Irish in Britain: ‘I’d like to stay. Britain is not Brexit’

We asked Irish people in Britain to write about Brexit. Here are some of the 140 responses

As the Brexit referendum result became clear on the morning of June 24th, 2016, emails started to trickle, then pour in to The Irish Times Abroad inbox from readers living all across Britain. Shock, dismay, devastation and anger were words repeated over and over again as they described their reaction to the outcome.

Some worried for their job security; others for their investments or property. Many mentioned feeling no longer welcome as an immigrant, a status some hadn’t necessarily ascribed to themselves before as an Irish person in Britain.

Even in those early hours after the announcement, some were already saying they could no longer stay living there, and were making plans to leave.

Almost three years later, the situation is almost as uncertain as it was on the morning of the results.

More than 140 people living in Britain responded to a call-out on in recent weeks when asked for their views on Brexit, and many of the same concerns were raised. Here is a selection of responses we received.

Alan Flanagan, London

I moved to London six-and-a-half years ago after having spent a few years in Toronto. My grandparents, both from Galway, met in the north of England and my Dad was born here, so there’s a long history of moving around in the family.

While the city can be a bit of a beast on first arrival, I quickly found my feet, especially with friends old and new who’d also moved to London around the same time. I’ve always found British people to be warm and polite, and London to be the perfect mix of cultures, sexualities, backgrounds, basically everything you move to a big city for.

But the Brexit vote brought out an attitude that I had assumed long gone: anti-Irishness. I found myself standing in a bar while an old woman told me off for being Irish. Friends of mine had a similar experience on the bus.

I love the UK because in every ounce of its history and its culture, it is not Brexit. It just needs a whack across the head and a stern pint to remind it of that fact

Has it dampened my love for London? No. Because the things I love about London are the things that the worst elements of Brexit hate – the diversity, the freedom, the belief not in birthright but in rich rewards for hard work.

But Brexit has reminded me that the things that make countries good don’t come automatically – they have to be fought for, and backsliding has to be checked. It’s also strengthened my connections to Ireland, not as an escape route but in defiance of people who claim that you must be one thing or the other but never both.

I love the UK because, in every ounce of its history and its culture, it is not Brexit. It just needs a whack across the back of the head and a stern pint to remind it of that fact. So I’d like to stay. To, in some small part, be the one who does that.

Antoinette McGovern

I moved to London because Ireland in the late 1980s was a dreary place to be young, female and single. So, when my mother spotted an advert looking for qualified Irish teachers in London, I jumped at the chance.

I only planned to spend a short time here! But here I am, 31 years later, married to a second-generation Irishman, three kids, a house, a mortgage and a cat. I consider myself a Londoner. But beyond the London bubble, I feel as alien now as I did when I first arrived.

Do I see my long-term future in Britain? No! These are dark days thanks to a decade of austerity and the uncertainty of Brexit. I am angry at the politicians who gambled away this country’s prosperity to satisfy the hard-right populists. I feel disappointed that decades of progress towards a more tolerant society have been undone.

Sadly, after three decades in London, I want to go home.

Valerie Busher, Dundee

I am living and working in Scotland for 35 years this year. I came to be here “by accident”, I had never intended to stay away from Dublin but personal circumstances led me to make the decision after a week-long visit, to stay in Scotland for one year and avail of a non-contested divorce. A choice that would never have been available to me should I have stayed in Dublin in the 1980s.

That year led to another and then another; my life moved on and I ended up staying in Broughty Ferry just outside of Dundee City, with a lovely Scottish man. We had a son and married when our son was five-years-old.

Sadly my husband was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer and died before our second wedding anniversary. With my son so young and having gone through the trauma of his father dying, I felt unable to uproot him and return to Ireland.

As far as Brexit is concerned; I voted to leave because I have every faith that the UK could go it alone. Strangely enough that’s in opposition to most of my friends in Scotland. I voted to leave Europe and earlier I voted for an Independent Scotland.

Flora Faith-Kelly, London

Having grown up between Northern Ireland and Donegal, and having possessed an Irish passport for the majority of my life, I had always considered myself Irish, but also possessed an awareness of, and partial involvement in, British culture as well. It was a shock, then, to find that when I moved to England for university in 2015, it was apparently not in fact my choice to determine what nationality I was. Northern Ireland was part of Britain, and therefore I was British, according to the more patriotic Brits who cared enough to let me know.

With hindsight, I see a foreshadowing of the Brexit referendum result in how I was treated during my first year in England. The term British and Irish could not co-exist as one part of a person’s individual existence.

I have found through exhausting discussions with the supposed most-educated in Britain, the scope for empathy or interest beyond British horizons appears to be shrinking

Since moving to London this year to complete my master’s degree, I feel this imposition of British opinion on how the Irish or Northern Irish should present, behave, think and speak grows stronger, highlighting the dangerous side of domineering British pride, perhaps the remnants from a conquering colonial history.

I had hoped moving to the more diverse capital, and throwing myself into the impressive academic realm, would provide relief from stereotypes and ignorance with regards to the British Irish experience, yet I find myself time and time again fighting to be understood and taken seriously.

Worryingly to me it seems that, as I have found through exhausting discussions with the supposed most-educated in Britain, the scope for empathy or interest beyond British horizons appears to be shrinking rather dangerously. Tensions between Britain and Ireland heighten, and with it so does my longing to return home.

Gerry Breen, Chelmsford

I qualified as an English teacher from Queen’s University, Belfast, with a BA degree and a PGCE in 1973. In 1977 my sister who was teaching in the North East of England told me about an English job in a large Catholic Comprehensive in Hartlepool and I decided that it might be interesting to go for a few years before returning to Belfast. That two years became extended to the present day.

My early experiences in England did have some unpleasant aspects and my accent was picked up on numerous occasions by people with a very jaded view of the Irish. On one occasion I was physically assaulted by a total stranger who just didn’t like my accent and he was thankfully successfully prosecuted for the offence.

Generally however the story has been much more positive, especially in London where I always felt welcome and appreciated. The Brexit debate I believe has seriously divided the UK and unfortunately is centred around racism and ignorance. I hope Brexit will not destroy the great liberal tradition and open nature of this country or blight its future!

Declan Clear, London

I can still remember the day Brexit happened in vivid detail. The previous night I was in Gertie Browne’s Irish pub in East Finchley, jumping for joy as Robbie Brady put Ireland into the next round of the European championships. I remember going in to vote Remain wearing my Ireland jersey, happy and proud that I was able to do so.

My fiancé, with German citizenship, was unable to exercise the same right. While I’m not saying the EU is perfect, voting Leave was never something I contemplated, or believed was a realistic outcome for that referendum. The vote felt like a formality. Obviously, it wasn’t.

The most immediate and present result of Brexit has, for us, been financial. The financial uncertainty around Brexit has seen the value of the sterling plunge against both the euro and the dollar. It has therefore decimated our savings, and made it even more difficult and expensive for us to move home to either country, should we wish to.

Colm Fitzgerald, London

I moved to London in October 2016, undeterred by the Brexit vote a few months previous. I feel a bit of a cheat to be Irish in London now – having an Irish passport means that at least in the current context of what’s been promised under the Common Travel Area – I’m still expecting to be waved through when I fly home to Shannon, and can still join the EU passports queue in Europe.

It’s noticeable how there are fewer people from Europe here now, which is sad. It’s not hard to hear stories of people packing up and going back home – for their sakes or their children’s.

I don’t know what the future holds for us here. We have decent jobs with decent money and we recently moved into our own place, after two years of flatsharing. Brexit may well put all of that in jeopardy, but for now, I’m hanging on to my belief that if life hands you the keys to happiness you should take them.

Fiach Whelan, London

The United Kingdom has always been a place for Irish people to go and experience a society ten times the size of our own, with a diverse culture and world-leading opportunities.

But with Brexit, like a palpable tension you can feel, see and hear the division on topics, circumstances and beliefs that Brexit has brought about, not to mention the seething anger in some cases that lies beneath it all.

As an Irish immigrant to the United Kingdom myself I can't help but be worried for what will happen next

I work specifically moving Irish talent to various locations around the globe. I have seen the change shift significantly first hand, in terms of where people are moving from Ireland for the opportunities abroad. Likewise, since 2013 there has been a steady trickle in the level of Irish returning from the UK to Ireland, this is partially to do with the “Celtic phoenix” rising from the ashes of Ireland’s economy but this trickle has turned into a steady flow since 2016.

If there is a no-deal Brexit I can see this steady flow turning to a whole out exodus of Irish returning to Ireland or heading further afield in search of opportunities that at one time were a 50-minute flight away. As an Irish immigrant to the United Kingdom myself I can’t help but be worried for what will happen next.

Hugh McCarthy, London

As an Irishman living in London with a German wife, it is fair to say we don’t plan on staying in the UK long term. We’ve enjoyed our time here but the culture of Daily Mail/Nigel Farage and having to register as a foreigner doesn’t make us feel welcome or even acknowledge our contribution to the UK economy.

Aisling McAtamney, Birmingham

On numerous occasions I have been asked whether Ireland is still part of Britain, and where Dublin is in the UK. These questions, though asked innocently, are loaded with an implicit lack of meaningful understanding of our colonial history and of our identities as Irish.

Brexit, at times, seems to make the same mistakes as it overlooks the significance of our history in our contemporary identity-formation as Irish citizens.

After living abroad for almost 10 years, I have never felt the strength of my national identity quite so much as I do now.

The political, ethnic and cultural divisions I have witnessed as a result of Brexit have solidified the joy I take in telling others that I am Irish.

Denise Power, Oxfordshire

I am part of the research community in Oxford, a community changed by uncertainty and despair about what will happen after 29th March. Our biggest concern is funding, and it being taken away.

Brexit, if it happens, will severely jeopardise all future EU-sourced funding. If we (Oxford University research community) get cut out of future research collaborations with our European consortia it will be a disaster the UK from the joint perspectives of financially, scientifically and academically. So we wait.

The British government has said that it will honour all grants up to March 2020 but this is no guarantee that it will happen. The loss will be catastrophic for global research

At best, it’s like a distilled, but even worse, version of Waiting for Godot where nothing happens for five acts except uncertainty. The funding cuts haven’t happened and may not happen but, in some ways, the waiting is worse than knowing that they will.

We’re ashamed by how the rest of the world is perceiving the government’s wilful, foolhardy and steadfast adherence to the popular vote. It makes us and them look stupid.

The British government has said that it will underwrite and honour all existing grants up to March 2020 as part of Horizon 2020 but this is no guarantee that it will happen. The loss will be catastrophic for global research.

John Maher

Moved to the UK in 2001 to train to become a solicitor. After qualifying I entered the British army legal services. After the referendum I, despite having served once in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan, felt somewhat betrayed. I left the army for several reasons but a significant factor was Brexit.

In October 2018 I was hired by Barclays Bank as in house legal counsel to work, ironically, on their Brexit Team! I am currently writing this from my mother’s house in Dublin as I’m back for a visit.

However my wife and I have discussed it and due to Brexit and some other factors we have decided to move to Ireland within the next 18-24 months. Considering Brexit and Trump, Ireland looks like a bastion of sense.

Audrey Eager, London

I moved to London from the French Alps to continue my career in travel back in May 2012 and landed a dream job working on the London Olympics. In April 2016, I took up a short term contract taking a massive risk to work on the Liberal Democrat Brexit referendum campaign and their MEP, Catherine Bearder. Professionally, I’ve not stopped since. It’s been exciting. It’s been fruitful. It’s been rewarding. Time has just whizzed by.

However, for all of that, every time a commentator or a politician makes some assumption about Ireland whether it be that we should know our place, or the Irish should be starved to get us to obey, I always end up having to have a conversation about how complicated Anglo-Irish relations have been. I’m not some mad Irish Republican but I hear myself sounding like one as some many people are completely unaware over here of their own country’s history.

If there’s one thing that I have taken from all of this experience is how much more I appreciate our system in Ireland. Our political system. Our education system. History needs to be kept as a core subject. Our level of engagement. Our citizenship. Ireland may be far from a perfect place but by God, it’s got a hell of a lot going for it!

Barry Griffin

I’ve lived in the UK since 2001. My wife is English and since we’ve been together has wanted to learn more about British and Irish history. She said that she never really knew the history between our two countries as the UK education system never covered it. We both voted Remain as we knew how important being part of the EU was even with the flaws withing the institution.

When the result came through we were both shocked and upset as we initially believed this would cause problems for me living in the UK. Most of my colleagues did vote to Remain, but some did vote to Leave as they thought everything would be fine and now find it quite hard to believe what’s going on and the reality of it all as more of the facts come to light.

I consider myself lucky that the common travel area protects me living and working in the UK and not having to leave. But I do worry for friends and colleagues I have who are European and have to go through registering and working out if they should stay or leave the UK.

Neil Thompson

I applied for Irish citizenship, through foreign birth registration, in my early 50s. The Brexit vote in June 2016 gave me the impetus I needed. I always knew I was entitled to apply through Irish descent and it was always something that I’d thought about but never got around to doing.

It turned out to be a straightforward and relatively quick process as I already had all the paperwork needed through years of family history research. Once my proof of citizenship arrived I applied for an Irish passport, this was for both sentimental and practical reasons.

Barring a lottery win, I still have more than a decade of working years ahead of me, the Irish passport will make working in Ireland or on continental Europe easier in the future if the need or opportunity ever presents itself.

Philip Behan, London

With my life broadly divided in two, the first 22 years living in Ireland, the second 22 in the UK, I very much view both countries as my home. I have always felt very welcome in the UK and believe London to be the greatest city, after Dublin of course, in the world – certainly the most genuinely cosmopolitan and tolerant city.

Even if Brexit happens, I can’t imagine that changing. A lot of my business is international and to-date, whilst we as a company have fully prepared for a no-deal Brexit, it has been surprising just how little concern it has raised when constructing European cross-border deals.

I remain convinced that Brexit will simply not happen – or certainly not a hard Brexit – and I don’t believe that is an affront to democracy – it was simply never feasible in the form it was put to the people. There may be a shift-change in the UK-EU relationship, but ultimately, those who want to be friends and work together on a human level, will continue to do so.

Eve Redmond, Manchester

Although I have lived in the UK since 1988 and there is a huge Irish population here, I have spent the last 31 years skilfully avoiding them. Although I am proud to be Irish I have always loved living abroad and feeling a little bit different to everybody else. I suppose growing up in a small town where everyone knew your business was enough to get me running to a big city.

I met a Brit, set up home with him, had a kid, got a permanent lecturing job and also run my own business, so I guess I’m pretty settled here. Manchester is my home but in my heart I feel European and am hoping lots will improve in the world. Brexit is a mess, the Tories are vile. I voted to Remain and am hoping Labour will get back in power soon and prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards and work for the many and not the few.

Rachael White, Bristol

I moved to Bristol as Rachael Power six years ago, and I’ve since settled in to life here. My mam is Bristolian so I have lots of family including my brother, sister in law and nephews here, so my transition was fairly easy going!

I’ve sort of grown up as an adult in Bristol, it’s been the scene of my first ever full-time job, the place where I fell in love with running and ran my first 5km, 10km and half-marathon runs, and the place where I met my wonderful Cornish husband James. We chose to settle down in the countryside outside of Bristol, which reminded us a bit more of our respective homes, and marry there. It was such a beautiful wedding, and we had a party back home in Tipperary too.

Brexit wise, I voted to Remain. I can’t see a single positive to leaving the EU for the UK, but clearly there are people out there who do! Most in my little social bubble voted remain as well, and everyone seems so exasperated at the whole thing. I’m mainly frustrated by the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to the economy, etc. but daily life here is the same as it always has been.

I’ve seen no change in attitude towards myself at all, people treat me the same as they always have done. I can’t speak for everyone with an Irish accent or otherwise, but for me, nothing is different. As for coming home, it is something I would eventually love to do, Brexit or no Brexit, and my husband has said he would love the adventure of moving to a new country, so who knows where we’ll be in the next few years’ time!

Geraldine Fahy, Kent

The overt racism encountered on a daily basis since Brexit is overwhelming. It almost feels like I have to apologise for not being British every time I walk outside the door. The impact on my family is also far-reaching; my husband is French and therefore is still in Brexit limbo. Although our son has an Irish passport I worry about him growing up here being bilingual. Therefore my husband and I are actively searching for work in Ireland (not easy as I’m having to completely change my career). We want our son to grow up in a country that values his unique Irish-French culture.

Michael Connole, Maltby

I was born in 1962, number eight of 13 children, of Irish descent in Maltby, a small mining community on the outskirts of Rotherham. My father was born in Doonagore, in the parish of Liscannor, Co Clare in 1923. He came over in the construction industry and then went to the mines were he worked until his retirement at the age of sixty.

My childhood was a happy one, a little too religious as was the times, we schooled at a local Catholic school, built and paid for by the Irish community. We also had ten pubs and clubs, the Catholic Club being again the one built by and on behalf of the big Irish community. The club was and still is called “the bomb throwers club” by some in the village.

This bigotry gradually disappeared with the Good Friday Agreement, and so did heavy industry. Brexit has appeared like a shock to the system. I now hear the words my dad would have heard - "Go back to f**king Ireland" - by people I grew up with, who know I was born here, who should know better. I recently got my first Irish passport and will be pursuing citizenship and passports for both my children. The UK is now a poorer place to be.

Siona Murray, Conwy

This will be my 17th year in the UK, but not of the UK in some ways. I moved to Wales in 2003, initially to study in Mid-Wales and then moved to North Wales where I married, work and had my children. Once on the north coast, I realised quickly that I had moved to a country within a country. Overheard conversations that are bilingual, with a fiercely proud sense of self.

The six counties that make up North Wales were completely split by the referendum. It has polarised friends, families, communities and is now an avoided conversation topic in workplaces because of the arguments it causes. I don’t think it was an accident that the largest Remain votes were in the areas surrounding the universities or the most deeply rooted Welsh language communities.

The largest leave votes in border counties and towns with the lowest socio-economic outcomes. It mirrored the vitriol and banner waving of the campaign itself. As an area of outstanding beauty, tourism is a major income stream here. But this is mirrored by high numbers of retirement communities, second homes and seasonal insecurity. The vote exposed yawning gaps in knowledge about the ways the EU has helped North Wales and how it funded the Welsh government. Local councils are already struggling here under government austerity programmes and I can’t see how Brexit will improve that for any of us.

Aoife Mulderrig, London

I moved to the UK in 2010 – I was 24 years old and planned to stay for one year to earn my teaching qualification. Nine years later and I wonder where the time has gone. I have been lucky to experience this country both as a student in Canterbury, a traditional English city, and as a young professional in London, one of the most diverse and vibrant cities in the world. There are some that come here whose social circle doesn’t extend further than first generation Irish. That was never my intention – most of my closest friends here are English, I lived with English people and made sure my socialising extended further than the local Irish pub. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone was one of the most rewarding parts of my experience here. England is a country I love. It is also a country that has oppressed Irish people for centuries. For my generation, these are facts that are difficult to reconcile. I have felt nothing but welcome, friendship, kindness and integration here – I have met friends for life and will always consider English people my comrades.

Living in London, I have felt more protected from the repercussions of Brexit than possibly other parts of the country. London overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU and people of all nationalities feel welcome and accepted in this city. I certainly haven’t been told to “go back home” but I definitely feel like my opportunities here have narrowed. Something has shifted here. It is extremely sad that Britain is turning its back on Europe and isolating itself.

My partner is also Irish and we have decided to make the move back to Ireland this summer. This was not particularly due to Brexit, I had always intended to move back to Ireland at some point. The future of post-Brexit UK may be uncertain but this is a country that I will always love, always come back to and will always feel like my second home.

Jim Livesey, Dundee

Originally from Cork, lived in the US and France, met my wife Joanna, who is from Surrey, when we were both teaching at Trinity, before moving to Sussex in 2004 and to Dundee in 2013, where I am a dean at the university. My daughters, born in Dublin, but brought up in Montpellier, Lewes, Boston and Dundee would say they were Irish if you asked (thought they really don’t worry that much about identity) and they hold Irish passports.

There is no discussion of Brexit in Scotland because there is a pretty universal consensus that it is a terrible idea. The kind of hostility to emigrants that is reported south of the border has actually declined here. The ugliness of hate speech paints a very vivid picture of the country Scotland does not want to be, but it doesn’t really know exactly what direction it wants to go in. Scotland is going to be doing a lot of work trying to reconcile its European, British, Scottish, and global elements, and that sounds a lot like my Irish family.