Hugh Linehan: What have the British ever done for us? Quite a lot

It is clear Ireland and Britain are totally different – except for our language, food, books, education, legal systems, humour and weather


When President Michael D Higgins made his successful State visit to the UK in 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a cheerful press release.

“Culture is at the heart of the British-Irish relationship,” it opened. “Irish writers, performers and artists continue to develop and thrive in Britain, while British music, television and sport are popular across Ireland. ”

All quite true, but the choice of words was also telling. Britain is a place of opportunity for Irish artistic talent, while Ireland represents an enthusiastic and lucrative market for the British entertainment and culture industries.

These implicit assumptions of an unequal relationship go back a long way and, to a large extent, they simply reflect the realities of the differing scales of the two countries’ respective cultural marketplaces.

But they have also been fiercely contested for a long time.

Ireland’s cultural relationship with Britain has been a source of double-think at home and confusion abroad since the foundation of the State.

It hasn’t stopped people trying, but it’s hard to argue that, culturally speaking, the Irish and the English are totally different.

Unless you ignore the language we speak, the food we eat, the books and newspapers we read, the buildings we construct, our legal and educational systems, our sense of humour, our taste in clothes and the weather we stoically endure, we clearly have a lot in common.

Hundreds of thousands of us live over there and hundreds of thousands of them live over here.

In both cases, assimilation is seamless to the point of invisibility.

Whatever prejudices and tensions existed 40 years ago, on both sides, have eased or disappeared with the ending of the Troubles, and increasing economic parity between the two countries.

We’ve always been intertwined and, if anything, we’re becoming more so.

Which may explain why we in Ireland put so much effort into denying the fact.

Trashy and immoral

“Everywhere you turn, you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction,” American writer Michael Lewis wrote in an article for Vanity Fair in 2011.

“The Irish insistence on their Irishness – their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is – has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom.”

Lewis was describing the few token words of Irish used by politicians at the outset of speeches.

Those cúpla focail are a ritualised nod to Douglas Hyde’s 1892 essay The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland, which explicitly stated a a rejection of English culture was an essential part of an Irish national revival.

The Gaelic revival which Hyde led changed Ireland in many ways, as well as providing the philosophical underpinning for the achievement of independence.

But, considering the essay on its own terms 120 years later, it’s clear the main project failed spectacularly.

“On racial lines, then, we shall best develop, following the bent of our own natures,” wrote Hyde.

“And, in order to do this, we must create a strong feeling against West-Britonism, for it – if we give it the least chance, or show it the smallest quarter – will overwhelm us like a flood, and we shall find ourselves toiling painfully behind the English at each step following the same fashions, only six months behind the English ones; reading the same books, only months behind them; taking up the same fads, after they have become stale there, following them in our dress, literature, music, games, and ideas, only a long time after them and a vast way behind.”

Some of this – but by no means all – has come to pass, and yet a strong and often confident Irish national sense of self persists.

But an awful lot has also changed in ways Hyde could not have foreseen.

In the 1890s, British culture arrived on the mailboat from Holyhead.

Now, an always-on globalised Anglophone media and entertainment industry permeates our lives with instant updates and on-demand everything.

“We must set our face sternly against penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, and still more, the garbage of vulgar English weeklies,” wrote Hyde, clearly anticipating the likes of Geordie Shore and Naked Attraction.

The association of English culture with the trashy and the immoral would be a recurring theme of official Irish discourse for much of the 20th century.

That strange part of our country’s history when sexual prudery was enshrined in law as part of our national identity is receding into the past, but the idea of England as a place where you could read, see and do things that were frowned upon at home still informs our relationship with our neighbours.

The big city offered – still offers – the freedom of anonymity, along with a wider range of opportunities for self-actualisation.

The escape to England is a recurring final act in many works of 20th century Irish literature, although what happened next is less explored.

An important shift occurred when the children of that huge wave of Irish emigrants of the 1950s emerged as pop stars, footballers and artists – John Lydon, the Pogues, Morrissey – speaking in English working-class accents about their sense of Irishness.

National identity, it became more clear, was a complex affair than some had allowed for.

For those involved in cultural production, the benefits of escape to the UK were clear to see.

Without support from British publishers, British patrons, British producers, British agents, British broadcasters and sometimes the British taxpayer, many of the most significant Irish works of art of the past century – films such as My Left Foot, TV programmes such as Father Ted, and the writing of Edna O’Brien and John McGahern – might not have seen the light of day.

Just as emigration to the UK allowed the Irish State to avoid confronting the consequences of its own economic failures, so British support for Irish creativity allowed successive Irish governments to abdicate their own responsibilities.

Many writers and artists found support farther afield, in the US and Europe, but the default option remained London.

It’s worth considering what effect this had on Irish artists.

The fact that the primary gatekeepers to the wider world have been English must surely have had an impact on what sort of stories ended up getting told.

It’s not an accident that Joyce and Beckett – Ireland’s two greatest contributions to the 20th century avant-garde – looked to continental Europe rather than the UK.

It would be fatuous to over-simplify the many complex and productive creative relationships that have existed across the Irish Sea, but there is clearly an appetite in Britain for certain forms of Irish expression that combine an apparent “authenticity” with a muscular reinvigoration of the English language.

Like all clichés, the statement that the Irish are “storytellers” contains both an inherent truth and a restricting stereotype.

But London’s cultural elites do not represent the full picture of the relationship between the two countries.

As important, and even more ignored, are the shared cultural ground of popular culture – first music hall and variety, then picture palaces and rock ’n’ roll – has always transcended national boundaries.

The disentangling of the two states in the early 1920s was never replicated in the movie or music distribution industries.

To this day, film journalists find themselves patiently explaining – yet again – the concept of national sovereignty to Sophie on the Regional desk in an office somewhere in Soho.

Much of that music and cinema was American rather than British, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the past 100 years have been marked by an almost uninterrupted decline in British power from its imperial heights.

The result has been an explosion of compelling post-imperial voices, from the Beatles to Salman Rushdie and beyond.

Has that helped ameliorate the resentments or inferiority complexes on the Irish side?

It’s hard to tell, although there are still many signs of old-fashioned Irish “cultural cringe”, the internalised inferiority complex that causes people to dismiss their own culture as inferior to those of other countries.

You can see it in the housing estates called Windsor Downs or Westminster Lawns, or in the way plummy English accents are used to mark status in ads for luxury goods.

Growth in Gaelscoileanna

So, to paraphrase a line from one of their own films (albeit one banned here for many years), what have the English ever done for us culturally?

It looks as though it’s now possible to answer “quite a lot” without being accused of being, in one of Hyde’s most lasting phrases, “a west-Briton”.

The recent growth in Gaelscoileanna is prompted more by a vision of the Irish language as a bulwark against cultural globalisation than anything else.

When taoiseach Leo Varadkar and prime minister Sadiq Khan meet in 2021 to commemorate the centenary of the Treaty, the notion that Irish cultural identity has to mean aggressive non-Englishness should finally be consigned to rest.

As for English cultural identity, that’s another matter entirely.

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