‘Culture can provide home away from home for Irish in London’

First in new discussion series hosted by an Irish journalist in London will feature public interview with historian Roy Foster

I interviewed the Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibín a few years ago about a book of essays he had just published, New Ways To Kill Your Mother. One of the questions I asked was why he was so fascinated by the American novelist, Henry James.

“Anyone Irish who reads James”, replied Tóibín, “instantly recognises that the world he describes in his books, is so unlike the world we were brought up in or lived in: It’s very hard in Ireland to be fully self-invented. You could make an enormous effort to become someone else, but then your cousin would come into the bar! It’s such an intimate society in that sense.”

I left Dublin for London five years ago. The country wasn’t in great shape economically, but I think I would have emigrated eventually anyway. After that interview with Tóibín, I began to question why I had really moved to London. His words suggested one reason for leaving I had never seriously considered.

In the summer of 2010, I was in the South Bank Centre in Waterloo, this time interviewing Joseph O’ Connor, who was promoting a novel he’d just published about the playwright J.M Synge.


Speaking about his time working as a journalist in London in the late 1980s, he recalled a new-found freedom, of being able to walk down a street in a city where you were an anonymous face, where nobody knew your past or where you came from.

For two reasons these stories have always resonated with me. On both occasions, I began to deconstruct the idea of what nationhood actually means. I also felt an enormous longing for Ireland after both conversations ended.

The concrete jungle that is the international-cosmopolitan-metropolis of London can often feel like - in the words of the American punk-poet, Patti Smith - "a sea of possibilities". But it can also bring about overwhelming feelings of alienation and groundlessness.

As human beings, one thing we all want is to belong to our tribe and community. In London, that tribe is simply too big and complex to ever feel quite at home in. So many of us look to culture to re-establish a connection with our homeland.

My work in London has brought me in contact with some of the finest wordsmiths and conversationalists in the business of Irish culture and ideas. I had the privilege of hearing the late Dermot Healy - over the phone from my flat in South East London - describe the beautiful, rugged Atlantic landscape that he was looking out on in the west of Ireland: he would do this every morning before he sat down to write his poetry and prose, he told me.

From his publisher's office in Victoria, Paul Durcan explained how 40 years previously he would walk to the Tate museum every lunchtime to look at the paintings of Francis Bacon, hoping to escape the monotony of his desk job in the North Thames Gas Board.

I have explained to an audience in North West London that Roddy Doyle, who I was interviewing on stage last summer, was raised not far from where I am from in Bayside, North Dublin. You wouldn't impress people or get away with that carry-on at home. But a British audience, who tend to find the Irish foreign, mysterious, and more charming than most, lapped it up.

Two years ago, in a hotel in Mayfair, I met former president Mary Robinson. We discussed women's rights, her work in the UN, and how she changed the role of the Irish presidency. I felt an immediate sense of belonging to something greater than the faceless city where the conversation was taking place.

Earning much of my living writing about Irish culture as an immigrant working in London has made me more aware of my own sense of national identity. Moreover, it has made me question the very notion of what it means to be Irish.

If a nation is merely a set of cultural beliefs, tied together by a myth which seeks to become reality, it begs the question: can you still be part of that mythology even if you don’t live within the boundaries of its physical borders?

The answer, I believe, is yes.

Other Irish writers I have interviewed, such as Eavan Boland and Hugo Hamilton, have attempted to document the lives of people in their work who have been silenced from the dominant narrative of Irish nationalism.

Irish immigrants in London have often been part of that group. Presently, they tend to be better educated and financially better off than previous generations, who came here searching for employment and a better life.

But culturally, even today, many Irish immigrants in London can feel disillusioned and cut off from their brothers and sisters back home.

That is why I believe now is a good time to take this subject and begin a public forum here in London, which in many ways is the unofficial 33rd county of Ireland. My hope, with this new event, is to bring the Irish expatriate community together for a regular night of culture and conversation.

A discussion will be held once a month in the Boogaloo pub in Highgate, North London. People who share a love of culture, history, politics, and good old-fashioned debate, can come together to watch well-known Irish authors being interviewed on stage by myself, and mingle afterwards over a drink.

Kicking off our first night on Wednesday December 10th, I will be chairing a conversation with Roy Foster, professor of Irish history at Oxford and honorary vice president of the Irish Literary Society in London.

He will be speaking about his book Vivid Faces, The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. I hope it will spark a conversation about how the intellectual premise of the 1916 revolution - which was based around literature, romance, culture and violence - was eventually hijacked by more conservative individuals, during and after the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Foster will be introduced on the night by the award winning poet Bernard O’Donoghue.

All are welcome.

Tickets cost £7.95 and can be purchased at ticketweb.co.uk. For more details on upcoming events, see johnpaulomalley.tumblr.com or follow @johnpaulomallez on Twitter