Irish in 1970s Coventry: ‘If Ireland’s that great, why don’t you f**k off back?’

By the 1990s and the era of Jack Charlton it was okay to be Irish again, writes Chris Egan

Chris Egan was born in Coventry in 1968. His dad moved to the city from Castlelough, in Portroe in Co Tipperary, when he was 19. His mum moved to the city with her sisters from Ballywogs, in Co Donegal, when she was 14. Egan is lead commissioner for strategic growth and infrastructure at Warwickshire County Council and is a regional photographer for the Irish Post.

My parents met in Coventry in the 1960s at one of the local GAA clubs and settled in the city to raise a family while maintaining their links to Ireland.

As a child, I saw my world through a narrow prism. Like many of my peers, I thought everyone in Coventry was Irish. This view was reinforced when attending school, church or one of the many Irish clubs in the city, all of which were within walking distance or a just a short bus ride away.

I grew up aware of the politics of Northern Ireland, especially with the escalation of the Troubles. One of my mum’s sisters lived on the Falls Road in Belfast and as a family we often heard of incidents that directly affected people in Belfast.


In 1973, Father Patrick Fell was a curate at our local church in Coventry. He was arrested and charged for being a commander in the Provisional IRA. He was accused of planning a campaign in Coventry and targeting prominent local places, some of which were less than a mile away from his church.

The success of Ireland reaching their first World Cup in 1990 allowed the Irish in Coventry to celebrate their national team

Then, in 1974, there was the devastation of the pub bombings in the neighbouring city of Birmingham. Both these events changed the way the Irish were viewed in Coventry.

At this time there were regular bomb scares and I remember vividly being unable to get a bus home from the city centre due to various scares, hoax calls and bags or other packages being left on buses.

The aftermath of the “IRA cell”, as it was known, being exposed and a belief that some of Coventry’s factories were to be targets had a major impact on employment for the Irish. My dad, who was working in the building trade, started to work away from home due to the difficulty that anyone with an Irish accent found trying to get work in a city that did not want them.

The perception that I once had that Coventry was an Irish city was all but gone. Like many in the Irish community, I felt that we were an unwelcome and unwanted minority. You certainly did not talk about or celebrate your Irish heritage. There was distrust aimed at anyone with Irish links and if you did talk or celebrate your Irish roots, it would not be uncommon to hear the comment: “If Ireland’s that great, why don’t you f**k off back?”

This hostility lasted well into my teenage years. The city had a significant Irish community, but it was a community that pretty much kept itself to itself.

This started to change in the late 1980s. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl released Fairytale of New York and the former England football player Jack Charlton took over the helm as the manager of Ireland’s national football team. The success of Ireland reaching their first World Cup in 1990 allowed the Irish in Coventry to celebrate their national team. It was okay to be Irish again.

In 2017, Coventry was named the UK City of Culture for 2021. The year got off to a delayed start due to the Covid-19 pandemic and then, due to the ongoing concerns regarding public gatherings and travel, the plans for the year were adapted. This resulted in year’s celebrations starting six month late with many of the programmed events switching to be viewed online rather than with a live audience.

The parameters that the City of Culture had to operate within amplified the ability of communities within Coventry to celebrate the city and their own history and heritage.

As a relatively small city in Britain, Coventry boasts a large and vibrant Comhaltas branch that promotes traditional Irish music and culture around the world. Coventry is also home to three GAA clubs, all of which field a senior men’s Gaelic football team. Gaelic football is played in many primary and secondary schools and there are a growing number of adults and children playing hurling and camogie.

Irish dance is celebrated across the city and Coventry is home to a number of dance schools and academies that have produced multiple world Irish dance champions.

The year Coventry being British City of Culture prompted me to reflect on the Irish community in a city that is known internationally as a place of multicultural tolerance, peace and reconciliation.

A large proportion of Coventry’s population have a shared history despite coming from different parts of Ireland, the West Indies, South Asia, or elsewhere. All came to Coventry to improve their economic situation. In return, the city has given them and their children an identity that they can be proud of.

The Irish in Coventry have changed a little I think. They have bridged the gap held historically by second- and third-generation Irish about their English/Irish identity.

As the City of Culture activities came to a close, Coventry’s three GAA clubs put all their rivalries aside and put on a one-day Gaelic Sports Festival. As part of the festival, the three clubs fielded a senior men’s team, playing under the name Coventry GAA in the city’s famous sky-blue colours, against Birmingham-based Erin go Bragh GAA.

It was clear those players wearing Coventry GAA shirts were as proud of wearing them as they would have been playing in their own family’s county colours back in Ireland.

Coventry has a culture of acceptance. It is a city that allows you to celebrate your own heritage. You can be proud of your adopted home and celebrate your roots, whether they are Irish, Jamaican, Indian or Polish. This ability to celebrate diversity is a legacy that the City of Culture status has allowed the Irish community to build upon.

The UK City of Culture is chosen every four years. As Coventry’s year came to an end, Bradford was named the UK City of Culture for 2025. We wish them luck.

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