Embracing Irishness and Britishness as a Fermanagh man in London
It is possible to have utter passion for Ireland, and also be comfortable with Britishness
Paul Breen: ‘I would be happy with the term Londoner. I embrace the culture, identity and history of the London Irish.’
Reading the Generation Emigration article by another Fermanagh-born writer, Kylie Noble, on Monday, I found it refreshing and thought-provoking. My own experience of living in England has given me a similar confidence in my Irish identity. But it has also worked in reverse at the same time. Living in London for almost a decade has given me a stronger understanding of what modern Britishness means, and how these two islands form a complicated relationship.
I was born in the 1970s, as the modern Northern Irish conflict was in its infancy. That conflict was born out of discrimination, authoritarianism, and the ambivalence of politicians in Westminster to what was happening unchecked across the water. I grew up with no loyalty to the state I lived in. British soldiers shot thirteen people dead on the streets of Derry when I was two months old. A few years later they shot my uncle’s dog because his barking alerted others to their presence. That probably touched my heart more at the time. In childhood fantasies I longed to be Francis Hughes or Bobby Sands taking vengeance on these foreigners in the occupied six counties. When the Hunger Strikes happened we listened to pirate radio and hoped to see the “Brits” driven out of Belfast.
I supported the Northern Ireland football team in the 1982 World Cup, and the Republic as well, fortunate to have a choice of both. I heard stories of a neighbour’s house surrounded by squadrons of police for the crime of buying a tricolour in Bundoran and accidentally leaving it in the window. Soldiers stopped us on the cratered roads that led to Ulster GAA finals in Monaghan.
Then on a cold November morning in 1987, the Enniskillen bomb rumbled in the distance. Nothing was worth the horrors of that, no lost life, no lost country, and no future aspiration. Gordon Wilson’s words of forgiveness would have melted the hardest of any hearts. A few years later I worked part time in a Protestant-owned hotel in a town called Lisnaskea, where I experienced the dying traces of an old bigotry and bitterness that once characterised Northern Ireland.
I left Fermanagh in the early 90s and went to university in Belfast, where I also worked for a time in the years leading up to the ceasefires. In 1999 I left Northern Ireland to do a teacher training degree, and travelled to other parts of the world teaching English. Since then, I have never lived or worked in Northern Ireland, although I spent two years in Dublin in the 2000s. My life now is in London where I work, write, and live with an English wife (and cat).
I feel at home here, though am not sure I use the word home in the same sense as in the old days. I would never call myself British, and never feel Britain integrates its minorities and immigrants as America does. Nobody in Fermanagh would ever say “The English are coming home for Christmas”’ in the way they would talk of “The Americans” of my same generation who have gone to live there.
I would be happy with the term Londoner. I embrace the culture, identity and history of the London Irish. Even the patriotism of the second generation astounds me. A second generation Cork man, a near neighbour, keeps reminding me to get an Easter lily every time I see him!
Habits and beliefs
Besides, after this length of time living here I have picked up many of the habits of the English. Most of my friends, colleagues, and closest relationships are with English people. I am a member of the British Labour Party not because I was born into it but because, for all its faults, I believe in many of the causes it embraces. I support British republican ideals, the same as I support Irish Republican ideals, and aspire to the day when two such republics can accept and celebrate their shared histories. There are other causes I embrace too, out of conviction and not because I was born into them. These range from the simple to the complex, from voicing support for Britain’s steel workers, to fighting the increasing privatisation within higher education and the NHS.
Some causes I write about sit on the borders of both my background and my present beliefs. The poppy issue is one I have written about extensively. I hate the way it has been used as a political football in the sporting context, no pun intended. I choose not to wear one because of opposition to the glorification of war. I am also a member of the London-based Peace Pledge movement. At the same time, growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland had an influence too. The footballer James McClean has to explain his reasons for not wearing the poppy every November, and every time I hear them, they touch a raw nerve of empathy. Anger too. At times like these I feel very alienated from the country around me and more strongly aware of being Irish, and being different.
Yet football is a good example of another new habit I have picked up, casting off parts of the past but keeping an emotional attachment to them. Over time I have developed a growing identification with grassroots football in England rather than with the Premier League. Growing up in Fermanagh I supported Liverpool through their glory days and then their lean times. Moving to London I started following Charlton Athletic, as my local team. I find people in Ireland struggle to understand why you wouldn’t follow one of the winners, why you’d pick a team in one of the lower divisions. I can no longer imagine a world where all your heroes are Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Manchester United, Usain Bolt, and Kobe Bryant. That was me once upon a time, but now living in Charlton supporting Liverpool would be like a Carlow man following Dublin’s GAA team.
Yet at the same time I feel distant enough from Britain and cynical enough about its history to see the contradictions in this sense of always rooting for the underdog. Where was this sense of fair play when it came to the natives of Ireland, India, Kenya, and Australia to name but a few? Thankfully, many English people of my generation and younger in Britain can also see such contradictions. They do not have the rose-tinted view of Empire that Ulster Unionists commonly have. They have an open mindedness too as regards matters sexual, seeing the state as having no right to interfere in what goes on in the privacy of a couple’s bedroom, or a woman’s womb.
This is the reason why I find it easier to relate to English people than to Ulster Protestants when it comes to their worldview. That’s not to be taken as a criticism of the many Protestant friends and former neighbours I have. On social media about a third of my Irish contacts are “Protestant”. It’s not a term I particularly like but it feels equally absurd to use terms such as British or Irish, Unionist or nationalist, to divide people into two camps.
Here in England the only time I am ever conscious of someone’s religion is when they are obviously Muslim. Protestant and Catholic is irrelevant to me. That might seem far from when and where I was born, but strangely it’s a reversal back to the early years of childhood. Then, before I knew about history and politics, people were just neighbours in the Fermanagh and Tyrone countryside. Those labels meant very little. It was going to school and growing older that taught me the differences, in the same way as black British friends often say their children will learn that they are “black” when they go to school. Of course they “know” before that, just as I knew that I was Catholic, but they don’t know the loaded ways in which the word can be used to denote a particular state of second-class citizenship, of not fully belonging to the country you live in.
On the whole, my experience has many echoes of Kylie’s, while at the same time being the reverse. I have developed a greater sense of who I am as an Irish person, and what makes the Irish identity and experience so very different to the English, or Scottish for that matter. At the same time I have grown comfortable with embracing the best of Britishness, and in imagining ways in which that Britishness could be unashamedly integrated into a future Irish Republic. I can also imagine ways in which the Irish identity could be better incorporated into the Northern Ireland state, but that’s not my ground to fight, and I don’t see any willingness on the part of Unionists to fight it either.
Hopefully these articles by two Fermanagh people show there is hope for the future of the North, and that old certainties are not set in stone. Britain has been enriched for centuries by the contributions the Irish have made from Middlesbrough down to Middlesex, Glasgow down to Glamorgan. As we come up to Easter 2016, it’s a good time to reflect on that. Surprising, even stunning, as it may be to some in Northern Ireland, the commemoration is being embraced here in England not just by those with Irish roots but by all those with a passion for Ireland.
It is possible to have a complete and utter passion for Ireland, and at the same time be comfortable with Britishness. In the 2012 Olympics for example I remember cheering Mo Farrah every step of the way on his medal winning runs but could never say think or feel as if “we” had won. The “we” for me could only ever be somebody wearing Irish colours, whether that’s the north or south.
Paul Breen is a lecturer in The University of Westminster, and author of The Charlton Men published by Thames River Press, now on sale through Amazon.