From Cork to Westminster: meet the latest ROI-born person elected to the House of Commons

Damien Egan’s background as an immigrant, a gay man and a Jewish convert gives him a nuanced view on life

It was a whirlwind weekend a fortnight ago for Damien Egan, the latest person born in the Republic to be elected to the House of Commons in Westminster.

On the Thursday, he stood as the Labour Party’s candidate in Kingswood near Bristol in the byelection that followed the resignation of the sitting Tory MP, Chris Skidmore, who quit in protest at the UK government’s U-turn on green policies.

On the Friday, Cork-born Egan was announced as the winner, overturning a large Conservative majority. The last person born in the Republic to win election to Westminster was SDLP MP Claire Hanna who was born in Connemara; she was elected in 2019. Before this, there was was former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken in 1992 – his grandfather had been a British diplomat in Dublin. The last before that was Clare man Michael O’Halloran, who was MP for Islington North for almost 15 years from the late 1960s until his defeat in 1983 by Jeremy Corbyn.

On the Saturday a fortnight ago, Egan’s relatives came over from Ireland to join him at the wedding that day of his sister. Then on the Monday, he was sworn in as an MP, his election held aloft as the latest evidence that Labour is on course to crush the Tories at the general election later this year, which would put Sir Keir Starmer in 10 Downing Street.


“My Irish cousins were so excited for me. But you can imagine what I was like by the time Monday came,” says Egan, as we sip coffee in Portcullis House, the airy atrium in the modern wing of the Westminster parliamentary estate across the road from Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower.

“It’s going to take me a while to figure out how this place works. Everyone – MPs from all sides – have been very friendly. They say you will just have to get the hang of it. You have just got to treat it like any other new job.”

Yet it isn’t like any other job. The House of Commons is the bear pit of British democracy, where events can swing wildly between the mundane and the mad. On Egan’s third day, he sat directly behind Starmer for the set-piece prime minister’s questions debate. An hour later, a huge row exploded after the speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s called a Gaza vote in a way that favoured Labour.

Egan, who is 41, says it still “feels really strange” sitting on the famous green benches in Commons chamber.

“It still feels like you’re a guest, like I’d won a prize or something, a Wowcher [discount voucher] to be an MP for a week for a parliament experience. It still feels strange to have a ringside seat for all the debates. It’s so loud in there, too, especially during PMQs. I don’t know how any of them can hear themselves. It’s much easier following it on TV.”

Egan has just received a tip from an experienced MP, who told him there are speakers built into the bench backboards.

“Apparently that’s why, sometimes, you see MPs leaning back a bit. They’re trying to hear better through those speakers.”

Egan’s Irish backstory may not be typical for the Commons, but it will be familiar to many emigrants from the Republic who crossed the Irish Sea for a better life. His family hails from a rural area just outside Newmarket in northwestern Co Cork. The family homestead, he says, had no proper plumbing when he was born. The Egans were not wealthy.

His grandparents, like so many other impoverished Irish people, emigrated to Britain in the late 1950s. His mother was born there and his father came from a British background in Bristol.

“By the time my mother was pregnant with me [in the early 1980s], her parents had moved back to Cork. So she followed them back, and had her pregnancy in Cork.”

Egan was born in the now-closed Erinville hospital in Cork. The plan was for his father to join his mother near Newmarket, to live there. His father “got a shock” when he arrived at the modest Egan homestead. This was almost 15 years before the start of the Republic’s economic flowering. The streets in rural Cork were paved with cow pats rather than gold.

“There were no jobs, so the decision was made to go back to Bristol. I was only a few months old when we all came back over on one of the Slattery’s coaches,” says Egan.

He kept in close contact with his Irish family. Each summer was spent in Cork. His maternal grandmother died when he was two but his grandfather remained. The grandfather was one of about six siblings who all moved to London in the 1950s to work as builders, but who all eventually drifted back to Cork. One lived in Banteer, 15km south of Newmarket. Egan spent a lot of time there.

He has a dual identity, proud of his Irish provenance but equally proud to be British. He says he never really noticed how different his accent was to his friends and cousins in Cork until his late teens, in pubs in Ireland. His cousins would introduce him as the boy “from England”. Egan laughs at the memory.

His life in Bristol was reasonably typical of an Irish immigrant family. They were “softly religious” Catholics and went to Mass. Egan was an altar boy. When he was young his parents separated and, for a while, he, his mother and sister relied on temporary accommodation.

“We weren’t homeless on the streets or anything,” says Egan, but he has said the experience helped shape his political outlook.

“Even when it happened, I still always felt very loved. We had a loving background. We always had Ireland to go back to and a strong family network.”

He moved to London for college, before settling in Lewisham, southeast London, after graduation. Almost immediately, he entered electoral politics for Labour.

“I think a lot of Irish people are naturally political,” he says.

He served as a parish councillor and in 2005, at the age of 21, he ran in the general election in Weston-super-Mare in southwest England.

He was, he says, a “paper candidate” with no chance of winning – it was a Tory-Lib Dem marginal. But it helped him overcome his early nerves and gain experience in the heat of electoral battle.

He ran again as a paper candidate in 2010 and was also elected as a councillor in Lewisham. In 2018, he was directly elected as Lewisham’s mayor, a position he held until he quit this year to run in Kingswood, close to where he grew up.

Egan’s background, and not just Irish provenance, gives him nuanced insights into some of the culture war issues currently roiling British politics. He is a gay man, having met his Israeli husband, Yossi, about eight years ago. Six years ago, Egan converted to Judaism. He says he didn’t do it just to please his Israeli then partner (they married last year). He had always maintained a “spiritual side”, but had grown attracted to Jewish values despite being happy with his Catholic upbringing.

“Sometimes it is hard to find the words for things that are quite personal or spiritual. There were very personal reasons for it [his conversion as a Jew]. It brings a lot of value to my life and I guess I identify more with those teachings,” he says.

He has a delicate view on the overtly pro-Palestinian sentiments of many Irish people, and the criticism in Ireland directed at Israel over its brutal bombing campaign in Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians.

“I think a lot of the concern in Ireland comes from a very kind place. [But] I wish there were more efforts to see things from both sides. Because, actually, on both sides, everyday people want peace and having a simplistic view of things doesn’t help,” he says.

“But it must be uncomfortable to be a Jewish person in Ireland right now.”

Back in Kingswood, he recalls his shock from the campaign at people’s experiences of shoddy British state services.

“There is nowhere for people to get a dentist on the NHS. I met one woman who had phoned up 117 times to try to get a doctor – she showed me the evidence on her mobile phone. Finally, she got through. She was told ‘we’re full, call back tomorrow’.”

The Kingswood seat will be abolished following boundary changes that kick in for the election later this year. Much of the area will be absorbed into a new constituency, Bristol North, where Egan has already been selected as Labour’s candidate.

The rest of Kingswood will go into the constituency currently held by Tory MP, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has a large majority but who might be vulnerable if there is a Labour landslide victory.

“The whole country will be watching,” says Egan.

For now, he is content to learn how parliament works and try to address some of the problems of the people of Kingswood. He is working on his maiden speech, which will aim to draw a link between the concerns of ordinary people and the remoteness of Westminster politics.

“I think I’m probably the only Labour MP who doesn’t want an early election,” says Egan. “I’m still recovering from this one. But we’ll be ready for May if we have to be.”

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