Ciara Kenny

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

Promoting Irish culture in Nottingham

‘Engaging with Irish heritage makes me feel I belong, in Ireland and in Britain’

Deirdre O'Byrne storytelling at Crawley Irish Festival last summer. Photograph: Gerry Molumby

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 17:10


Deirdre O’Byrne

When I left Ireland in 1988, I didn’t dream I’d end up living in a sort of virtual Ireland. It all came about gradually.

I was teaching Irish literature at Loughborough University when I discovered Nottingham Irish Studies Group, a voluntary community group set up in January 1991 and became involved, organising their Changing Ireland festival in 2003.

It all spread like shamrock from there. I co-organised a few more festivals and study days, ran a literature course, and Pat Murphy, the group’s founding member, started an Irish language group. I began to get requests from festival and library groups to talk about Irish literature. On St Patrick’s Day, children seemed to be not that well catered for, so I started telling them stories: Oisín and Niamh, Maeve and the Bull of Cooley – old Irish myths I’d learned at Rathoe National School in Co Carlow, fadó fadó.

While working as literature officer for Nottingham City Council, I set up an Irish book group, and made a concerted effort to promote Irish writers in the region, including poet Catherine Byron, then living in Leicester, and second-generation poet/playwright Kevin Fegan, living in Mansfield. Speakers who participated in Nottingham Irish Studies Group events sometimes travelled from Ireland, like Paul Durcan and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, and sometimes from other parts of Britain, like Bernard O’Donoghue and Bernard Mac Laverty.

We discovered unexpected local connections when three founders of Blackdrop, a group promoting black performance poets, revealed they each had Irish heritage. We invited them to perform on St Patrick’s Day, and we’re planning more work together in the future.

I’m still teaching Irish literature in my day job at Loughborough University, and I love it. But my outreach and community work is just as rewarding, even if the annual Irish festival, now grown from one day, 17th March, to a month-long celebration, tends to leave me feeling a bit like the proverbial mad March hare.

Community work has helped to develop my skills and confidence, and I’ve met lots of interesting people. I enjoy getting requests from all quarters. Recently, I sent suggestions for early Irish poems to a retired librarian who’s running literature discussions in a home for the elderly – none of the participants is Irish as far as I know, but you don’t have to be Hibernian to appreciate our culture.

I’ve visited other Irish groups in Britain, including Derby, Leicester, Mansfield and Birmingham, and I was delighted to find a fellow Carlovian, John Nolan, running Crawley Irish Festival, and even more delighted to do storytelling there last summer.

These days, we’re online with a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account, with an East Midlands Irish Forum Facebook page as a networking group for the Irish around the region. I enjoy connecting online, but the best aspect of that is finally meeting virtual contacts face-to-face. People still want to meet in person, to learn cúpla focal of Gaeilge at our taster sessions, to hear the old Irish legends, and to discuss Irish politics, history and literature.

Last year, I wrote programme notes for the performance of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a production at Curve Theatre, Leicester, and ran a workshop on the playtext for schools. Literature live always trumps online: we’ve performed pieces from Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, and we’ve done Bloomsday celebratory readings, sometimes interspersed with Irish music.

I like bringing it all back home too. The Pan-Celtic Festival was on my home turf in Carlow in 2012-13 and I did storytelling at that. We read some James Joyce extracts at the History Festival of Ireland, also held in Co Carlow, on Bloomsday 2013.

Sometimes when I’m visiting my mother I drop into the local Tullow Library to do storytelling there. I recently participated in a discussion on Patrick Kavanagh’s work at a literary festival in Courthouse Arts Centre in Tinahely, Co Wicklow. My years in England didn’t blunt my awe at being on the same panel as the actor Tom Hickey. As a farmer’s daughter, I remember watching him play Benjy Riordan, and his masterful readings of Kavanagh’s work at the festival were just as evocative of the rural Ireland I grew up in.

It confirmed for me that though I’ve come a long distance in some respects, being involved in promoting Irish literature, language and heritage in Britain makes me feel like I belong, whether I’m at home or away.

Deirdre O’Byrne is chair of the Nottingham Irish Studies Group.

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.