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
A London Metropolitan Police officer watches a Connacht championship GAA game between London and Sligo in Ruislip, Middlesex. Photograph: Inpho/Morgan Treacy
The former Galtymore Dance Club in Cricklewood, north London
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, right, meet the Irish Elderly Advice Group at London Irish Centre in 2012. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Fans enjoy the music at the London Fleadh in Finsbury Park in 2001 . Photograph: Terry Thorp
Irish labourers at work in Britain
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?
Maybe the answer lay with the second generation? I started reading memoirs by middle-aged men from similar London-Irish backgrounds to myself. This was an encouraging experience. I found some reassuring common cultural points of reference. But it was also a strangely unsettling one. There were so many unexpected and disturbing divergences and disjunctures. My first reaction to this? “That’s not how I remember it!”
Then there were the omissions. Why didn’t they mention, for instance, listening to the Clancy Brothers on their family’s old mono record player like I had done. Where was the reference to gathering round a big portable radio with 20 or 30 Irish lads at the top of Highgate Hill to hear Michael O’Hehir commentating on the All-Ireland football final? I then began to have similar qualms when I read novels and memoirs about Irish migrants who, like my parents, came to London in the immediate post-war years. Likewise, with accounts about the later cohort of “Ryanair Generation” migrants whom I met and worked with in the 1980s and 1990s. Why did I find the picture they painted so incomplete?
It is clear to me now that I was simply anxious to have my own experience affirmed in print. But that wasn’t really fair on my sources. I needed to take them on their own terms. So, I started again and began to listen more carefully to what they were actually saying rather than what I wanted them to say.
I looked once more at novels such as John McGahern’s Amongst Women, Joseph O’Connor’s Cowboys and Indians , John B Keane’s The Contractors , at memoirs such as John Walsh’s The Falling Angels , John Healy’s The Grass Arena and short stories like Sarah Berkeley’s The Swimmer and Emma Donoghue’s Going Home . None of them could be described as the archetypal London Irish story. But, this time I found something richer, more provocative and ultimately more sustaining – a kaleidoscope of individual experiences and accounts which taken together offered a remarkable portrait of a migrant community as it evolved in Britain over a 50-year period.
I sat down and began to write again with a renewed excitement. My subject, as that student pointed out to me, had always been right under my nose. But by this time I had learnt how to read beneath the surface of the texts I was examining. Here were novels, short stories and memoirs written and peopled by men and women who, as well as making journeys from one country to another, had embarked upon narrative journeys of the mind.
I feel lucky to have got to know them. They have allowed me, in turn, to travel and migrate, vicariously, through multiple forms of Irishness. They are, to quote Louis MacNiece, “incorrigibly plural” and that is something to celebrate rather than to fear.
The Irish Writers in London Summer School takes place in June and July: