The lost generation that settled in Britain after the second World War is largely forgotten in Ireland. These exiles lack the glamour of the American Irish, and don’t fit into the “rags to riches” tales, so often told about those who crossed the Atlantic. The Irish-English have been left to loiter on the margins of our history.
Yet across almost every sphere of British society – media, education, trade unions, culture, politics, finance and sport – the children and grandchildren of these emigrants have ensured their presence is felt. People of Irish descent have made a vital contribution to the emergence of a multi-ethnic Britain.
The odd thing is that we know relatively little about the realities of life for the Irish in Britain, which is why this new English translation of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s Deoraithe (1986) is such a valuable addition to the canon of Irish literature. We are much in the debt of the Irish-language poet Míchéal Ó hAodha, who has translated this wonderful book with great skill.
Mac Amhlaigh is better known for his non-fiction writing, particularly his diary of his life working in Britain in the 1940s and early 1950s, translated from Irish in the 1960s. Born in Galway, he spent a lifetime in England working in construction as a navvy. A committed socialist, he was also a republican, active in the Connolly Association in Northampton.
The novel focuses on three characters, two of whom, Trevor and Nano, are making their way in Britain, and Niall, who has returned to his native Kilkenny after leaving the Irish Army.
Nano is a nursing assistant from Connemara, but her boyfriend can’t join her in England as his elderly (and selfish) mother is prone to taking “turns”. We get a sense of the attractions of life in Britain for young women, who left postwar Ireland in such huge numbers, with well-paid steady work and a vibrant social life.
Trevor is a hard-drinking, hard-fighting labourer also from Connemara, with a reputation for prowess with his fists to preserve, and a wife and family back in Ireland to support.
Niall’s return to civilian life is not a happy one with no work available, and he spends much of time loafing around the pubs of Kilkenny. Ireland was a bleak place for working-class people in the 1950s.
The story pivots on tense moments, as when Nano first meets a good-looking Lithuanian man, or Trevor gets important news in a letter from Ireland recounted to him by a fellow lodger, as he can’t read. Or when Niall’s future disintegrates after a friend lets him down by going to England with his girlfriend.
Alongside these very human portraits is the broader backdrop of the plight of Irish people in England, trying to make their way in an unfamiliar place. This is the real strength of the book, as Mac Amhlaigh is a master of sketching out the mutual misapprehensions between the Irish and the English, and indeed the Irish and other migrants such as displaced persons from eastern Europe.
Mac Amhlaigh’s finely drawn account of the tensions within the Irish remind us that, whatever outsiders might think, there was no singular Irish identity. His main characters are Irish speakers, already marginalised at home and doubly marginalised abroad.
The Connemara men didn’t like the lads from Kerry, and the Donegal women were keen to differentiate themselves from the Corkonians. But the most hated group of all were the jackeens from Dublin, who dismissively referred to everyone else as culchies. A climatic moment in the book is when Trevor takes on a Dublin hard man with a fearsome reputation for fighting, who had beaten up a fella he knew from Connemara.
The Irish exiles lived between two worlds, uncertain if they belonged to either Ireland or Britain. Camden Town was the epicentre of this Irish world in England, and the pubs and dancehalls of Kilburn High Road and Cricklewood were the temples of social life. These establishments were heaving with the exiled Irish, searching for a taste of home in a strange land. Mac Amhlaigh constructs these now long-gone places with remarkable vividness.
The playwright Jimmy Murphy performed a similar act of restitution for the next generation who settled in London in the 1970s in The Kings of Kilburn High Road (later made into a powerful bilingual film, Kings, directed by Tom Collins and starring Colm Meaney). Both writers address a similar theme: how settling in England irrevocably changed the lives of each generation, forced to confront not just the dislocation but also the pain of loss and exile.
Brexit will no doubt transform political relationships on these islands, but it will not erase this shared cultural heritage forged by generations of Irish people settling in Britain.
Enda Delaney is professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh