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Are the UK-based Irish supporting England?

‘Anybody but England’ mentality continues to have strong purchase among many Irish, writes Shane Nagle

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 16:45


Shane Nagle

The World Cup is on, and yet again, (the Republic of) Ireland is not in it. So who do we support? For some, it will be “Anybody but England”. For my part, I don’t care enough about football to take much of an interest in the World Cup, and it’s for that reason as much as any other that I’m indifferent to England’s fortunes, even as a second-generation Irishman living in the UK. If England won I wouldn’t out be cheering and boozing, and I won’t be losing any sleep if they lose tonight’s vital match against Uruguay.

It may seem puzzling today, when as our politicians never get tired of telling us, “relations have never been better”, that “Anybody but England” should still have many adherents. Is it just a matter of petty ill will, the effect of an inferiority complex in people who are in some way insecure about their Irishnesss?

To those who think so, it reflects how while most English people have a benign disinterest in Ireland and what the Irish think of them, in Ireland, England and what goes on there continues to attract constant and deep attention. Certainly, given Ireland’s history, geography, place in the world, and the magnet-like effect that England continues to have on the Irish today, it’s no surprise Irish people should care more about England than English people do about Ireland. Yet, as a second-generation Irishman I know very well that the Irish joke has not gone away, nor has an inclination to regard the Irish as mercurial people, cheerful and friendly, but still in some ways a bit strange and unpredictable.

Media coverage of the recent Tuam scandal (such as it has figured in the English news) has played a part in this. The kind of benign disregard of Ireland among English people has as its flipside a tendency towards a kind of semi-amused disdain on the rare occasions when the two countries’ interests rub up against each other.

The fact that almost all English people do not regard the Irish as in any way foreign has its flipside, when combined with this lack of interest, a tendency to interpret Irish “antipathy” towards “England” – on the rare occasions it arises – as something unsettling and unnatural, as if the Irish really were just showing malicious hostility toward their collective “big brother”.

Interpretation of Irish-British conflict as a family feud has long been a popular tactic in certain sections of the press in both Britain and Ireland. For these reasons and others, the “Anybody but England” mentality continues to have strong purchase among some members of the UK-based diaspora, even as this attitude is practically non-existent among the confident, well-educated, highly-achieving, cosmopolitan members of “generation emigration”.

My upbringing was one in which Irishness had some prominence. I have cousins like me who see things differently, but I was brought up to know myself as Irish, not English. At the same time, a general aloofness towards Englishness or Britishness never extended to an “ill will” towards particular English people or the English in general or sense of inferiority. If England should somehow manage to do well in their upcoming matches, there’ll be no ill will in our house.

The reason why some second-generation Irish folk will never (visibly) cheer on England is quite simple, even deceptively so. If you have an Irish accent, and cheer on England, it won’t make anyone doubt that you are in fact Irish. But if you are second (or third) generation, you are conscious that you generally have to make a conscious effort to prove your Irish identity and maintain that sense of belonging, in order to parry the charge of not really being Irish that can (and is) made by both first-generation Irish people, and English people. Being seen to be cheering on England, with the baggage that carries, is in that sense a problem.

For the record, I don’t have much time for the “Anyone But England” mentality – least of all in something as trivial as football. But it does I think point to some interesting tensions in how contemporary Irishness is worn by Irish-born Irish people abroad, and those of the second or third-generation diaspora.

But ultimately, this is all about football. As for me, I’ll be doing my best to find some other distraction.