Anti-Irish sentiment in Britain: ‘I feel like I am back in the 1980s’

We asked readers in Britain if they had encountered anti-Irishness. Never, said some. Yes, said others

We asked Irish Times Abroad readers if they have noticed or experienced anti-Irish sentiment while living in Britain since Brexit or if they've found British people to be supportive and welcoming of the Irish community.

The questions were prompted after a teacher from Ireland shared on social media his shock at being verbally abused by a person for being Irish after they overheard his accent while he was speaking on his phone.

Elroy Cahill, who works as a head teacher in London school, tweeted: “(They) told me they ‘couldn’t wait for Boris and Brexit Party to make Brexit happen and send me and my lot back to f***ing Ireland,” he wrote.

“Told me to tell my lot to stop trying to stop Brexit with their f***ing border’... have never ever felt so shocked or unwelcome in this country! How has this kind of abuse become acceptable?”


Here’s a selection of some of the varied responses to our question.

Sheila Rose, Milton Keynes: ‘We are relocating to Ireland as a direct result of Brexit’

Having lived in the UK for 33 years, both my husband (British) and myself are relocating to Ireland as a direct result of Brexit. There is an undercurrent of anti-Irish and anti-European from hard line Brexit supporters, mostly in my personal experience through social media. The lack of understanding of the Border and lack of respect of the Good Friday Agreement makes me feel like I am back in the late 1980s when being verbally abused for being Irish was common place. Brexit has taken the UK back years, racism and far right views are once again legitimised. It’s frankly not a society I feel I can live in. I am 55, I run my own business as a running coach and sports therapist. I will be setting up my business again once we move in mid- September. We are relocating to Co Roscommon.

Pearse English, Northumberland: ‘No anti-Irish sentiment since Brexit whatsoever’

I’ve experienced no anti-Irish sentiment since Brexit whatsoever. I have lived in the UK since 1990 and found that the British, but especially the English, have little knowledge of the history between our two countries. Many still think that the Republic is still part of the UK in some form! Also the political knowledge that the general people inform themselves with is so much less than those in Ireland. So, no, as far as the English are concerned the Government of Ireland Act 1920 is still in force and regard Irish people just as British as they are. So anti-Irish feeling? No. Ignorance of Ireland, our history and present relationship? Loads as far as I can see and tell.

Denise Power: ‘Once my friend and I were verbally abused ... and we phoned it in as a hate crime’

I have only ever received anti-Irish sentiment when I’ve gone up to the north of England. Once, my friend and I were verbally abused to a point that really shocked and upset her. We phoned it in as a hate crime and the police found the culprit, because I’d managed to record his car registration plate. He said he was just very drunk and was sorry, and he got off with a warning.

Kevin Cully, Cornwall: ‘I was so shocked I wasn’t sure he’d said it.’

While out shopping I happened to be talking to one of the shop’s staff. She said she was fed up with Brexit. I replied that it was a shambles. One of two men passing at that moment said to me “Why don’t you f... off back to Ireland then”. They kept walking and left the supermarket. I was so shocked I wasn’t sure he’d said it. The staff member looked very embarrassed. I am from Dublin but have lived here for 40 years. I am a retired teacher and writer. I had this reaction just once before back during the bombings in the 1970s. I had thought that we had left this behind but it seems it’s back again.

Chris McGowan: ‘There is enormous anti-British sentiment being shown in Ireland’

I have dual Irish and British nationality. I do not have an Irish accent and have not personally experienced any anti-Irish sentiment either against me or against any Irish friends and family. But I have experienced anti-British sentiment by Irish nationals and other EU nationals. There is enormous anti-British sentiment being shown in Ireland, and across the EU on account of extremely biased and unbalanced press coverage and social media. Whether we are remainers or Brexiteers, we should be able to freely express our opinions without fear of abuse and that is not happening on both sides of the divide.

Liam Toland, Erewash: ‘I no longer see English people having a similar to Irish people in our outlook’

I have been living in England for nearly 13 years and playing Sunday football for 10 seasons. In neither my livelihood here nor playing football up until the last two years have I experienced any real kind of discrimination apart from the very odd abuse from some drunken lout about my Donegal accent. However, in the last two seasons of playing football, I have experienced a real change in behaviour among some individuals with a number of racist and bigoted remarks about my Irishness with a few references to Brexit. The change has shocked me and really changed my views on English people. Prior to Brexit, I thought of English people as having a similar to Irish people in our outlook, however, I no longer see this. I now see English people and their values, outlook and general nature towards people, particularly non- English people, as being very unwelcoming.

Grace Power, Surrey: ‘I have had nothing but warm welcoming experiences’

I have lived in the UK for 10 years, two years in Cardiff, one year in Manchester and seven years in London. In all those years only one person has said to me that they would not deal with an Irish person. I have made some wonderful friends and have an English boyfriend. I have had nothing but warm welcoming experiences from work colleagues, to house mates, to neighbours and strangers you meet out and about. I often wonder are English people in Ireland experiencing the same warm welcome?

Mary Brady, Norwich: ‘Both my son and I have noticed an increase in anti-Irish sentiment’

Oh good God, yes (experienced anti-Irish sentiment). I have received an increase in abuse since Brexit. Not just me but my son, who was born and bred in England and has an English accent. Three days after the referendum I was at my gym talking on the phone to my son (Séamus) in English and finished the conversation with “Mo grá thú,” (a perfectly normal Mammy phrase) returned by an Irish son, and followed by the awfully inescapable “slán, slán, slán, okay, bye bye, bye, okay, I’m hanging up anois, ceart go leor, slán,” on a loop.

Finally, we hung up. We were both in different parts of the country, and immediately confronted by English people commenting on foreigners not bothering to learn the language. Séamus at his end said “what?” and the man said “uh?” and Séamus replied “did I do something to p*ss you off?” and the fella said “no, sorry mate, must be deaf or something, I thought you were speaking foreign.” Séamus, not having grown up an Irish person in the 1970s, said “what?” then, when the penny dropped said “so what if I did?”. On my end I had “what the f**k gibberish is that? Learn the f**king language”. To which I replied in the crispest English accent I know, “which language? I have several”.

To be fair, my gym banned the abusive man who had a go at me. Both my son and I have noticed an increase in anti-Irish sentiment (since Brexit). Seriously, I hadn’t heard “Paddy go home” since 1986, a full decade before my son was born. Since 2016, he has heard variations on it several times.

Brian Kelly, London: ‘The English people I have encountered ... are some of the warmest, most generous people’

I appreciate that not every immigrant experience is the same but from my perspective, I can only say that I have never experienced anything remotely resembling anti-Irish sentiment in London. The English people I have encountered, and more so the ones I now count as incredibly close friends, are some of the warmest, most generous people you could wish to meet.

Jeremy Smyth, Peterborough: ‘Our closest friends voted Leave and we never discuss Brexit’

Not so much with the anti-Irish sentiment but a recent conversation, to my mind, demonstrates the mentality behind Brexit. Our closest friends voted Leave and we never discuss Brexit. However, I happened to mention that my new passport had arrived. The response was: “We know you’re Irish but don’t worry, we think of you as English”. Aside from being supremely patronising that one phrase encapsulates the nature of English exceptionalism, which assumes, wrongly, that everyone aspires to be English. To cap it all they can’t understand why I, as an Ulsterman, choose to identify as Irish rather than British, why I want Ireland to win the Rugby World Cup and why I couldn’t care less who wins the Ashes. So it’s not the anti-Irish sentiments that I despise (although I do) it’s the unwritten rule that everyone who doesn’t want to be an Englishman is a bit odd.

Peter Burke, Oxfordshire: ‘There’s a feeling that the simple solution is for Ireland to just get back into the UK’

I come from Dublin and live in Oxford. I’ve been actively involved in the anti-Brexit campaign from the very start and I’m now chair of Oxford for Europe. My contact with English people has shown a stunning lack of knowledge of Irish matters – even among those who have been to Ireland. There is a feeling from many that the simple solution is for Ireland to just get back into the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson, who said before the referendum that Ireland would be no problem, now talks about the Irish tail wagging the English dog. This appears to be very much the prevailing attitude among Tories you come across.

Luke Prendergast, Nottingham: ‘I have yet to meet a single British person who has made me feel anyway unwelcome’

I’m 30-years-old and work as an assistant professor and lecturer. I must say that I strongly believe that the negative experience of Mr Cahill is indeed (thankfully) a rare one. I live in Nottingham with my partner Jennifer (also from Ireland). We moved here from the Netherlands last summer. Needless to say, in the last year since arriving here, Brexit has gone from bad to worse in terms of its newsworthiness, its seeming omnipresence, and ability to divide views. That said, and I really cannot express this strongly enough, I have yet to meet a single British person who has made me feel anyway unwelcome in light of the present evolving climate here. The Irish have had a mixed history in terms of our welcome in England, it is fair to say, but I really think the negative days of the past are certainly just that - in the past. I am willing to admit that it is possible I have not yet had the misfortune to meet this side of society. However, I do know people who did vote for Brexit, and have their own reasons for doing so. Despite the attempts of the British media to label the Irish as the main barrier to a “successful Brexit”, I have yet to witness, or experience, any negative sentiment in this respect. Britain (or Nottingham, at least) remains a welcoming place for the Irish, and other internationals, alike.

Ciarán Byrne: ‘So many people just call me Paddy or Patrick or Pat despite knowing it was not my name’

I’ve experienced so much anti Irish-sentiment in England. I lived in London for more than three years and just moved to Germany recently. I do not for one minute miss the abuse. Maybe it was because I was on building sites. I am an electrician. So many people would just shout out “potatoes” when within earshot of me or “leprechauns”. So many people just call me “Paddy” or “Patrick” or “Pat” despite knowing it was not my name. It felt so bad. I thought this was a thing from the old times, but it is still rife there.

Denise Dunne, Leeds: ‘I’ve not had any anti-Irish interactions’

I personally find most people I come across as appalled by Brexit as I am. I’ve not had any anti-Irish interactions before or after the Brexit referendum. Most questions are “explain the backstop” or similar.

Patrick Bowe, Leicester: ‘It is difficult to maintain these friendships but I try’

A number of my friends have been irrationally critical of Ireland, the Irish and me, as an Irishman, for our national stance on Brexit and my personal stance on Brexit. It is hurtful and an inability to see our interests as separate from their own. The see us as emotional and irrational. It is difficult to maintain these friendships but I try.

Paul Jacob, London: ‘I cannot recall a single time when I have personally experienced discrimination’

I have lived and worked in both Britain and Germany since 1984. I moved permanently to the UK in 1995. In all the years I have worked in the UK I cannot recall a single time when I have personally experienced discrimination as a result of my being Irish. I am easily identifiable as Irish through my accent and even by my “Irish tan” (freckles to you and me). Neither have I noticed a specific rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, either against me personally, or my Polish neighbours. It’s is possible I have been fortunate and I am fully aware incidents may have happened. What I relate here are my own personal experiences over many years. Britain, like any other country has its fair share of problems. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the opportunities this country has afforded me over the years. I am and remain proudly Irish. However, I have found and experienced a new home in the UK for many years. This is not likely to change, Brexit or no Brexit.

Niamh O’Loughlin, London: ‘If my job and work experience wasn’t so London specialised I’d head home in a heartbeat’

I think there has been a mild undertone of anti-Irish sentiment for a long time. However, since the leave vote it has become more obvious and people have become more brave with their bigotry - not just towards us but also to everyone else. I haven’t felt this unwelcome since I was a child in the 1980s. It was no fun being proud to be Irish and of my heritage back then. My accent these days is long gone. But I’ve had to distance myself from a few people I regarded as friends owing to their attitude towards all of us immigrants. Some (Irish people) who’ve been here longer than myself who seem to have forgotten the hatred shown towards us in the past, and seem to be under the impression that the vitriol being spouted by some of the hardliners of the Brexit movement excludes them. If my job and work experience wasn’t so London specialised I’d head home in a heartbeat.

Stephen Colbert: ‘Attitudes have hardened to ‘Who do the Irish think they are’’

Initially after Brexit, there was some sniggering that Ireland or the Irish had a role in Brexit. We’re a small country, what would we know about such things. But as the backstop became a significant issue attitudes have hardened to, “Who do the Irish think they are?” and “We’ll show them not to mess with us” type statements. Many who hold such opinions when challenged don’t actually know or understand what the backstop is but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Jenny Delves, London: ‘I haven’t had any problems being Irish’

Living in London most of the British people I know and meet are very anti-Brexit so I haven’t had any problems being Irish. In fact, people are jealous of my EU passport. However, the attitude and views expressed by many of the political leaders of the country towards the EU, Ireland, and immigrants in general make me realise that despite having lived in the UK for 15 years, this country will never feel like home.