Second-generation Irish: ‘We were outsiders among the English – and the Irish too’

Ian Duhig’s parents emigrated to England in the 1950s in search of a better life. In this essay, he looks at growing up under the influence of Ireland and never feeling quite at home

I would say that knowing is a road
Anne Carson

I was the eighth child in my family, the first born in England, London 1954 to be precise, where three after me would complete the football team. My father Robert had a few years previously managed to get work here, saving and finding rented accommodation so the rest of his family could join him, which it did in due course. He had served in the Irish Army where he was a "known shot", meaning rifles from the factory had their sights adjusted according to his performance, assumed to be perfect.

At my Catholic school, after our headmaster once advised us "the difference between Catholicism and communism is that communism is wrong", my schoolmates and I got enormous wind-up mileage out of professing our admiration for the USSR and its achievements, asking if Catholics were allowed to join the League of the Militant Godless, swearing by Jesus, Mary and Joseph Stalin and so forth. But my father really might have been an Irish counterpart to the great sniper of Stalingrad, Vasily Zaitsev, had his young country that he was so well able to defend not been neutral in the Great Patriotic War. Zaitsev means "hare", an animal I always associated with my father who'd kept one as a pet in Ireland but was a creature of legend to me in London and legendary his rural background to which he was so attuned: I heard many stories of his exploits on my trips back to Ireland: if no scholar, he was a notable soldier and horseman; once, at 13 following a foxhunt on a one-eyed Arab called Sightseer, he jumped a dangerous river bareback that the hunt baulked at only because Sightseer was too excited at the gallop and couldn't see the river, I like the scene: the fox, the boy and the half-blind horse turning to look back over the tumultuous waters at the gentry left behind.

I grew up in what seemed a very well-established London-Irish community around Paddington and Kilburn, which also knew how to celebrate

Nevertheless, he could find no work after he left the Army and emigrated like many of his generation in the 1950s. As a consequence of his being in civilian life, I was the first child he knew from infancy and he spoiled me rotten; he worked in the Cricklewood Express Dairy bottling plant, so I remember him in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the father of milk”, powerful but gentle. I didn’t inherit his physical strength but took more after my bookish and sardonic mother, Margaret, who gave the impression she saw men as fundamentally absurd: balloons on legs as they were to Petronius. I’d witness how much he loved his wife unwaveringly over several decades, although she could be a little cool in return – a manual labourer and enthusiastic trade unionist, his sometimes stridently expressed socialist analyses of TV news could annoy her, she taking a more philosophical view of a world’s idiocies governed by men.


Growing up in London

I grew up in what seemed a very well-established London-Irish community around Paddington and Kilburn, which also knew how to celebrate; Kilburn High Road marked the boundary between Brent and Camden, meaning that on one side pubs sometimes closed half an hour earlier than on the other, so there was frequently an undignified stampede for last orders across it into a hostelry opposite. When we were old enough, and often before, I would meet my friends in the Queens Arms on Kilburn Bridge because it was a Young's house, the best beer in the capital.

Further up the road was Biddy Mulligan's, the only pub bombed by Northern Irish Protestant paramilitaries on the British mainland – Zadie Smith writes in Changing My Mind about being there when collections for the IRA were taken. Beyond that, there was the Lord Palmerston, but because he had been an absentee landlord in Ireland it was boycotted till it changed its name to The Roman Way.

Further up still, near where my father worked in Cricklewood, was the Galtymore pub/club complex, a great barn of a place where Sligo flute player Roger Sherlock had been a regular performer in a semi-professional house band. Even so, Nuala O'Connor's Bringing It All Back Home reports him saying, "It still wasn't enough to make a living out of, nothing like it." He also worked "six days a week with pick and shovel . . . mostly roads, you know, which was hard work." Near the Galtymore, the Crown was effectively a labour exchange for Irish construction workers where cheques could be cashed on pay nights.

Driving north on this road it soon joins the M1 to Leeds but coming back down for now towards where we lived, you'd pass the huge Sacred Heart church in Quex Road where, on one occasion, the parish priest's housekeeper witnessed my friends carrying what seemed to her an inordinate amount of drink into a basement function room booked to celebrate the departure of one of our number returning to Ireland. She cast a cold eye on these proceedings in the House of God and declared them "a good away win for the Devil" .

Attached to what our families called “home” second-hand, my cohort developed brand new allegiances, including to football’s perennial under-achievers Chelsea, not least because the number 28 bus ran from Kilburn High Road to Stamford Bridge. After evening matches, we’d drink at the White Hart nearby, of which O’Connor writes, “In MacColl’s wake . . . Irish traditional musicians began to be considered [seriously] by folk enthusiasts who now frequented pubs like the White Hart in Fulham where ‘pure’ traditional music was played.”

Very good Irish poets wrote words to be sung in a way that their English counterparts rarely did

I will return to the relationship between Irish and English traditional music later, but the aspect of its performance in pubs I want to draw attention to now is that although people often talked through musicians playing – in truth, more for each other anyway than any notion for an audience – a song always commanded silence. I envied that respect, one also shown to poetry in the Irish community. My mother had learned reams of it by heart at school, a feature of its teaching in those days, and she recited it often as she worked about the house, often singing too, although the same tune seemed to carry a wide range of lyrics for her. Very good Irish poets wrote words to be sung in a way that their English counterparts rarely did, in the last century anyway. I’m thinking here of Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road and of the beautiful She Moved Through The Fair, with all but the last verse written by Padraic Colum.

The road

Although I left school at 16, I soon got fed up with the world of unskilled work, took my A levels at night school, moved to Leeds in 1973 and ended up at Leeds University. My brother had moved to the city before me and told me it was an easy place to live in on little money, which is still relatively accurate.

It was certainly easy to get to: straight up Kilburn High Road to Staples Corner for the M1 and hitch from there, a direct line from the Roman way on to one just as true. Driving north, I'd remember from Tomás Ó Canainn's Traditional Music in Ireland that in Kerry people shout "O Thuaidh!" ("Northwards!") to encourage sean-nós performers, something I didn't understand any more than the nature of the place I was going to live, off and on, for the rest of my life.

These people often knew little about the character and history of where they were arriving at, but proceeded to give it new character and history themselves.

Belfast academic Loreto Todd taught at Leeds University when I was there and in her book, The Language of Irish Literature, she describes Padraic Colum’s The Fiddler’s House as “a play which deals with a recurrent theme in Irish literature: the road and people who, from choice or necessity, find themselves upon it”.

The modern course of Chapeltown Road in Leeds was made by a blind man, Jack Metcalf, which always struck me as highly appropriate for a centre of economic migration, where people came blindly to earn a living and make a new life on the strength of being able to do so. These people often knew little about the character and history of where they were arriving at, but proceeded to give it new character and history themselves.

Leeds is disliked by natives of other northern cities for many reasons, and one of them is for this very immigration; now it has over 140 different ethnic communities represented within its boundaries; its old nicknames, "The Holy City" and "Jerusalem of the North", are anti-Semitic sneers originally dating from the waves fleeing Cossack pogroms, but I met families who later fled anti-Semitism in nominally communist countries, corrupt regimes maintained by the tanks I'd fetishised as a child as symbols of rebellion. Chapeltown Road itself is a palimpsest of such often-forced immigration as each wave in turn settled, moved away when successful and had their traces overscored by new communities.

Irish music

One migrant I want to write about came to Leeds from Connemara via London, fanning out as MacRaild describes, to pursue work and give his family a better life, as my father had done. Dudley Kane is better known as Darach Ó Catháin, the name given to him by Seán Ó Riada, who considered him the finest sean-nós singer of his generation. Sean-nós singing's features include the glottal stop, alien to many European traditions but often found among those of the Indian sub-continent, whose broader connections to Irish music Seán Ó Riada spoke about many times. Indeed, Robert Welch, while he was teaching at Leeds University, described a meeting with Darach and Pearse Hutchinson in a different pub where, after Darach struck up, they were thrown out by the landlord who didn't want "any of that Pakistani singing". The landlord might have been a wiser racist than he knew.

The local Irish community was refreshed when many who worked on the M1 remained to capitalise on Leeds' determination to become "the Motorway City". Darach worked on the roads too, sometimes, and I'd get to hear him sing in the Roscoe on lower Chapeltown Road, a pub ironically knocked down later to make way for the Sheepscar interchange, a ganglion of urban dual carriageways just north of the city centre. Named from Co Roscommon, the Roscoe and other pubs in this area hosted regular sessions by traditional Irish musicians of a very high standard. One pub, The Regent, was where the Leeds branch of the Irish music organisation, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, was formed, growing to be the biggest in England, or so I was told. Interviewed for Folkworld once, Karen Tweed remarked: "People in Ireland talk about a Leeds style that they play in Leeds and that you can tell is from Leeds, but it's Irish music"; similarly, cognoscenti here spoke of the late-lamented Paul Ruane's "Leeds/Sligo style" of fiddle-playing.

Irish folk music's influence on its new environment too has been significant for a long time, but Samuel Bayard's characterisation of Irish music's "wavering and unemphatic movement . . . impeding the course of the melody" I have compared elsewhere to the treatment of narrative in Sterne through Wilde and Flann O'Brien on to Paul Muldoon.

When my family first moved over to London they suffered exploitation at the hands of a profiteering private landlord

But even in terms of social etiquette, in my parents' generation and background, a roundabout approach to conversation was considered politer than the blunt, up-front West Riding manner of speech. When they stayed with me in Hawksworth in 1974, our landlord, a farmer called Pickersgill, dropped in. My father, by way of an opening conversational gambit, said "the last man I knew called Pickersgill was a Master of Foxhounds in Tipperary. " This was meant to elicit some sort of reply which would allow them to connect on the basis of their similarly-rural home areas, perhaps leading my father to share his observation that Yorkshire and Tipperary were coincidentally both divided into Ridings, something I hadn't noticed myself. At a more literary level, their developing conversation might explore the similarly coincidental revelation that Laurence Sterne's father had been a soldier in Tipperary where my father had served in the Irish Army as perhaps Pickersgill had in the British. In fact, our landlord's response to my father was a hunted look, a grunted "T'weren't me" and a shuffling exit.

My father had been a wrenboy in his youth but when I mentioned this at a poetry reading once, I couldn’t understand why afterwards people were coming up and congratulating me for my brave revelation: eventually, one of them explained that they all thought I’d said he was a “rent boy”. In its own way, this mishearing is indicative of the new world my family entered in London, where the financial nexus dominated human relationships. More immediately, when my family first moved over to London they suffered exploitation at the hands of a profiteering private landlord and where we lived was next to Rachman territory, whose surname entered the dictionary for rack-rentism. Moving into council accommodation was definitely a step up into greater security of tenure in a property responsibly maintained at a reasonable rent. It provided the base from which I grew up in and was educated. Although I left school after my O-levels for a more congenial environment of work and A-levels at night school.


Maybe I was also influenced by the talk of Ireland as “home” swirling around me when I was young, but moving to Yorkshire began a process of involvement in homelessness issues that continues to the present. Initially, this was professional and I had several posts in organisations serving the needs of homeless people with a variety of related problems, from those to do with mental ill-health to substance abuse.

Later, opening a York hostel for single homeless people next to a well-known folk pub, when its landlord found out what we were opening beside him, he barred us all immediately, so on night shifts, I could listen to the folkies next door roaring out I Am A Jolly Beggarman, knowing that if any of ours went near the place they’d be nicked. I started setting the stories of some of our residents to other tunes that were coming through the wall, fiddling with other kinds of verses as well.

I had always maintained an interest in poetry from my mother's recitations up to when I worked in Belfast in a hostel for young offenders during the Troubles, I came in contact with the work of an astonishing range of poets, too many for me to discuss here in detail, but a gifted and innovative generation that influenced me deeply. Seamus Heaney of course was one of them and he championed Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote: "I dabbled in verse and it became my life". Something similar happened to me, verse becoming my life after I was made redundant from a project in Bradford.

Even after my career change (if you can call them careers) I pursued connections between traditional music and poetry occasionally in my work, though this did not always go down well in England: Andrew Duncan, for example, wrote in his Handlist of Late 20th Century Poets that my "admiration for folk styles...chased out literary interest almost altogether". Yet in the face of all charges of crudity, traditional music can be analysed with a subtlety completely absent from much contemporary poetry criticism. You could talk about Roscommon, Kerry or west Limerick bodhrán styles and aficionados would know exactly what you meant, while binary divisions as simplistic as Kilburn High Road's have been peddled in UK poetry for decades. This is being complicated by a younger generation of poets outside the traditional camps but the reflex here is to reach for adjectives like polarised when many people don't fit easily into boxes, or think outside them.


If Irish immigrants' children of my generation felt outsiders among the English, we were outsiders among the Irish too. Yet some of us were radicalised to a greater or lesser degree during what was so inadequately described as the Troubles, not unlike what has happened recently with second-generation Muslim youths. Tabloid demonisation of Muslims echoes the 1970s demonisation of Irish Catholics in Britain, when I felt compelled to write to the Guardian complaining about its coverage of the Birmingham Bombings. I admired how Northern Irish poets weighed very carefully their responses to complex and toxic problems of civil injustice woven into the very fabric of a society, dismissed by Iain Sinclair as "Bogs and bombs and blarney" in his 1996 poetry anthology Conductors of Chaos. I remember noticing Rachman's old henchman Michael X in Children of Albion and thinking about their victims; the Communist Party had been very active in organising private tenants and rent strikes around where I grew up and that left a lasting impression on me about the value of grassroots activism.

The first job I had in Leeds was at Hepworth's in its cloth warehouse, where the head of security was was ex-PC Ken Kitching, jailed for his part in the abuse leading to the death of David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who came to Leeds seeking work. One detail of David's story reflects on patterns of immigration and poverty in Leeds: the names on mass paupers' grave are predominantly Irish. It was a young, second-generation Irish police recruit called Gary Galvin who exposed the scandal of David Oluwale's treatment, someone we should be proud of; if in the US the Irish community has been used as a tool against others, here it often finds common ground with them, albeit shifting ground.

Fleeting world

During 2018’s Windrush scandal I edited a small poetry anthology from local immigrants’ groups I have been working with in recent years called Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment, poetry mainly from Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Jewish and Sikh communities but Leeds Irish Health and Homes were substantially represented with work from the 1950s wave of Irish immigrants such as my parents and age takes its toll on their bodies if not their wits: one wrote in my workshop “I’ve had dementia for as long as I can remember …”

Being second generation for me meant not only to be alienated from my parents' world but also from my wife and son's to some extent

However, if this generation is passing, their Ireland remains a constant, growing and changing but a vital place; for many of my own, our brave new world turned out to be fleeting. I'm trying not to conclude this with a second generation version of Peig Sayers' mournful refrain, "Our kind will not be seen again", but when I visit Kilburn now I find a lively but strange place and in Fulham the White Hart (which had once been called The Beggars' Rest) is now 'Vintage', a cocktail bar. The working class my father belonged to, and I was born into, no longer exists in the vigorous and respected form it took in his day; in our situation of liquid modernity, to borrow Zygmunt Bauman's phrase, it's hard to stand together on shifting ground. In the end, the USSR folded as easily as the British Empire and Russian riches funded an unrecognisably successful Chelsea. The Kilburn crew's particular hero was Paddy Mulligan, a stolid right back capable of buccaneering runs down his flank of such power it was sometimes difficult for him to stop: once, despite having lost the ball, his charge took him straight over a hapless opposition defender, "like a T-34 rolling over a Wehrmacht machine gun nest" as I described it at school, but Irish players seldom figure in modern Chelsea teams. At least we had Paddy Mulligan: Deirdre O'Byrne once asked in an email exchange where were the London-Irish second generation writers' equivalents to The Buddha of Suburbia, White Teeth, Brick Lane, Small Island and Anita and Me. I would refine that further by asking why there are no London-Irish second-generation literary equivalents to its visual artists like Sean Scully, its film-makers like John Michael McDonagh and any number of its musicians. If I was to hazard guesses as to the reasons, they might include the extent to which particular genres in this country are dominated by particular social groups and that the London-Irish of my generation were predominantly from working class backgrounds (as defined by their breadwinners' having unskilled manual jobs) and looked to arenas of cultural expression where they felt welcome.

A writer’s view

Bringing it all back home, being second generation for me meant not only to be alienated from my parents’ world but also from my wife and son’s to some extent, although 40-odd years of marriage seems to have made me an acceptable part of the local scenery. Jane and Owen are both Yorkshire tykes who feel at home here in a way I never will, but that is a gift to the writer: she sees what others take for granted, uncovers memories of what has been forgotten, notices the overlooked. I labour this point because immigrants are routinely accused of obliterating local histories when we can also preserve it, connect with it and make it new, especially where it has been hidden from official chronicles which usually exclude or sanitise much of that of the working class.

In the old joke, an Irish boomerang doesn't come back, it just sings about coming back

My book, The Blind Roadmaker, alludes to Jack Metcalf, mentioned earlier; I use his trade to follow love's blind roads, those of poets and migrants who chase work wherever it is to be found, enduring hostile environments to claim space for the next generation. Working with their descendants, I often quote Wallace Stevens's Adagia on how we don't live in places, we live in descriptions of places, an idea I sometimes relate to "dinnseanchas" with Irish groups. Richard Murphy concluded his old interview with John Haffenden by saying: "l feel now that my home is in the language," sentiments echoed more recently by Vahni Capildeo in Measures of Expatriation, where she wrote: "Language is my home". I think this is true of migrants as well as poets; think of Joseph Brodsky on the song of the nomad as opposed to the prose of the farmer.

In the old joke, an Irish boomerang doesn’t come back, it just sings about coming back; emigrants’ songlines dream back to lost Edens but roads aren’t only metaphors and enduring their hardship called forth a hard Irish wit I love, particularly among the women: Loreto Todd in her book quotes an exchange between two of them suffering down an unmade rough track. One woman tells her friend they send the stones of it off every year to have them re-sharpened – and they instantly lose some of their edge to laughter. My London Irish second-generation heritage included dream songs but also such cuts and blistering poetic feet; shifting ground prepared us for liquid modernity, the outside chance of the outsider, as the migrants’ proverb has it, bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le tír, there’s hope on the ocean but none from the grave.

I want to finish with another poem, a group one from workshops I ran with Leeds Irish Health and Homes and published in the small anthology The Trojan Donkey, co-edited by Teresa O’Driscoll and myself. This workshop drew on the model of The Song of Amergin to focus contributions from people mainly of my parents’ generation, some of whom were doing well, others not so well. The poem is untitled and indeed many of its contributors remained anonymous but their signature is that marriage of poetry with tough, lived lives I have been describing; if that life and culture proved ephemeral, it wasn’t worthless.

I am the wind on the sea
and in a horse's mane;
I am the sound of the ocean
and the engine of a plane;

I am the tear of the sun
and its loveliest flower;
l am the hungry family
in its emigrant hour.

l know your streets
aren't paved with gold
because l laid them,
come rain or cold,

your M1s and your M62s,
reading your B&B cards:
No Blacks, No Irish,
No Dogs, No Jews.

I am the slighted Irish
minding your sick,
teaching your children.
You called me thick.

I worked like a donkey,
a Trojan, a slave.
I paid my way here;
I earned my grave.

Ian Duhig’s last book of poetry, The Blind Roadmaker (Picador 2016), was shortlisted for the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prizes. This essay is taken from I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The Second-Generation Irish in Britain, a collection of writing and memoirs published by The Wild Geese Press, and edited by Ray French, Moy McCrory and Kath McKay