Irish and other loyalists.
Moulton is especially good at recreating the world of the displaced Anglo-Irish, using their writings, including diaries and letters, to give a sense of their indeterminate status in both Ireland and Britain.
The second part of the book is mostly concerned with Irish people in England.
Moulton argues persuasively for seeing English views of Ireland as intimately tied up with reactions to Irish migrants living there. Her fluent analysis of the ambiguities of being Irish in interwar England is a major contribution to knowledge about Britain’s largest immigrant group for most of the last century.
She is especially good at explaining why the Irish never formed a strong political voice in Britain, seeing this largely as down to organisational failure and a lack of motivation. She demonstrates that even though it was widely assumed that the Irish integrated within English society, they in fact exhibited all the characteristics of a distinctive subculture, based largely around Catholicism and a sense of acute difference from the majority culture.
It’s a riveting read, deeply researched and stylishly written, with extensive use of archival material. Moulton clearly has an eye for fascinating or quirky details, such as the Linguaphone Irish-language records made available to the Irish in England to learn the language or the macabre group concerned with drawing attention to Irish graves in England. In a very sophisticated debut book, she has demonstrated that Ireland did not disappear from the English imagination in the 1920s and 1930s, as is widely assumed. The “repressed island” would retain its place in English consciousness for generations to come.