Anti-Irish sentiment and rave scene buzz in 1980s London

Australia made a contrast to living in the UK where I was always conscious of my accent


I saw a film at the Galway Film Fleadh last year which got me thinking. One of the characters in the movie had got into strife and made the decision to emigrate. There’s a scene at the airport where the guy walks through Departures and then... that was the end of his character in this story. How many Irish stories can you think of that end at the airport?

I live in Sydney and for me, and many Irish emigrants around the world, that journey through the Departures gate is not the end-point of the film script of our lives. For many of us, it is just the beginning of the second act.

Thirty years ago, on June 6th 1985, I took the boat from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead and got the train down to London. I went into the newsagent in the station concourse in Euston and bought a London A to Z to find the way to Rotherhithe, where my mate had a squat. As I flipped through the pages, a dishevelled old lady leaned against the wall beside me, hitched up her skirt and pissed on the ground. Her urine spattered my rucksack. Welcome to London.

I got out of Ireland because I felt restricted. I had a nervous breakdown during my last year in Trinity College in the process of ramming a science degree down my throat, while at the same time realising I had no interest whatever in science. I had done a course involving some filmmaking, and was keen to learn more. I had some friends and an ex-girlfriend in London, so it seemed like the place to go to.

Squat life

Unemployment benefit was generous and Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council even paid my college fees. I paid the grand sum of £1 for my MA in film studies at St Martin’s School of Art in Covent Garden. There was a thriving squatting subculture which made it possible to survive on a pittance. Everyone was in the same boat.

I moved from squat to squat while writing reviews and interviews for Hot Press. For a time I lived in Neasden with the members of Ruefrex, a Protestant punk band from Derry. I felt I had left Ireland and its petty bigotry behind.

But the IRA mainland bombing campaign was still active, and anti-Irish sentiment was rife. In my first paid work on a documentary about the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its use against the Irish community, I met ‘Aunty’ Anne Maguire - one of the Maguire Seven who had been convicted in 1976 of terrorist offences alongside the Guildford Four. I had never met a terrorist and assumed she would be a dangerous fanatic. Instead, I found a gentle old lady, much like my own mum, whose life had been ruined by the injustice of her fitted up charges and the dreadful smear campaign she had undergone at the hands of the British tabloid press.

At one point I had a small job making a promo video for Hammersmith Council. In the course of the production, I found myself in a playground trying to persuade a young girl to play on the swing so that I could film her enjoying the council facilities. “You’re Irish,” she said as she looked up at me. “Yes I am,” I said, hoping this pleasant bonhomie would get her to do what I wanted. “Irish are stupid,” she said.

There were constant reminders of where I came from, and where I stood in the pecking order of the Irish community. As young workers we were exploited, and very often by our own. One friend stood in the hiring line in Camden Town in the morning and took the day’s work that was offered by the shonky subbies in the van who pulled up and hired the fortunate. He worked for a couple of weeks, but the subby disappeared, and so did my friend’s wages.

I worked for an Irish newspaper only to experience the same non-payment of wages. And I was not alone. At one point I attended a party in Acton and counted 13 young journalists and secretaries who were owed money by the same newspaper proprietor. Was it any wonder that when I went to the Irish Centre and saw the important men in their suits, I viewed the majority of them as gombeen men who screwed their own to achieve a veneer of respectability? As emigrants we were doubly screwed, by our country for casting us out to this foreign land, and then again by our elders and betters who took advantage of our naivety.

Despite these setbacks, it was a good time to be young in London. The early days of raves and warehouse parties in 1987 reassured us that we were young and cool and, while the buzz lasted, on top of the world.

Rave scene

Most of my friends were from other parts of the UK, but we didn’t really mix with the local cockneys. My friends were musicians and artists and fashion editors who embraced the gay scene and frequented clubs such as Heaven under the Charing Cross arches.

When I moved to Coventry in the midlands in 1989 I found I was meeting and mixing with the locals. I also discovered rave music had filtered down to my social milieu, which included football hooligans and petty criminals. In London a “coming out” party celebrated the outing of a person’s sexuality to their family. To my new friends in Coventry, a coming out party meant getting out of prison.

I worked on a documentary featuring an interview with a young scally, who described the scene when a rival hooligan crew entered a rave he was attending. Instead of fighting each other they all started dancing. I can still recall the look of wonder on his face as he recalled the episode. “And that,” he said, “was weird!”

In 1996 I travelled to Sydney to attend my brother’s wedding and never went back. It was not until I moved from the UK that I realised how the pervasive anti-Irish feeling had been impacting on my life.

In Australia, being Irish was something to be celebrated. A lot of it was sentimental tripe, but it made a contrast to living in the UK where I was always conscious of my accent, after being accosted by complete strangers on several occasions and being told to “f*** off back where you came from”.

Australia is a country of contradictions. On the one hand is the backward government, which denies climate change and has a refugee policy that is savage in its inhumanity. On the other hand, there are glimpses of what this country could become.

One such moment of hope came when I was doing an oral history project in an abjectly poor area of western Sydney. I came across a school choir of about 50 seven-year-olds, all of them with a different skin colour (according to the 2011 census, almost 250 languages are spoken in Sydney). They sang like angels. It is moments such as this that sustain me, and make me realise Australia is a land of possibilities for me, and for my children.

Emigrant goodbyes

On a visit home to Ireland last week I tried to describe to a friend what it is like to meet briefly with friends and family before getting on a plane and flying 17,000km back home to Sydney. What are those moments like, when you re-join and reminisce and then say goodbye? In searching for the right words, I was reminded of listening to my uncle, a simple spoken man from Belmullet, as he recounted his memories of an “American wake” from the Mayo of his youth. What struck me in his account was the despair of the parents as they said goodbye in the knowledge that they were unlikely to see their offspring again.

The modern emigrant goodbye is not like the American wake, but it is a little like saying goodbye to a friend with a terminal illness. The grieving takes place over time, so that by the time the end has come the worst of the sadness has already been and gone. Each visit home is another stage in the grieving process, which started the day I took the boat.

Migrants are often the most conservative of populations. My theory is that their concept of their native land is snap-frozen the day they leave. For them, Ireland is forever as it was the day that they left. They do not adapt to progressive social orders in their adopted country, but neither do they understand that, in the meantime, their native country has changed while they have been away.

But the world is forever changing and immigrants change too. Or maybe the old ones is just die off. When I returned to the Irish Centre in Camden again in the late ‘90s I was amazed to see that many of the vestiges of conservatism had been blown away. The Irish gay group Amach was holding a lesbian céilí. For “The Waves of Tory”, instead of boys on the left and girls on the right, the caller called out “butch” on the left and “fem” on the right.

The years have passed and I’m now one of those “older types” who I remembered seeing hanging around the Camden Irish Centre back in the 80s (though I don’t wear a pin-stripe suit). I sit on committees at the Sydney Gaelic Club, and am involved in “keeping Irish traditions alive”. The organisation this year celebrates its 100-year anniversary.

The Irish club in Brisbane closed its doors recently after 117 years, partly because it failed to recruit the new generation of Irish migrants to its ranks. But was it any wonder when, as late as 2000, the club insisted on making its St Patrick’s Day dinner a “men only” event, famously embarrassing the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern when his partner Celia Larkin was threatened with exclusion?

In the Sydney Gaelic club however, the celebrations for the recent gay marriage referendum went on late into the night. It made me very happy to be a part of it. A new generation of Irish have arrived in Sydney since 2008 and I hope they feel welcomed by the current Irish community, whatever their colour, creed or sexual identity, or whether they have an arse in their pants.

Enda Murray is a filmmaker and director Irish Australian Film Festival

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