Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

A very British Irishness

Panellists participating in today’s conference on being Irish in Britain explain what it means to them

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 00:00


As the UK prepares for the historic state visit next week of President Michael D Higgins, London Irish Centre is hosting a public discussion today about being Irish in Britain. Here some of the panellists, ranging from newly arrived to long-established and second generation, explain what it means to them.

‘Dublin feels pretty close’
Dylan Haskins, broadcaster

From my bedroom in Hackney, in east London, Dublin feels pretty close. I can listen to RTÉ Radio 1, read The Irish Times and chat with my friends and family.

In the evening I’ll meet up with a group of mainly Irish friends and do the same sort of things I’d do on a weekend night in Dublin. Once a month or so I can set off from the house knowing I’ll be having a pint in Grogan’s within four hours – the same time it takes to drive from Dublin to Dingle.

On a weekday I might go into BBC’s Portland Place studios to record an episode of the Soundings culture podcast with my Irish cohost, Lisa Hannigan.

It’s produced by Dermot O’Leary’s company. The support of this second-generation success story and British household name, a broadcaster knowledgeable about his Co Wexford roots, is an example of the kind of relationship that now exists between the established diaspora and us new arrivals.

Each generation of Irish immigrants to Britain climbed another rung on the social ladder. With Irish diaspora now involved in every aspect of British life, there are no rungs left to climb.

The parity and codependence between our two countries means that, outside of Ireland, Britain is the best place to be Irish in 2014.

‘Britain remains a magnet for emigrants’
Shane Nagle, co-organiser of the Being Irish in Britain in 2014 conference

For hundreds of years Britain has been a magnet for Irish emigrants, and it remains so as Ireland continues to have one of the highest rates of emigration in the EU.

This year sees not only the 60th anniversary of London Irish Centre but also the first state visit of a president of Ireland to the UK, with relations between the countries more cordial than they have ever been.

Today’s public discussion will reflect on the generation gap between older and newly established members of the Irish community in Britain, Ireland’s relationship with the Irish abroad, Irish identity in Britain, and the role of Irish centres and community organisations in Britain today.

We hope to generate an open dialogue on contemporary Irishness in Britain.

‘In Britain I have found another home’
Mary Heffernan, Irish Forum for Counselling & Psychotherapy

I like the story of Samuel Beckett’s response when interviewed for a French magazine. The interviewer asked him if he was English. He replied, “au contraire”. It’s the notion of “contrariness” that resonates most with me about being Irish in Britain; the joys and sorrows of difference, of our idiosyncrasies.

Every emigrant has to mourn the ease of the familiar, the shared. In Britain I have found another home on the far side of that bereavement. I have discovered a way of integrating new freedoms while retaining some old certainties. Brunel’s feats of engineering are all the more inspiring for the viewer whose spirit is nurtured in Heaney’s peaty soil; the niceties of the Boat Race a balm for the soul after the exquisite passion of a hurling final in Croke Park. The tension of the contrast has become the spice of life. Beckett said “au contraire”; I say “vive la différence.”

‘There is no single Irish in Britain identity’
Dr Marc Scully, social psychologist working on identity, migration and diaspora at the University of Leicester

As someone who studies identity, Irishness in Britain is a fascinating and evolving topic. With the two islands close enough to allow a strong degree of transnationalism, Irishness in Britain is more influenced by what happens in Ireland than anywhere else in the diaspora.

The historical Irish experience in Britain, influenced by both postcolonialism and the Troubles, has led to a form of Irishness developing in British cities that the Irish in Ireland may not identify with.

This tension over what it means to be Irish in Britain is the source of much creativity. This is most immediately apparent in London, whose St Patrick’s Day parade, unlike New York’s and Boston’s, welcomed a London-Irish LGBT group this year.

‘Second-generation Irish have compatible loyalties’
Prof Mary J Hickman, Centre for Irish Studies, St Mary’s University, Twickenham; chair of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad

English and Irish identities are intertwined in the children and grandchildren of Irish migrants to Britain. They have simultaneous but compatible loyalties. But, in England, second-generation Irish often have to defend charges of inauthenticity from those pressuring them to be English; while in Ireland they face pressure of a different sort from those who reject their Irish identifications.

The message from each is that the second-generation Irish are “really English”.

Sometimes this situation is described as being caught between two cultures. But this implies being locked in position. The people I have interviewed over the years have been more concerned with gaining recognition for the complexity of their identifications as second generation. Their desire is for recognition of this hybridity.