The Irish in London in fact and in fiction

As President Higgins makes the first Irish State visit to Britain, a new book explores how Irish writers have treated the emigrant experience

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 01:00

On a number of occasions since Michael D Higgins’s inauguration, the President of Ireland has spoken about the key role that personal narratives play in voicing and mediating the experience of Irish migration. Novels and memoirs, he argues, help us better understand the long history of political and cultural entanglements between Britain and Ireland.

I’m a product of those entanglements. I grew up in London of Irish parents who came to the city shortly after the second World War. They were typical members of the “Mailboat Generation”, or the generation of “nurses and navvies” as they are sometimes called.

When they first came over, my dad worked on the buildings and my mum worked on the wards. Like so many couples of their kind, they met in an Irish dancehall – in their case the Round Tower on Holloway Road. They worked hard and played hard and after they got married, they began to put down roots and brought up a family. I and my siblings all went to Catholic schools, attended Mass every Sunday and went to Mayo each summer for our holidays. I was the archetypal second-generation London-Irish kid.

Years later, like my parents, I became a migrant myself for a while. When I returned to London, I started to think more about the experience of leaving home to live abroad. All those heady promises – and then the stark realities. How exactly do you come to terms with the gap between them? This was one of the reasons why I set up the Irish Writers in London Summer School in 1996. Each week students read and discuss a set text in class. Then, two nights later, the writer comes in to talk to them about it and his/her experience of emigration.

One evening, a student innocently asked me why there wasn’t a textbook for the course. Nobody, I pointed out, had really written one. To which he replied, “So, why don’t you?” I thought about it for a while, but what worried me was that I couldn’t immediately think of an obvious set of texts to write about.

There have been a number of iconic novels and memoirs about postwar immigrants in London. Think, for instance, of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane , or Andrea Levy’s Small Island , or Emanuel Litvinoff’s Journey Through a Small Planet . Now try to think of a London-Irish equivalent! I might have a subject but did I have sufficient sources? But then I started digging.

I discovered a number of half-forgotten but very good novels, such as Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Schnitzer O’Shea and Anthony Cronin’s The Life of Riley . I re-read some of the more canonical writers of late twentieth century Irish literature such as Edna O’Brien and John McGahern. I could see that migration was not necessarily foregrounded in their work, but it was lurking just below the surface in fascinating ways. I was intrigued.

So, why had Irish writers been so reluctant to represent their own and their compatriots’ experiences of migration to London? Why the reticence? Especially given that they were the oldest and, for a long time, the biggest migrant group in the city? Was it shame, indifference, or plain Irish contrariness?

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