Older legacy fades by popular demand
There’s no point in denying our troubled history, but culture has constructed a shelter from the storm, bringing people together in remrkable ways
Left to right, back; James Joyce,John Lydon, Jonathan Swift, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Andy Irvine, Luke Kelly, Elvis Costello;Front: the Gallagher brothers Liam and Noel, Philip Chevron, Boy George,Oscar Wilde and Shane McGowan.
For those of us who were 1980s immigrants to London, The Pogues were more than a band. When they played live in Brixton, the atmosphere was more like a rally of unleashed hopes than a gig. Some of the group’s members were Irish, others English; several considered themselves both. The music drew from punk and the Irish tradition.
Brilliant Dubliner Philip Chevron, formerly of The Radiators, added European cabaret and theatre to the mix. Things were said from the stage that no politician was saying. There’s a country you can belong to. You’re not alone or forgotten. A song can be the passport you’re seeking.
Culture is a way of conducting a conversation without having to talk. Ultimately the book that reveals most about the relationship between Ireland and England is no novel or historical study or scholarly tome, but the telephone directory of any major British city, in which thousands of people bearing my own surname and every other Irish surname will be found.
The Irish and English are more mulatto than we ever acknowledge, but privately we know this to be true. Culture has reflected and amplified that reality, opening spaces rhetoric tried to close down.
I love London. I lived there many years. That’s how Ireland was in the 1980s: you got your plane ticket the day you got your degree. Emigration was so unquestioned that you didn’t think about it much, it befell you, like a national puberty.
I grew up in Dún Laoghaire, where the nightly entertainment was to walk the pier and look at the ferries crossing Dublin Bay and wonder which English city you’d end up in. Ireland was a failed experiment on the western shores of Europe that only survived because of the irony that every decade, a hundred thousand of its people would go to live in the land of the old enemy. If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus went to Holyhead in search of Tara, most departed for less lofty reasons.
But my parents would point out that this rainy, sad Lilliput where we didn’t do many things brilliantly was also the homeland of Yeats, Kavanagh, Wilde and Bernard Shaw, interesting figures because they had lived in both countries. Swift is included in anthologies of British writers as well as Irish. We used to feel neurotic about this in Ireland but I think it’s the greatest thing about his work. It has what a later Anglo-Irish writer, Stephen Patrick Morrissey of The Smiths, once termed Irish blood, English heart .
My father, now in his 70s, had a Christian Brothers education in 1940s Dublin and can still quote reams of verse about the treacherous Saxon dogs and how they poisoned Owen Roe O’Neill. But he and the other boys thought it faintly ridiculous. It was rousing stuff, but their fathers and mothers had worked in England and their siblings lived there now.
By the time of my own schooldays, the game was up. Hard to tell kids to hate England when they love Manchester United, Leeds and Chelsea, The Beat, The Specials and The Clash. The closer you looked, the more English seemed Ireland, or the more irremediably Irish seemed England.
Such hugely important figures as Gate Theatre founder Micheál Mac Liammóir and traditional music genius Andy Irvine were born there. Michael Davitt was raised in Lancashire. Luke Kelly began singing in Wolverhampton. Beckett’s funniest novel, Murphy , is set in London, while the early Abbey Theatre was supported financially by a magnificent English woman, Annie Elizabeth Horniman.