Moving from London, 1990s Ireland felt like a village
Ireland in 1990 was a monochrome, insular society, though you could sense a desire for change
Giles Newington with Hilary Fannin and their sons Peter and Jacob, in Shandon, Cork in 2005. Photograph: Alan Betson
Growing up, I think I was not untypical in my Londoner’s ignorance of Ireland. I had gone to a school of 2,000 children and 160 nationalities, and although I had lived alongside Irish families in the streets around Ladbroke Grove, and worked and socialised with Irish people for my whole life, the actuality of the country they came from was something I knew little about.
One summer evening, though, in my 30s, I was dropped off at a Bloomsbury pub after playing half a game of football that had made me feel twice that age. I was fed up with my struggles in a Britain mired in a Thatcherite hangover of sleaze and recession and on retreat from the postwar consensus that had formed my attitudes.
It felt like a long time since the good old days, when I’d been taken to see The Beatles at Hammersmith Odeon as a child, danced at the early punk and reggae clubs, or seen George Best play at Upton Park.
That evening in 1990, I met up with a friend and an Irish acquaintance of his who were making a short film, on a budget of zilch, about a mythical hero called Cúchulainn. In this retelling of the tale, the great warrior was a biker working as a dispatch rider in my home town before nicking his mate’s girlfriend, Grainne, and heading back to Ireland.
As I had some acting experience, and was prepared to bow to the inevitable and not expect to be paid, I was asked if I’d like to play Cúchulainn. Of course; natural casting.
Not long after that I spent three weeks in Ireland, where I had come to visit the woman playing Grainne, whom I have lived with in Dublin with ever since.
During the decades that followed, I don’t recall ever suffering any overt hostility about being British, though when I accidentally brushed someone’s shoulder the first time I walked down O’Connell Street he invited me (in much more graphic language) to repatriate myself to Pakistan. Mystifying, as, to the best of my knowledge, my genetic inheritance had never extended its range any further than a Welsh grandmother.
Ireland at that time felt like a much more monochrome and insular society, though you could sense, simultaneously, an energy and desire for change among what was then Europe’s youngest population.
On that same three-week visit, the Irish presidential election took a few dramatic twists, resulting in the surprise elevation of Mary Robinson, whose famous victory speech I watched on TV in a west Cork pub, scanning the punters’ faces to try to guess the import of the mysterious phrase “Mná na hÉireann”.
It was a lucky break to discover Ireland in the 1990s, when a stimulating cultural transformation had started, the peace process was in train and there were successful campaigns to legalise homosexuality and – by a whisker – divorce.
Having been part of a group of friends in London, almost all of whom were brought up by single mothers, the closeness of the divorce vote seemed astounding.
Before that visit in 1990, I admit I didn’t even know Ireland had a president, and in that ignorance I don’t think I was unusual among my compatriots. Even among Britons who had strong views about the IRA or the hunger strikes, there was a high level of vagueness about the country they were discussing.
In later years, having become better educated about my new home, and by that stage having children, a job and a mortgage in Ireland, I found this unwillingness by some English guests to understand that Ireland actually was an independent Republic that had fought to leave the empire, and to establish its own laws and currency, increasingly aggravating, though by then I was also beginning to develop the British emigre’s defensiveness about supposedly representing whatever it was the surrounding society was set up to oppose.
You don’t realise how English you are until you move away and, as soon as you speak, it is assumed that, after all, you admire royalty (Gawd bless ’em), listen avidly to The Archers and immerse yourself in the plummy soup of the cricket commentary at every opportunity (all right, maybe the last one).
And conversely, for a foreigner, the most tedious elements of Irish national pride are sentimental attachments to commercial products and strange cultural phenomena (Tayto, the Rose of Tralee, the Late Late Toy Show) which you just cannot love.
You also find you’re not as good at taking stereotypes as you might be at dishing them out, and that you take offence if you feel you’re considered arrogant, uncouth, effete, reserved, supercilious or up yourself, even if you’re prepared to admit you might be all these things at times.
But the key difference between Ireland and England is the history really, which now seems set to diverge further than ever before. In the years I’ve been working at The Irish Times, Ireland has been through a process of almost constant self-scrutiny and a reckoning with a traumatic past, from the legacy of the Troubles to clerical sex abuse and financial corruption, and is surely the stronger for looking at those things.
You could see the result, too, in the quite sober tone of the 1916 commemorations. I wonder now if post-Brexit England, having been hidden for so long behind empire, union and the EU, is now about to go through a similarly challenging national redefinition.
The other difference, and adjustment for me as a Londoner, is the size of Ireland, the sense of living in a village here, the strong emphasis on family, community, ritual, continuity, which in theory is admirable but can also make Ireland more conservative and reticent about speaking out or criticising.
It takes time to notice the deep reserve beneath Irish volubility, and it is a contagious characteristic.
But the country’s size also creates an opportunity, as in Louis MacNeice’s line, still potentially true, that Ireland is small enough that “with luck a man / Might see the end of one particular action”.
This has felt like a strange year to be English, certainly the first one in my time here that my friends from home have been talking about their chances of procuring an Irish passport. Watch out, there could be another invasion on the way.