‘I felt quite emotional’: The new Irish citizens in Britain
While some apply ‘just for the passport’, for others, their reasons run deeper
Seán Sorohan:"I know it's sad, but I do get a little thrill pulling out the Irish passport - my whole life I've been telling people I'm Irish with my London accent and now I've got the paper to prove it!"
Matthew Semple was aware of his family’s Irish roots growing up in Bristol in the 1970s and 80s – his grandmother, who had migrated from Waterford to London in 1923, still spoke with a strong Irish accent – but he and his seven cousins were “not brought up with a strong Irish identity”.
Semple and his sister had spoken in the past about applying for an Irish passport, but had never done anything about it. But on the morning of June 24th, 2016, as the Brexit referendum results became clear, he emailed her to say he would be sending off his application. She replied to say she had already started gathering the documentation.
With an Irish-born grandparent, the siblings were entitled to apply to join the register of foreign-born citizens, a precursor to applying for a passport. Seven months after submitting all the documentation required to prove their link to Ireland, they received a certificate of foreign-birth registration, and a letter congratulating them on becoming an Irish citizen.
“I felt quite emotional,” he says. Having only visited Ireland once previously in his life, Semple has been three times since 2017, including a trip to Tallow where his grandmother was born. On his most recent visit, he used his Irish passport card. This week he booked flights to Shannon for the end of May, to take his wife and three children to see the parts of the country they didn’t get to visit last year.
“My mother now also has an Irish passport and one of my cousins recently contacted me to ask about the process. If nothing else, [re]discovering an Irish identity has provided some comfort or distraction in what has otherwise been a pretty bleak time.”
Last year, 12,309 people like Semple and his sister applied for foreign-birth registration, up from 10,653 in 2017 and just 4,421 in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote.
Children of Irish-born citizens can apply directly for an Irish passport, and these applications have also risen dramatically since 2016. A total of 98,544 people living in England, Scotland and Wales applied for Irish passports last year, up 22 per cent on 2017.
Articles have appeared in British newspapers, including those that strongly backed a Leave vote such as the Daily Express, advising how to apply for citizenship of other countries in Europe, including Ireland.
While there’s no doubt that ease of movement around Europe after Brexit is a primary motivator for many who apply for Irish passports and citizenship, for others, the reasons run deeper.
“There is a narrative out there, in the Irish media especially, that people are doing this just for the passport, to be in the right queue in the airport, but there is much more going on,” says Marc Scully, a psychology lecturer in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick with a special interest in Irish diaspora and identity issues.
“Getting the passport might have been on people’s to-do list for ages, but this [Brexit] was a prompt.”
After writing an article about the rise in Irish passport applications from Britain in The Irish Times last June, Scully received more than 100 emails from people who had been through the process and wanted to share their stories. He has met some of them since at a focus group in London.
“The process of applying for a passport is their way of making sense of their family story . . . It is not about people adding on a whole new identity. Most of them already had a strong sense of their Irish identity and are formalising that now,” he says.
“A number of the people I interviewed were young second-generation Irish during the Troubles, who played down their Irishness at that time. They might have come back to it during what I call the Riverdance revival period in the late 1990s and 2000s, when Irishness was really popular in England. Britain overall was a more multicultural and tolerant place to inhabit, and there was space to be both British and Irish.
“But that space to be both seems to be narrowing again. This time round, when they have to choose, some are saying well, I’m going to be Irish. Before they might have tried to minimise it, or chosen not to advertise it, but now if they are feeling like they have to choose, they want to be Irish because it is a more attractive option for them right now.”
It’s not just about being Irish, either. A desire to remain European – “a very middle class thing in a British context” – was a strong motivator for a significant number of Scully’s interviewees, too.
“They would often be people who would do a lot of business in Europe or travel a lot there, or have relatives not only in Ireland, but in other European countries as well. They don’t want to be cut off from Europe. Some of that is about ease of travel, but it is also about the sense of opportunity that being part of Europe brings, like access to Erasmus, for example.”
Dr Julie Mullaney, head of culture at Manchester’s Irish World Heritage Centre, who has assisted many of her clients through the passport or foreign born citizens registration process, says the view in the Irish media that people are “chancing their arm to try to get a passport” completely misunderstands the complicated emotional journey applicants often go through.
“People have to gather lots of documentation and that can produce a lot of angst and upset for families – people find things out that they didn’t know.”
One of her clients who has recently applied for a passport is a woman with a Palestinian mother and Irish father from Cork. He had been stationed in Syria with the British army before settling in Manchester where he worked as a dentist. She is in the process of completing the forms for her children, too.
“No two stories are the same,” Mullaney says.
Mary Hickman believes the narrative about people "discovering" their Irishness to apply for a passport is not the right one, either.
"All these people applying for a passport after Brexit didn’t just discover it. They knew they had an Irish heritage, but just hadn’t activated it officially yet," she says.
But they may not be prepared for how emotional the process can be. "It lays out their lineage for them. What has made the most impact is getting the letter which informs them that they are now an Irish citizen. They have told me how unprepared they were for how that felt. They have a certificate now to prove their Irish citizenship."
A common thread among Scully’s interviewees was a desire to learn more about Ireland since receiving their passports.
“A lot of people are using this as an educational project,” he says.
“They are engaging with Irish media, Irish culture and Irish history in quite a focused way, almost as if there is going to be a test. It comes from a sense of, if I’m going to call myself Irish, I need to be able to back that up with a level of knowledge about the country that I am claiming ownership of. It’s like people feel the need to justify themselves.”
Organisations like Irish in Britain see an opportunity here, to connect with a whole new cohort of the Irish diaspora who are becoming more engaged with Ireland and Irishness in Britain than they perhaps were in the past.
But figuring out how to bring them in will require some creative thinking, Scully believes.
“Events that are popular with an older Irish population will not appeal to a 30-something third-generation Irish person who is newly interested in learning more about Irish history and culture,” he says.
“This St Patrick’s Day in Britain will be very interesting. Will we see that new engagement from people who genuinely want to find out more about Ireland?”
Seán Sorohan: ‘My whole life I've been telling people I'm Irish. Now I've got the paper to prove it’
In the mothers' room at our Church, the catechist asked if anyone was not from England and I put my hand up to proudly say I was from Ireland. When she followed up by asking me if I'd come over by plane or boat, I was totally flustered and ran over to my mum and asked if I was wrong - she told me I was from Ireland and from England. This has always stuck with me as the first time I was aware of the contradiction in my national identity.
All my grandparents moved over to London from Ireland from the 1940s to the 1960s; my dad's side from the midlands (Cavan and Longford) and mum's from Munster (Tipp and Kerry). My parents grew up in very Irish Catholic households and met in the Galtymore dance hall in Cricklewood when they were 16.
I was brought up in North London, went to Catholic schools, away to Durham and then Belfast for university and then back to North London. At QUB I studied for an MA in Irish History and wrote a thesis about the Irish community in London, which I later adapted into a book (Irish London During the Troubles, published in 2012). I'm married to Siobhán, who I met at school. She is of a similarly Irish background; we got married over in Ireland three years ago.
I was brought up with a very strong sense of being Irish. We went to Catholic schools, where a lot of children had Irish parents and grandparents. My auntie ran an Irish dancing school where I had to go to sit through my sister's lesson while doing my homework, we always supported Ireland (and England) in football, and often went to Longford and Kerry on holiday.
Being very close to my grandparents, who were all around while I was growing up, gave me a strong affinity to Ireland; I loved them, and so I loved where they were from. I'll never forget my 74-year-old granddad jumping around our living room like a teenager when Robbie Keane equalised against Germany in 2002.
But this, in my family at least, always went hand-in-hand with being British/English as well. This certainly caused a bit of an identity crisis at times growing up, which is ultimately why I ended up in Belfast and writing a book.
As an adult I still feel very connected to Ireland and Irishness, and my wife and I go over frequently. I'm more comfortable with my identity these days - I think I've grown out of any romantic notion of Irishness and embrace my identity as an Irish Briton.
I had wanted an Irish passport for a while. When my British one was expiring in 2014 I looked into getting one, but frankly it seemed like too much hassle, and an unnecessary expense for what would essentially just be a badge of official Irishness. With the UK and Ireland both in the EU it would make no tangible difference.
The Brexit vote was a real shock to me. Living in London, being relatively middle-class and young, I'm in a solidly remainer demographic and I just knew hardly anyone who would dream of voting to leave. I was, and still am, fairly upset by the result of the vote. I voted remain for cultural reasons: because I want to live in a country that is open and outward-looking, that works together with its neighbours for peace and prosperity.
Although BoJo and Co might argue otherwise, that it's all about the European Court of Justice and Free Trade Deals with far-flung countries, to me Brexit is symptomatic of a country that is happier navel-gazing and romanticising the second World War.
And so, as an act of rebellion against an attempt to strip me of my EU citizenship and European identity, I started gathering together my grangdad's documents and applied for Irish citizenship. Yes, there are practical reasons for getting a passport - ease of travel and the ability to work in Europe in the future - but ultimately I wanted an Irish passport because I didn't like what Brexit represented.
The application for citizenship took seven months. The passport took about another six weeks. The process was smooth, although I was lucky my family had all the documents to hand. Only criticism is you should be able to apply for citizenship and a passport at the same time, as you just end up sending the embassy the same documents twice.
I got my passport about a year ago and was delighted; for the first time I was officially Irish; I was to remain officially European. I ordered a green passport cover straight away and looked forward to being greeted through the passport check at Dublin Airport with the same “Welcome Home” that my wife always gets (Siobhán has always had an Irish passport).
I know it's sad, but I do get a little thrill pulling out the Irish passport - my whole life I've been telling people I'm Irish with my London accent and now I've got the paper to prove it!